A balance between constructivist and behaviorist objectives and methods probably needs to be determined for your institutions programs. Educators certainly must be actively involved in determining the appropriate pedagogical approaches for their market of students and the types of courses that they teach. Providing an effective learning environment to more students worldwide certainly is an altruistic objective, one that can promote educational ideals that in itself is at least a theoretical benefit to online education.
Practical benefits, particularly convenience, also attract students to online programs. Learners who work well on their own, are computer literate (or can quickly develop the required computer skills), and have access to the Web are likely to be interested in online education. Because these learners can take classes anywhere, at almost any time, the convenience factor attracts new students who want to try online courses.
For their educational pursuits to be successful, however, learners must be prepared to work online. Helping learners to use the technologies and structures found in online courses and socializing students to work with others through the Internet are necessary components to success. Effective online curricula include classes or at least modules that help students become acclimated to electronic education.
Another benefit to online education is the possibility of working with more learners, teachers, and subject matter experts outside a students limited geographic area. Collaborating with people from different cultures and levels of experience is a potential benefit that can enhance the learning environment and provide learners with a wider network of contacts. Online classes may offer special benefits to learners who are shy, have difficulty keeping pace with other students during a face-to-face class, or need time to express themselves effectively. Learners may feel more confident in an online class, even during a real-time chat session, because they perceive that the online venue creates an equal playing field. Learners who look or dress differently from others are treated equally online, because other students cannot see their peers in a text-based course. Learners who may need more time to express themselves can take that time before they post a bulletin board message or send e-mail. The quality of the work, not the appearance of the learner, is what is evaluated.
Online courses can increase participation among all learners. During a chat, for example, all students are encouraged, if not required, to participate. Everyone has a chance to be heard; it is difficult to hide at the back of the classroom.
Students have noted that the feedback they receive online is more often positive and supportive. Comments like good point, I never would've thought of that, or great idea are often more common online. Even if learners in a traditional classroom agree with a speaker, chances are that they will not speak up to make a positive comment. A nod here or there is more likely to be the only positive reinforcement given to in-class speakers. Seeing several written positive comments gives online learners a boost in morale.
Some learners feel uncomfortable speaking up in a traditional classroom because other learners give negative nonverbal cues, like frowning, rolling their eyes, sighing loudly, crossing their arms, or shaking their head. Online, even if other learners feel negatively about a statement, the learner writing the comment gets to complete the thought before someone else posts a reply. Plus, learners at least in a print-based chat session do not get the chance to see or hear each other during a chat. The impact of negative body language or censuring tone is missing from an online written chat.
For learners to reap these benefits, however, teachers must create a supportive, professional, yet personal atmosphere in the online classroom. Having access to a variety of materials and being able to communicate with people internationally through e-mail and chat are wonderful benefits provided by Web-enhanced courses. However, these benefits are only realized if learners feel comfortable using the tools and working together to build an online community of learners.
Teachers can only create a supportive, creative environment if they are given the tools and time to develop meaningful materials and activities, as well as learn how to teach online. Administrators and technical specialists must provide this support, which requires a high-level institutional commitment not only to the infrastructure of online programs, but to faculty training and development. Many teachers are concerned that they may not have this support, because course development, facilitation, and maintenance are time-consuming activities that involve a team of technical and pedagogical specialists. Making sure that teachers develop course materials and are actively engaged in creating programs is imperative for successful, beneficial online programs.
In addition to these loftier benefits, cost factors may also be beneficial. Students educational costs may be lower, if they already have access to computer technology required for their online courses. Activity fees, on- campus or nearby housing, parking, and other costs associated with attending classes on a physical campus may not apply to online learners. The fee structure can be a benefit to some online learners. Economics is an important element in the success of online programs and the reason why many institutions first decide to jump into online education. However, if online courses do not attract students or make enough money, the university or college is likely to drop them. The costs associated with maintaining the technology and keeping up the level of innovation may be higher than the institution is willing to invest. However, at least theoretically, online classes can attract students around the world, opening the institutions programs to a wider market. As well, depending on the amount of interaction required for an effective learning situation, some highly automated classes may be able to accommodate many more students in one session than could possibly fit into an on-site classroom guided by one teacher. Making online programs fiscally viable without sacrificing quality is a challenge, but online courses can bring new monies to the institution.
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