01/29/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Striking the Right Interactive Balance?

Online, online, online learning. As we embark on another year in the 21st century's early days (and spring semester at many colleges and universities), members of the Academy continue to expand access to online education and resources. The problem is most faculty and administrators really don't know what to make of this (I used to think I did), especially relating to MOOCs (massive open online courses).

While there is no ignoring the power and attraction of teaching through the Internet, probably half the world's nations do not trust online courses, accept them -- or even understand them. Plus the latest wrinkle of free courses and the proliferation of credit and tuition models is a potential economic challenge to the American higher education financial and structural model at an already highly challenging, but exciting, time.

NYIT has been involved in online education via various platforms and initiatives since the 1980s. Today, it is no longer shocking to assume undergraduates will take a few fully online and several blended courses; as well, many master's-level programs are rich in online content.

Increasing access to online resources is in the best interest of all students, and the benefits are compounded in developing countries with limited access to top faculty or world-class curricula. I have no concerns, though, that online courses will replace the well-established university system in the United States; they are wonderful supplements to traditional teaching methods and pedagogy. Brick-and-mortar universities will be here for our lifetimes and beyond. Of course, they will and should continue to evolve, and libraries and other research repositories that are not predominantly online will evolve the most.

However, as access to online educational opportunities increases, is there an optimal balance to strike with traditional classroom practices? The answer, similar to the forces driving the question, relates to experimenting with approaches that depart from the usual instructional routine.

Aristotle taught that all arguments need to first consider audience and purpose, and the audience for today's teaching needs to be considered and reconsidered with time. Socrates also knew the value of interacting with students in his questioning. This skill set and the value of these experiences - incorporated in today's classrooms with technology and engaging, interactive approaches - cannot be ignored. If you were a student, wouldn't you choose a course that includes videos, game simulations, and interactive exercises over one in which a professor delivers a dry syllabus and predictable lectures (often with his or her back turned, writing on a black or whiteboard)?

Nor can we ignore the opportunities online courses provide at the master's and undergraduate levels, especially in rural locations and for those who cannot attend onsite classes due to family or work commitments. Yet, we also must accept that many who sign up for online classes do not complete them. It takes a level of discipline, maturity, and educational background to do so consistently.

With new technologies, we've moved from an instructional paradigm to a learning paradigm. This is not the only tectonic shift. The curriculum is changing at breakneck speed, and globalism is trumping regionalism. Information is everywhere. Universities, no longer the keepers of rare, precious knowledge, are where knowledge is created, and where we learn to deal with the vast knowledge that the Internet delivers.

We know that students want and need more than lectures. Research has shown repeatedly that certain practices improve motivation and learning: internships and clinical experiences, practicum, international opportunities, and hands-on learning inside and outside the classroom. The results? More individualized, self-paced instruction and multiple paths to the same end. Score a point for online.

At NYIT, blended-format courses are required for all first-year students. They are expected to use the university's web-based education platform; for every two hours spent in class, another is spent online. Yet, the technology is more than a delivery tool; several core courses also include coursework and assignments based on themes of technology and service.

For example, 22 first-year NYIT engineering students in a career discovery course last semester promoted science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at a Harlem, N.Y., elementary school. Some observed to determine how teachers can enhance lessons, with multimedia content or new explanations of STEM concepts. Others examined the technology infrastructure to recommend improvements in lesson delivery; yet others documented the semester's work in a video to present to the elementary school students, their parents, and teachers.

Evaluations of service projects, blended courses, and other activities yield crucial assessment data about learning outcomes that will guide us as we evolve our teaching methods. Finding the right balance is far less a question of traditional vs. online approaches to the classroom, especially at the undergraduate level.

Aside from the strategic imperative, however, there are practical benefits to incorporating technology into course delivery. Amid an unprecedented full-week midterm closure of our campuses in Manhattan and Old Westbury, N.Y., in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, NYIT's Academic Senate Educational Technology Committee compiled instructional technology resources to help faculty members and students make up for lost classes. These technologies were used for virtual discussions, content delivery, and other interactivity when access to a classroom was not possible.

Regardless of universities' abilities or appetites to offer online education, disruptive forces (though hopefully not another natural disaster) will see to it that institutions of higher learning and student-centered learning continue to evolve.

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