As More Try Online Classes, Tech Issues Arise

Online learning is increasingly common, but some say there are drawbacks.

NEW YORK, May 15, 2009 -- Online learning is increasingly common at colleges and universities across the country, but some students and professors say there are drawbacks to Web-based education.

"More students are taking online classes. At a lot of universities now, professors are podcasting lectures and putting them online," says Jim Wenzloff, a consultant for November Learning, a company that focuses on technology for educational use.

A study from the National Center for Educational Statistics released in 2004 investigated the development of distance education courses, which rely on communication through the use of video, audio, or computer technologies.

The report indicated that in 2000–01, 56 percent of all postsecondary institutions offered distance education courses, up from 34 percent 3 years earlier. The numbers rose once again in the center's most recent study, released in December 2008, which illustrated that during the 2006-07 academic year, 66 percent of two-year and four-year degree-granting postsecondary institutions reported offering online, hybrid/blended online, or other distance education courses for any level or audience.

Another 61 percent of 2-year and 4-year institutions reported offering online courses.

Yet even as these numbers continue to increase, many students and professors alike are having problems with the technology at universities that aren't strictly Internet-based. Students at regular colleges now must juggle the need to keep up with advancing software while still developing their own skills.

Though some programs, such as PowerPoint, remain standard in most classrooms, students are expressing concern about the need to keep up with newer software,

"I'm not great with technology but I can use basic Office programs with no problem," Michaela Fraser, a student at Hendrix College in Arkansas, said. "Once it gets more advanced than that though, I'm lost."

Professors also indicate that as students become increasingly dependent on technology, they devote less time to using and improving their own skills.

Overreliance on Technology

"It's a double-edged sword because while technology makes some aspects easier, it undermines the ability of students to take notes, spell, or write for themselves," says Steve Miller, a communications professor at Rutgers University.

Online systems might also increase the chance of developiong technical difficulties.

"Depending on the use, circumstance and functionality, these programs can be either more or less efficient," says Miller. " It's great when I can simply email or post an adjustment to the syllabus because it's quick and easy. But, there have been times when students have had problems with some of the online systems and instead of going ahead with the work, they wait until the problem is fixed. It takes too much time and too much effort out of their hands."

Some students also say that they now rely more on computers than professors for any inquiries or academic help.

"It's helpful in terms of allowing me to work with peers online," said Alex Rozansky, a sophomore at Rochester University. "But, now I also tend to look online and answer my own questions before asking the professor, which probably hinders me academically."

Despite these problems, Wenzloff maintains that is especially important for students to learn this new technology now, before they begin their careers.

"You have to have an awareness of what's out there, even if you have to take a training class to do so," he said. "It's really not difficult technology and having these skills is so important going into any type of job. Everything I can think of, whether a business job or an educational job, you are going to need to work on a system. If students expect work in the job force, they have to get to know technology."

Studying to Study

"Most schools offer some kind of technology class. They normally aren't for credit, but they're also not very long. Two hours is probably enough for students to get some basic application training. The files in different programs are pretty much the same so it's just a matter of transferring knowledge," he says. "There is also so much online tutorial. People should focus more on you can do with these programs versus how you do it. "

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