Online vs. Brick and Mortar Learning: Competition or Complementary.

Author:Goralski, Margaret A.


According to James C. Taylor (2001), in a keynote address to the 20th ICDE World Conference on Open Learning and Distance Education, over the past 150 years distance education has evolved through five generations: the correspondence model, the multi-media model, the tele-learning model, the flexible learning model, and the intelligent flexible learning model (p. 3). Some state that it began even earlier, approximately 170 years ago, with its origins offered through a correspondence course in Great Britain. The teacher sent the lesson to the student, who completed the work, and mailed the assignment back (Hickey, 2014). In fact, this system of mailing assignments and completed work back and forth through the mail continued for quite some time. Each of the generations described by Taylor has followed its predecessor more rapidly than the one preceding it creating a diverse, complex, and continuously evolving combination of distance learning options (Anderson & Elhoumi, 2008).

The Internet, distance education, and online learning have evolved at a much more rapid pace than higher education itself. The organizational development that would be necessary for human intervention on the part of government, administration, and faculty to make these rapid revisions to online learning a reality on brick and mortar campuses, which traditionally evolve at a much slower pace, led to a wait and see trajectory for most universities prior to adoption. For many, adoption was experimental. For others, non-existent. And, for a few early adopters, the online learning experiment turned into rapid expansion worldwide, e.g., University of Phoenix, however, with the stigma of being "less valuable" than an on-campus education. In 2002, the University of Phoenix Online had enrollment in the baccalaureate and graduate degree program of approximately 50,000, up 70% from the previous year (Shea, 2002). The perception of online learning being "less qualitatively equivalent" remains, with only 29.1% of chief academic officers reporting in 2016 that their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of an online education. Regardless, most chief academic officers believe that online education is critical to their overall long-term strategy (Allen, Seaman, Poulin, & Taylor Straut, 2016). Even universities with over 10,000 students enrolled in online learning had academic leaders who only reported a 60.1% acceptance rate by faculty members; 48.5% for schools with between 5,000 and 10,000; 34.6% for those with less than 5,000; 11.6% for those with no distance education students (Allen et al., 2016, 26). The highest faculty acceptance rate between 2002 and 2015 was reported in fall 2007, with a rate of approximately 33%. The acceptance rate dropped slightly in subsequent years, with the most recent recorded rate of approximately 29% acceptance in fall 2015.

To define online learning course classifications in this paper, we refer to the thirteen-year annual online learning study of Allen and Seaman (2003-2016), the BABSON Survey Research Group, and The Sloan Consortium table below with online learning represented by at least 80 % of the course, face to face from zero to 29% of the content delivered online, and blended and/or hybrid falling between the two at 30 and 80% online:


In previous research, Gorniak-Kocikowska and I learned that the idea of teaching critical thinking in the classroom began with a dictate from the U.S. government, industry, and the military (Goralski & Gorniak-Kocikowska, 2013). They wanted people to come into business and the military with the ability to think critically and use experience gathered in one area to create an advantage in another. This triggered a revolution in academia over time with most colleges and universities adopting the idea that critical thinking must be taught in order to add value to one's education.

The demand for online learning is similar, based on the fast-pace of change in government, industry, and military worldwide. Training methods are crucial and thus must be delivered efficiently and effectively (Zhang, Zhao, Zhou, & Nunamaker, Jr., 2004). Online learning is only the latest social technology to augment, substitute, or blend pedagogical adaptations (Hiltz & Turoff, 2005) to comply with the dictates of demand from governments, industry, and military.

Online learning allows people to gather new knowledge and skills at their own relative pace, within their own time constraints --allowing for family, work, and life commitments in general (Ally, 2008; Cole, 2000). Government, industry, and the military began their own online academies and certification courses. Academia followed to meet a growing need. We know, through brain-based learning, that learners construct their own knowledge based on information that already exists in their brain (Goralski, 2008). This coupling of knowledge allows the brain to synthesize the new information to create new threads of knowledge that form networks of critical thinking and absorption of new knowledge.

There are basically two methods of online learning--asynchronous, using email and discussion boards, where students and faculty are not online at the same time and synchronous, using chat rooms and videoconferencing to place students and faculty together in a learning environment (Hrastinski, 2008). Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Asynchronous offers both students and faculty more flexibility, the coursework can take place any time that a student has time to post, conduct conversations with colleagues in the course, etc. Communication between student and faculty takes place either via email for private matters or on a discussion board for broader topics that may be of interest to others in the course, as well as the individual asking the question. Faculty can access student posts in the discussion board from anywhere in the world where the Internet is available. He/she can therefore also work at his/her own pace and within a prescribed timeframe.

The quality of the work is usually better in asynchronous courses than in...

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