Difficulties of Scaling Online Schooling

Guest Post By:   Estelle Shumann

It’s difficult to count the number of accredited online schools available today because the number is growing so quickly. Yet the Sloan Survey of Online Learning reveals that in 2010 alone, online enrollment increased by a million students. More and more brick and mortar schools are starting online counterparts to better serve the needs of their students with different learning patterns and work schedules. In fact, approximately 66% of all for-profit colleges claim that online education is a strategy for the future.

As the economy shows no signs of improvement, 75% of schools have claimed an increase in interest in online education, probably because it is seen as a an education platform which can help students beef up their qualifications without having to give up the day job. In fall 2009, 5.6 million students were enrolled in online education courses, and that number has been increasing every year.

Yet scaling is difficult to manage in online education programs. There are so many, with so many different strategies and pedagogies, that there isn’t a clear cut guide to successful growth. Most programs are flying blind, and practicing trial and error to learn what works in this new educational frontier.

One of the greatest challenges in scaling online schooling is the perception of the schools themselves. Many students and employers maintain a sense of incredulity about online education. Doesn’t the lack of face to face interaction imply a loss of credibility? Not necessarily.

As more traditional established colleges and universities increase their own online offerings as an alternative to the standard classroom structure, it benefits the acceptance of online education as a whole. In a sense, online offerings from traditional schools blur the line between degrees earned at a brick and mortar school or those earned online. When almost all students enrolled at a traditional school also take some classes online or as hybrids, it becomes ever more difficult to regard online college as substandard. The University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, the University of Michigan, Stanford and UC Berkeley have all started programs featuring free online education courses for students and non-students alike.

Interestingly, the solution to the problem of scale is scaling itself. More online students will demand more online programs, more programs lead to more innovation, options and strategies. And with a sufficiently large base, best practices and can be developed and assessed. That assessment, leads to better outcomes, and…more growth.

An issue of great importance, and a pain point, in the scaling of online education is structure. Smaller classes are more effective for students, but are also more expensive. Online education allows a smaller class feel, but the problem still remains in how smaller discussion groups should be set up. For example, should discussions be led by a professor, teaching assistant or  students?

One way to handle issues of scale, and accommodate many students with a single teacher is technology like Blackboard. Blackboard is a commonly used platform for online classes. Classes are based/housed on a website which hosts forums that are available to students enrolled in the class. On Blackboard students can share study materials, hold group discussions, and have one-on-one discussions with other students or the instructor.

Platforms like Blackboard address another common challenge in scaling  online education to the point of wide-spread acceptance, organizing asynchronous learning. Students don’t all learn at the same speed, some are fast, some require a little extra time. With online learning, students can put in as much time as it takes them to master the topic or material. They can also participate at their own convenience. With a system like Blackboard, they can sign in and participate in ongoing discussion at any time, day or night. It also helps professors, as they can dive into the conversation periodically to offer suggestions or guidance, or to simply monitor student progress to determine if there are areas that require attention.

There is no hiding that online education is growing, and isn’t going to stop. The best thing administrators can do for their online programs is to hold on tight and watch their rate of growth. If schools promptly handle and address problems as they come up, with a proactive attitude, scaling issues can be overcome, leading to widespread acceptance of the quality and capabilities offered to educators by online learning.

Author Bio:

Estelle is a writer interested in a wide range of educational methods. Having played several instruments and been exposed to many art forms in her childhood, she finds that solving the education puzzle today requires more than simply a large budget. She currently writes and researches about online education.