Online Success Depends on Learning Style

Should you take your next course in a classroom or online?

Sorting through educational offerings has always been a difficult process, but it’s more complex now with the advent of online learning.

Which is best? The immediacy of face-to-face classroom, the convenience of an online course, or a "hybrid" course that blends a some of each?

Online education is now way beyond a novelty. Some 4.6 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2008 term, or one in four enrolled students, according to the most recent Sloan Report on Online Learning.

Online education courses are delivered entirely via the Internet. Typically, students download the course materials right to their computers, and interact with professors and classmates in online discussion groups. Homework and tests are submitted through the computer. Many courses also incorporate video and audio lectures.

The best-known online players include the University of Phoenix, Walden University, and Capella University, with the for-profit Phoenix’s current enrollment of 476,500 students making it the biggest university in North America. But the brick-and-mortar competition is catching up, from the likes of University of Massachusetts, Lesley University, and Boston University, while smaller institutions, such as Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H., are promoting online programs, too.

Generally courses that include clinical experience, for example, substantial classroom discussion, or even heavy computation were best taken on campus, where students can use the school’s lab space and other necessary equipment. But those distinctions are “about ready for a paradigm switch,’’ said Karen Muncaster, the associate vice president of academic technology and program design at Lesley University in Cambridge.

Improved online technology, combined with students’ increasing comfort with computer-mediated interactions, have made it easier to teach more subjects online, said Muncaster. For example, Lesley College has discovered that even “extraordinarily experimental’’ courses that include drama and dance are now viable online, she said.
“Today a teacher can easily grab video clips with a cellphone and post those online to illustrate a point, or a concept,’’ Muncaster said. “That makes it much easier for the teacher, and the students. You used to need a video crew for that.’’

Jeannette E. Riley, a professor of English and Women’s Studies and the academic director of online education at UMass Dartmouth, also cautioned potential students not to assume a program won’t work online.

“You might think, for example, that a nurse with an associate degree couldn’t get a bachelor of science degree online,’’ she said. “But in fact many of those nurses have already satisfied their clinical requirements, or they are able to work with a local hospital as a ‘practice partner.’ ’’

Both Muncaster and Riley also cited the increasing availability of “blended’’ or “hybrid’’ programs as extending the options for students who are inclined to take online courses. In these blended offerings, students can attend in-person laboratory sessions or meet for regular class discussions.

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THE BOSTON GLOBE

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