University of Arizona Junior Nick Small sits in his Marketing 361 class at Eller College of Management’s McClelland Hall listening to his professor lecture about marketing concepts for the upcoming exam.
Small, like many other university students in Arizona, is used to this traditional classroom experience: face-to-face instruction from a professor lecture, the raising of hands to ask questions and occasional in-class group work with peers.
“I guess I’m just old school, in the sense that I think there’s something to be gained by having a class full of people who come there for a reason,” said Jim McLean a marketing professor at UA. “They interact with one another and interact with me, I can read a frown of ‘I don’t understand’ or of disagreement that might be a source for discussion.”
Small and his classmates are also a part of a student population that is more involved with online education and Internet classes to either fulfill general education degree requirements or entirely complete a degree.
According to a study done in November 2010 by the Sloan Consortium—an online education promotion non-profit group—29 percent of the nearly 20 million students enrolled in higher education were taking at least one online course. About 63 percent of the universities surveyed in the study said that online education is critical to the long-term strategy of their institution.
As tuition and university fees increase, full-time students must try to balance five to six courses while also working part- or full-time jobs. Add a student’s necessity for professional experience by working at an internship and schedules become tight for a university student.
“Sometimes, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to balance three or four commitments,” said Small who took an online class last summer. “I like online classes because I can do them from home in my pajamas. They give me more time”
The increase in Internet education also gives a diverse age range of university students a better chance to adapt their schedules.
Many students also have families and commitments that don’t allow for a traditional classroom degree-earning experience, which makes online education even more attractive.
“It’s great that we have that flexibility for students who are working or sometimes have families,” said Dr. Tani Sanchez, a professor who has taught online courses since 2005 and currently teaches an online course in the UA African American Studies Department.
While online education allows for more opportunities for students to complete degrees, the effectiveness of online classes compared to that of in-person instruction comes into question.
According to a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the spring of 2010, students enrolled in traditional classes performed better than students enrolled in online classes.
The research was a direct comparison between two classes, one online and one traditional, of the same microeconomics course at a major university. Students were randomly enrolled in one or the other, with the students enrolled in online classes performing worse.
However, a 12-year U.S. Department of Education study (that also included K-12 research) argued that a “blended or hybrid experience” is the most effective route for education.
“I think online is better because there a lot of students who are quiet and shy,” Sanchez said. “It compels everyone to make a contribution. It you are student that just wants to get by, it becomes very evident because all the discussions are graded.”
Regardless of which type of instruction is better, a student’s education ultimately relies on his/her motivation and commitment to earning a degree—whether it be online or in-person.
“I don’t feel like I’m losing anything with online classes,” Small said. “I learn just as much and I have to work just as hard.”