While online education benefits students who would otherwise have to pass on higher education due to high costs, African-American and female students remain heavily overrepresented in online education.
“It serves people that are trying to balance their lives,” said Marty Kotis, member of the UNC-system Board of Governors and chairperson of the Online Education Working Committee. “They’re trying to balance work and family and going to school. It also serves people that are in rural areas as well.”
Online education allows students to avoid housing, travel and time costs associated with a traditional university experience, he said.
“In online ed, you don’t have all those extra fees sitting in,” Kotis said. “So if you look at it that way, it’s about half the cost — not to mention the opportunity cost.”
Kotis mentioned a female student at the historically black Winston-Salem State University, who used online classes to earn her degree because her job precluded her from traditional classes.
“I think the flexibility is critical — the asynchronous nature of the education — so they can choose when they’re learning is key,” he said.
But online education is not without its limitations, as some say students do not have the same level of interaction with professors or their peers.
“You can set up online forums or opportunities for chatting online, but it’s not the same as having a Socratic discussion in a classroom together,” said Jenna A. Robinson, president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.
She said online classes lack opportunities for discussing ideas among classmates, which are crucial for higher-level classrooms.
But Kotis said less interaction can be an advantage for large lectures, which frequently take the form of introductory courses at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Think about in a lecture class how much you actually communicate with other people,” Kotis said. “You don’t really.”
Tim Sanford, director of credit programs at the UNC Friday Center, said the stigma against online courses is unfounded and maintained mostly by people who have never taken one before.
But Robinson said the stigma has some legitimate origins.
“There are things that, so far, online education hasn’t been able to replicate,” she said. “So I think part of it is, as the technology improves, we will see that stigma go away.”
As online education continues to show promise, Kotis said “gamifcation” — using electronic games as a means of education — could be the next step.
“This is really an exciting time for students and the opportunities they’re going to have because of online ed,” he said. “We are just at the starting point of this.”