Thursday, February 24, 2011

Challenges of online education

The success of online education reflects a seismic shift in information exchange practices between producers and users.

Not too long ago, phone communications were restricted to designated physical locations where one would place or receive a call.

For many traditional, on-site educational institutions, students must be in a physical location to gain access to information and knowledge. The "information-centric" structure dictated that consumers of information must "report" to "centers" in order to gain access to information.

This is quickly becoming the past -- today information follows the user, anytime, anyplace. In this "user-centric" environment, power is shifting away from "information centers" to users, and services become more important than content.

Online education exemplifies this trend. Students access information and learn in their preferred environments and during their preferred times. Content becomes secondary to delivery, where matching needs of individual learners drives the information exchange practices. And not surprisingly, we also observe the rising power of online students over the delivering institutions.

"I am paying for my education and therefore I'm right." This attitude of some students might not be exclusively related to the power shift described above, but it is increasingly and symptomatically heard from adult online students. They are right and wrong at the same time. There is no logical reason why the overall shift in information exchange should bypass education. At the same time, education needs to be earned not just purchased. How should we strike the balance?

Unfortunately there is no simple and practical solution. If professors harden their stance on "need to earn," some students might desert one institution in favor of other institution that is more willing to compromise its standards. On the other hand, if professors succumb to student's entitlement attitude, education might suffer, resulting in a lesser value being provided to students. Perhaps there is a way out of this impasse that can satisfy both students and professors.

Degrees need to be earned and quality of education must be protected. Without this premise, there is no value created with education. At the same time, yielding to students on the delivery of, and exchange protocols for information will result in a more satisfied student. Flexibility with schedules and non-consequential context would go a long way to satisfy students while maintaining the integrity and quality of education.

There are no free meals, however. Flexibility with schedules and context might increase the cost of services as time and effort on engagements with students will increase. If cost is transferred back to students through tuition increases, the institution may become less competitive.

Alternatively, if costs are offset by a degraded service and staff levels, the quality of education will suffer. Achieving a balance is possible if the institution's expectations and engagement practices are articulated up-front with students. This might not be easy but it is necessary nevertheless.

In summary, installing online education system flexible for delivery while remaining firm on quality is possible and necessary in order to meet online education challenges in the information age where students are gaining more clout.