Online and On the Move

The Benefits, Challenges and Realities of Online Education in 2020

By Angelo Carfagna and Rebecca Maxon

When online learning emerged, critics said it couldn’t compete with face-to-face instruction, and the naysayers predicted its eventual demise. Now it’s safe to say that online learning is here to stay. Growth and demand have continued to rise for almost two decades. More than a third of all college students take at least one online course each year. Not only are more students taking online courses, but also the quality of those courses has risen, and the students studying online are as diverse as the nation’s student body. FDU Magazine looks at the current trends in online education, the latest developments at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and where we may be headed.

Key Trends

The growth in the number of online students only tells part of the story. It is not merely a convenient way to take a course. More and more students believe the quality of an online education is just as good, if not better than a traditional classroom. According to Best Colleges 2019 Online Education Trends Report, 77 percent said distance education is better than or equal to on-campus courses, and 88 percent believe their online degrees will have a positive return on investment.

It’s no surprise that career goals continue to drive online enrollment decisions or that many prospective students are influenced by convenience and cost. But it might surprise many to find that an increasing number of students are taking online courses in arts and humanities and in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs.

In fact, it’s increasingly becoming impossible to define a “typical” online student.

The complex population includes learners from multiple generations, as well as from varied ethnicities, backgrounds and interests. They are completing their online courses via desktop computers, laptops, tablets and even phones.

Among online students, the distance from home to campus has decreased. According to Online College Students 2019, in 2012, 44 percent of online college students chose a school within 50 miles of where they lived. By 2019, that number was up to 67 percent, and 44 percent of those lived within 25 miles of their online host school. These students are often visiting their campuses whether required or not and want a relationship with the school.

The Impact and Benefits

So, what does this mean for colleges and universities? For one thing, it’s clear that online learning is part of the educational environment today and must be utilized in the best way possible. Demographic numbers indicate that there will be fewer young people in the United States in the next 10 years, so college students are likely to be older on average, and more of them will be part-time, with many likely to be online.

Recognizing the growing importance of online education, FDU, in 2017, partnered with Wiley Education Services, an organization that works with universities and other entities to expand their online reach, teach more students and help those students succeed.

Gillian Small, University provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said, “FDU has enjoyed a long tradition of offering innovative online programs. For example, programs like our master of administrative science degree have provided students a convenient and high-quality education that has paved the way for great successes. Undergraduate degree-completion programs for adults also have heavily utilized online learning.

“Now, considering the increasing demand and the very competitive marketplace, we have increased our emphasis on online education,” Small says. “We are working hard to enhance these programs and better support our faculty and students.”

What’s interesting, adds Small, is that educators are increasingly taking advantage of the benefits of online learning whether the course or program is fully online or not. “Today we are seeing lots of online courses, but we also are seeing a huge growth in the number of blended programs,” she says, “programs and courses with both a face-to-face and an online dimension. A lot more students are learning this way and taking advantage of the benefits of both formats.”

One important benefit of online learning is that students have plenty of opportunities to participate and bring views to the group via discussion forums. According to James Almeida, interim dean of the Silberman College of Business, and associate professor of entrepreneurship, discussions in an online learning format provide “lateral learning,” or learning from within the group rather than merely from the instructor.

“The students are provided with material to read before the discussion board opens,” he explains. “Then the faculty member introduces the discussion topic. Students participate in groups, and there is a deadline for posting their initial comments. They then have the opportunity to respond to the comments of their peers.” This also has the advantage of allowing a student who may be less likely to speak up in the classroom the time to gather his or her thoughts together and present them well.

Small says the key factors driving online learning remain career acceleration and training, especially for those already employed in the workplace. “For these graduates in full-time jobs and looking to advance their careers with added degrees or certificates, online learning offers incredible value.”

Tiffany Gallagher, MA’18 (Metro), the mother of two children, aged 15 and 18, decided to complete her MA in mathematical foundations from home while working full-time in the New Milford, N.J., school system. She has registered for the Praxis II Middle School Mathematics exam and aspires to be a math coach or a math supervisor.

Gallagher is close to campus, just 25 minutes away, but she appreciated the convenience and enjoyed the benefits of studying online. She says the discussion boards, for example, were easy to use once she got used to them. And she connected with the FDU community and participated in the annual Commencement ceremony held in May 2019 at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

The Challenges

According to Vicki Cohen, professor of education and interim dean of University College: Arts • Sciences • Professional Studies, not only must the online discussion board be active with interesting and thought-provoking topics, but there are many best practices FDU incorporates into its instructional design. Each course must have a clear objective, be given in modules with set headings for each; assign hands-on projects that students can upload to the professor; minimize the amount of print by integrating images, videos and links to external sites; and comply with copyright law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Even when in compliance with the ADA, Cohen notes, online learning could be “a little more challenging for those with learning disabilities. While these students may be articulate in the classroom, their problems are usually with reading and writing; so online learning, with its heavy use of discussion boards and other reading, would be just that much more difficult for the learning disabled, whereas they already have the means necessary to overcome their challenges in the classroom.”

Online and On Campus?

Even with best practices met, online learning does pose some other challenges for educators. “Even though the professors were only an email away, I did miss the interactive discussion component you receive with an in-class course,” Gallagher says. “Also, it was not easy to network with online teachers.” She suggests that an online FaceTime-like experience a few times a semester would be helpful to discuss content and bounce ideas off one another.

Almeida says, “We want to establish an affinity and an affiliation with the institution.” He is considering the potential benefit of an on-campus residency as part of an online course.

But with more students close to campus and perhaps interested in coming to campus, that poses challenges as well. Institutions must be prepared to offer the full range of services that they offer to their other students.

In addition to recruiting students to the online offerings, Wiley Education Services also provides advising and follows each individual through the completion of their degree, increasing retention. Plus, FDU’s career services offices on campus are available for these graduates.

“Online learning lends itself to the use of new technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence. We are exploring the adoption of virtual reality for an accounting program that may be ready for release within 18 months to two years.” — James Almeida, interim dean of the Silberman College of Business, and associate professor of entrepreneurship

(Photo: John McKeith)

Focusing on the Future

With its many advantages, online learning clearly is here to stay and likely to grow. It simply offers too many tools that can enhance the educational experience. “Online learning lends itself to the use of new technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence. We are exploring the adoption of virtual reality for an accounting program that may be ready for release within 18 months to two years,” Almeida says.

For FDU, the new tools may enhance undergraduate courses, but its focus for online learning will primarily be on graduate programs. “The key,” Small says, “is to help people in the workplace add to their credentials and enhance their career opportunities.”

“My favorite aspect was being able to do the course work on my own time,” says Gallagher.

“The goal,” adds Small, “is to make our graduate courses as flexible as possible. We know students need to work at their own time and pace. Typically, a student who has earned an undergraduate degree and gone off into the workplace reaches a plateau. To move to the next level, they need more credentials. That’s where we come in.”

FDU’s Online Programs

FDU’s online offerings are diverse and wide ranging, from certificates to doctoral-level education, and the offerings are growing.

With master of science in nursing (MSN) degrees with tracks in family nurse practitioner and in nursing education, FDU is preparing the health care givers of the next generation.

Two recently added online degrees that are gaining in popularity are MS degrees in supply chain management and in digital marketing. Also doing well is the online MS in accounting.

FDU has added an MS in cyber and homeland security administration as well as an MA in student services administration to its online offerings.

FDU will offer a new, fully online master of public health program beginning in the spring 2020 semester, designed by program Director Bojana Berić-Stojšić and her team. “In our program, students will be able to gain solid public health leadership skills in health policy, health analytics, epidemiology, etc. The job placement for public health professionals with an MPH degree ranges from nonprofit organizations to governmental organizations,” she says.

New certifications in teaching English as a second language and in bilingual education are available. “This is one of the neediest areas of education,” says Vicki Cohen, professor of education and interim dean, University College: Arts • Sciences • Professional Studies. Almost one in four children in the United States speak a language other than English at home, according to a 2018 analysis by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center. These children rely heavily on the school system to help them learn English; and, there are not enough qualified bilingual teachers to meet the needs of these children.

A doctor of education (EdD) in higher education is also in development, and will hopefully be unveiled for Fall 2020.

There are many more degree offerings — including an AA in liberal arts and the bachelor of science in individualized studies for undergraduates — and many certificate programs tailored to those in law enforcement and public service.

For a complete listing of FDU’s online programs, go to online.fdu.edu.

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2020 edition of FDU Magazine.

Selected features from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s biannual, signature publication.