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Online course requirement worth a look

February 24, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

The New York Times editorialized this week that colleges should be slow to offer online courses. This is precisely why the Maryland General Assembly should be fast in acting on a bill sponsored by local lawmakers that would force high school students to take an online class. And despite how it looks on the surface, these two positions are not at odds with each other.

I teach English at Hagerstown Community College and, in my own interest, follow issues such as online education, broadband expansion and telecommuting. It is up to the reader to determine whether this means that I have valuable insights or self-serving biases. I would suggest that it’s probably a little of both.

Last semester, a young woman enrolled in my English 101 course, but it became clear early on that class attendance wasn’t her bag. However, she read the assignments, followed the syllabus, showed up for exams and turned in satisfactory papers when they were due.

She was an A student who didn’t get an A, because she missed out on exercises, information and nuance provided only in the traditional classroom setting.

Her story is somewhat reflective of the online pitfalls alluded to in the New York Times editorial. My student was more or less motivated, and even so there were hiccups in the way she was able to process the material.

Imagine an online course in the hands of a student who is, frankly, more typical of the breed — typical of the breed meaning kids who can’t be motivated with anything less forceful than a water cannon.

The Times says that high percentages of online students fail to stick with the program. Further, it states — sadly, but accurately — that many students simply won’t succeed without face-to-face encouragement and hand holding.

The Times says, “The research has shown over and over again that community college students who enroll in online courses are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes, which means that they spend hard-earned tuition dollars and get nothing in return.”

I don’t doubt it.

But that’s exactly why a bill filed by Sen. Christopher Shank and Del. Andrew Serafini needs a close and careful hearing.

Very simply, the bill would require a high school student to take at least one online course prior to graduation.

True, there probably will be some understandable concerns  about unfunded mandates, and that with all the other requirements from on high, it often seems as if the last thing local schools need is one more mandatory anything.

But Shank’s point is valid, and one that needs to be discussed: Online education is inevitable, and we can either be ready for it or not be ready for it.

The concerns of the New York Times demonstrate that today’s high school students need an education in education. By that, I mean they have to become comfortable with online courses, and understand that self-motivation is a skill every bit as necessary in the 21st century as reading, writing, science and math.

If you are presently peering over your bifocals at the young mass of inert protoplasm occupying the sofa and thinking “good luck with that,” your point is understood.

But broadband education represents a cultural and behavioral shift every bit as cataclysmic as compulsory school attendance was in the ’20s. (Mandatory public education was championed by, of all groups, the Ku Klux Klan, which basically saw the measure as a way of sticking it to the Pope; American life is so deliciously complex.)

All things being equal, online education might not be inevitable. But financial concerns alone virtually assure its acceptance.

With mountains of student debt and billions of dollars going into educational infrastructure from classrooms to locker rooms, we could be sitting on an educational bubble of sorts. Already, free educations are there for the taking online, and sooner or later, private enterprise is going to figure out that a student who is motivated enough to self-educate is every bit as valuable as one with the six-figure, Ivy League degree. When that happens, a money-sodden, higher-education model as it exists in the large and/or prestigious universities, might well collapse.

Of course, no one can say for certain which way education is going to break, and how the landscape will look even a decade from now. But those who disagree with the way Shank and Serafini see things do so at their own risk.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.







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