Posing the heavily debated question among scholars today, Salt Lake City’s Deseret News recently questioned whether online learning is the “wave of the future or the demise of the academy?”

The story, published June 25, highlights the experience of a Salt Lake City young adult and University of Phoenix student Trevor Hansen.

Like the major demographic for online colleges, Hansen works full-time and squeezes in other extra-curricular activities like softball tournaments and motocross, but still finds time to to college coursework via his online classes.

Earning his bachelor’s degree in finance, Hansen argues that earning an online degree is very convenient, since he can work more hours and not have to travel and sit through class.

Additionally, Utah mothers like April Hoyt, who is finishing her online degree in communicative and deaf disorder at Utah State. Hoyt, 31 and mother of four, was highlighted in the article saying she is thankful for the opportunity she has had to get her education online.

Still, he voiced concern that when it comes time to find a job in the financial field, employers may not view an online degree to be as valuable as a traditional bachelor’s degree.

Many professors, too, consider online classes to be inferior, and go so far as to refuse teaching them.

The article quoted Elayne Clift, a writer, journalist and adjunct professor currently living in Vermont, who said that the joy of teaching and the deep importance of learning cannot happen very readily in an online environment.

“I think it is part of the demise of the academy, part of the crisis of higher education,” Clift said.

Clift has taught at the collegiate level for over 30 years, at schools including Yale and Emerson, and she said the online course she taught dumbed-down a lot of the information and witnessed more plagiarism than traditional classes.

Yet the number of online college students continues to grown across the nation. According to the article, Minnesota boasts a high number of online course students, with 100,000 people enrolled in classes online.  And in Utah, the number of students taking online classes increased by 15,000 in five years, from 2005 to 2010, according to Utah System of Higher Education Data.

Some college administrators from Utah wholeheartedly support the idea of online education, however.

As Deseret News reported earlier in the year, authors of  “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out,” Henry J. Eyring and Clayton M. Christensen, conclude in their book that colleges need to embrace online courses in order to stay competitive with other schools.

Perhaps key to their perspective is the idea that colleges need to embrace high-quality online courses, and not just any level of online class.

Such a distinction is necessary, since the article also reported that many lawsuits have been filed over the last several months against for-profit colleges, in their online base, regarding best practices and validity.

Weber State professor Lauren Fowler subscribes to a theory similar to Eyring and Christensen, saying that online classes can be effective for students who are prepared for the differing class format. In the Deseret News article, she suggests that there be an online preparedness quiz before signing up for an online class.

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