Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The problem with online classes

By Evan Haddad

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The fate of academic affairs lingers on an uncertain thread in the 21st century. Officials of large land-grant colleges, like the University of Massachusetts, are slowly whittling away the fat of their academic programs in search of new, cost effective modes of education. The preeminent consideration now on the table is undoubtedly the online course – many herald it as the future of education – the Pepto-Bismol for bloated classrooms and a valuable asset to the University purse.

Some would attribute the rapid growth of online education to burdening financial pressures on the state systems, to growing utilitarian concern, or both. Whatever the case may be, practical skills are in hot demand again, and UMass is harkening to the call.

Like many fundamental changes, the very notion of the online course has been gradually introduced. At college fairs years ago, brochures for online programs, like the University of Phoenix were scattered among those of local community colleges and National Guard recruitment forms; the so called “distance education” table was in the back corner of the musty high school gym, like a sorry and laughable opponent in the higher learning game.

But that reputation is giving way to progressive ideas about its potential use in a more traditional context.

Statistics pooled by indicate definite attitude shifts towards online education. The website claims “60 percent of employers believe that online education is as good as or better than campus programs.”

It also cites in addition “62 percent of academic leaders believe that online education is equal to face-to-face instruction.”

The survey, of course, conveniently omits any definition of the words “academic leaders,” or the type of employers polled; anyone who takes statistics at UMass learns about how manipulating survey questions can yield better, more favorable poll results.

The issue here is whether could possibly have an exterior motive in citing these percentages. I think it is fair to say: probably.

This ploy to legitimize distance education with percentages suggests there is something of an intrinsic aversion to the idea. Continuing Education, like any other business, has invoked the “common reason” of the majority to make its lucrative commodity more palatable to buyers. Unfortunately, it seems to be working. 

But steel-fisted state colleges don’t hold the online education business in monopoly.

Sloan Consortium, a self-professed coalition dedicated to “quality online education,” is one of the up-and-coming middle party organizations designed to ease the pain of integrating online methods into mainstream academia.

In theory, Sloan Consortium is non-profit and member supported. It claims to provide practical knowledge of digital pedagogy for members – that is, paying members – of the online community. Their website boasts numerous tabs which link viewers to ‘authentic’ sources and resources. These include various workshops for educators, publications and even an online teaching certificate.

The image which Sloan Consortium is banking on, however, is unmistakable. The designers of the website have artfully spackled pictures of mothers with babies and old men smiling gleefully behind computers into their homepage.

Why is Sloan Consortium important in this discussion? Because the statistics cited by, quoted earlier in this column, come from a Sloan Consortium “study.”

While there is no definite timetable for incorporating more sophisticated e-learning programs into UMass during the academic year, the influence of the Continuing Education department seems to be gaining a foothold.

This is especially true in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, where carping voices from above have questioned the utility of liberal education for years. Pressure is coming from the Dean to offer more classes online during the summer, as a kind of fundraiser – or justifier – for the humanities.

Although the idea of online education appears convenient to our society, in some cases even chic, there still remains students of this generation who wholly oppose it.

A little cashbox chimes with the drop of quarters this week in the Herter lobby, as classics majors and members of Eta Sigma Phi dutifully peddle pumpkin spice muffins and used books to support their ailing department.      

And although each bake sale seems as desperate as the last, students seem optimistic and dedicated to the cause of preserving tradition from the digital age.

“It just wouldn’t be the same to learn Greek from a computerized professor,” says sophomore Classicist Jack Norcross, between munches of a homemade doughnut.

“Learning is about the experience, not the end result.”

The original goal behind the land-grant college, nevertheless, was for the end result; the UMass of today was a few small buildings and a lot of farmland yesterday.

But while the values of society ebb and flow quickly in America, they are never totally blotted out. Just as witch hunting Puritanism still exists under some modern guise, the utilitarian intent of UMass floats, anchored, in the very nature of the place. It was only a matter of time before it was again detached.

Evan Haddad is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

1 Comment

One Response to “The problem with online classes”

  1. Tim O'Toole on October 30th, 2009 3:46 pm

    While I would agree that it may be more difficult to impossible to learn microbiology through an online course, there are many practical applications for distance learning. Not everyone has the luxury of taking 4 years of their life to hang out in Amherst partying and socializing and occasionally going to classes. There are those less fortunate students who need to work full time and distance learning offers them an alternative to traditional classroom pedagogy.

    I am currently enrolled as a graduate student in the UMass part-time MBA program (YES ONLINE) and plan to graduate in May. The experience has been exceptional. I have already increased my income substantially as well as the level of my professional affiliation. The program is taught by the same high quality PhDs who teach the regular Full Time MBA program, which is one of the top ranked programs in the nation (according to Princeton Review). While there is no doubt that the program generates additional revenue for the University, it is also a fraction of the cost of attending a private college or university. For those of us paying our own way and want a high quality MBA program without owing a fortune in student loans after the fact, this is a key differentiator.

    You will find as you get older and have more responsibilties in terms of career and family that there is less time for going back to school even part time. The rigors of driving into the city 2 nights a week for 3 hours at a time would be too much for the most ardent learner. A program like UMass has with a flexible learning schedule is incredible difficult to find and so very important. There are many professionals in my program who are medical doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Some already have masters or PhD degrees, which tells me that the caliber of the students accepted to the program is also exceptional. The knowledge imparted to these students truely will make a difference in helping them gain insight into management techniques which will allow them to move up within their own organizations, as well as apply their knowledge to move ahead into other work sectors.

    As for your Classics Majors selling pumpkin spice muffins, they should get used to that role because they will probably be working at Starbucks when the graduate (if they are lucky). Jack Norcross should spend more time focusing on his future and worry less about what other people are doing to improve theirs!

    Tim O’Toole
    UMass MBA 2010


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