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Caveat E-Emptor -- Let the Online Student Beware

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When it comes to online learning, the public conflates a complex and varied attempt at innovation into one gross oversimplification, thanks to an indiscriminate media. Pity the poor reader trying to make sense of the barrage of newspaper and magazine articles about this evolving, significant realm of higher education.

Reporters seem to randomly swap earlier misperceptions with new ones. Early in this decade, whenever I would mention at a gathering that among my responsibilities at Boston University is overseeing distance learning, an often common and deflating response was, "Oh, just like the University of Phoenix." Now, it is, "Just like what MIT and Harvard are doing?"

The debate on what this all means focuses on the wrong questions. By dramatizing the emergence of online alternatives, writers are suggesting an apocalyptic winner-take-all showdown where either the virtual or the traditional classroom will be left standing, where all 18-year-olds will either be sitting at home or coming to campus to obtain their education. I wonder how many of those prophesying massive educational upheaval would ever consider sending their teenager to a completely online school.

The more complex reality is that a rich variety of options are emerging, for different types and ages of students, at different stages of their lives and careers, with differing prices, benefits, rigor, and quality. The pontificators are not making these decisions any easier.

For well over a decade many of us in higher education have been experimenting with new ways of using the web for teaching -- some with greater credibility and commitment than others. With their predatory sales tactics, for-profit institutions tainted online learning by mass producing college degrees -- but, to their credit, were far more responsive to consumer demand than traditional higher education had ever been. Many public institutions, especially community colleges, for years have offered online courses as an alternative to coming to campus. And some of us invested significantly -- pushing the boundaries of our institutions to create truly exceptional academic experiences and a virtual community across the nation, offered completely on the Web. More recently, and with much fanfare, some Ivies-come-lately have made online materials more available and even free through open courseware and now "MOOCs" (massive open online courses).

As with any educational opportunity, no two are the same, no generalizations about their comparability to the traditional classroom are valid, and no easy way exists for the prospective student to differentiate quality. And, despite media hyperbole, the intrusion of distance learning is likely to be more evolutionary than revolutionary, more nuanced than disruptive, and more to the overall benefit of access to learning in the long run.

Especially for adult learners, online courses, when designed and delivered well, are an important means to intersperse their educational pursuit with other aspects of their daily lives. Working professionals can experience a learning process at least as effective as any in their locale on a part-time basis. But what questions should a prospective student ask to make the best choice?

Start with, who would be your fellow students? Do they have a common level of maturity, seriousness, and background to add measurably to a virtual student community? Are they dispersed nationally or even internationally to help enrich that experience? Does the institution create an engaging and participatory environment so students can benefit by this interaction?

Then ask, who are the faculty? Are they fully enfranchised members of their institution, with the same level of scholarly accomplishment one would expect on campus? Is there access to the resources and services of the institutional mothership? Are these programs mainstreamed or marginalized? Does the home university take its online programs seriously enough to ensure that all students are treated equally?

Even in this still-early era of e-learning, it is reasonable to ask about an institution's track record of retaining students through their coursework to graduation. Then, how do these graduates assess their overall educational experience and the thousands of hours and dollars invested in pursuit of their online degree?

In this complex potpourri of programs, there are the idealist and aspiring ones and those that are cynically exploitative. Some are well funded and others are run as cash cows. Some are taught by the institution's core faculty and others are outsourced to others. Some earn their place in the portfolio of degrees at their home institution and others don't. Fortunately, there are some programs that push us all, in exciting new ways, to think self-critically about how to teach more effectively and responsibly.

Jay Halfond is dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College.