I am a systems thinker. As soon as I enter a new. . .whatever. . .I start seeing the systems in place (or that need to be in place). My head starts designing the inputs and outflows, the structures of what is happening or should be happening, the way it works.
When I started out in what is now the adult and online education field, it was in correspondence programs where students and faculty communicated via U.S. Post (or if the assignment was really late. . .UPS or Fedex). Then these new things called e-mail addresses were being given out to allow us to communicate through something called the internet (“internets” if you were or are old. . .or funny). I and my trusty 14.4k Modem were burning up America Online.
As people figured out what the internet was, the applications for distance education were pretty clear. Even at the lowest level of tech, students could at least stop spending money on postage and paper and submit assignments through e-mail. The really techy people were dreaming about fully “online” courses with high end graphics and multimedia and even virtual reality. As bandwidth capacities increased and newer technologies emerged, fully online education was no longer a dream. It was a reality.
Unfortunately, there were naysayers to this new form of distance education. You regularly heard comments related to quality, inability to “really learn the material,” degree mills, etc. when people referenced online degree programs. From students, you heard questions like, “will my degree be accepted?” “Can I get into a master’s program with an online degree?” or even the point blank, “Is this a degree mill?”
Alongside the development of online learning, you had another movement starting: social media. From the earliest Internet Service Providers that had fora for discussion to the Bulletin Board Systems on up through current day offerings in social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.), social media has moved people online. Go to any place around town where people are sitting around and you will likely find them staring at a smart phone. More likely still is that they are scrolling through their “News Feed” on a social media, smiling, frowning, even laughing out loud (LOL. . .but probably not really ROFLing), commenting, clicking “Like” buttons, etc.
I first decided to care about Myspace and Facebook when I served as president of a Bible college and superintendent of a Christian school. It wasn’t because I wanted to be on the media and use it personally. I needed to access the media when a problem arose. Students inevitably (despite a dictate from the school not to have an account) were on social media and were chattering about the latest gossip or fiasco taking place. After leaving those roles, I had time to start really using social media for personal and business use.
Soon after, Facebook became something grandmothers (and great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers) were doing to keep up with their families. Sure, grandmothers are more likely to type in all caps or to out their secret pet name for you or to have their account hacked by someone who felt you needed to see inappropriate pictures. . .but grandmothers are there in force. They are stalking you like crazy because they had the time to do it.
Now, every segment of society is represented on social media, Facebook being the giant. When that happened, suddenly, people weren’t so freaked out by online education anymore. If a school doesn’t have an online program, it’s weird. Even students in traditional, non-online programs are rambunctious if there aren’t online opportunities for classes.
So, thank Facebook for making online education reputable. Okay, the colleges and universities might have had a little bit to do with it too. And, according to U.S. Department of Education reports, online education has equal or better outcomes than traditional education. I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg had that in mind when he designed Facebook.
How have your feelings towards online environments changed over the past several years? Do you need to get your institution into online education (or MORE into online education)?
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