Last week's report, No jobs for online degrees, by Dr John Richard Schrock drew a strong reaction. We publish two of the responses in this edition, along with Dr Schrock's reply while a selection of others can be seen as comments with the web story.

From Stuart Hamilton
Dr Schrock's article, while making a fair point about the hypocrisy of universities offering online degrees and then not accepting them for staff appointments, mixes up different issues - the bogus qualifications offered by 'degree mills' (which may be online but need not be) with a reasonable debate about the use of online pedagogy and the continuing value of the face-to-face experience.

In countries such as mine, distance higher education has been an essential part of improving access to universities for years. The increasingly sophisticated use of online teaching and learning for students who do not have the time or capacity (for work or family reasons) to study on campus makes creative use of the possibility of full online engagement between staff and students.

At its best, it does not try to mimic the on-campus experience but to create a valid learning experience in its own right, sometimes blended with face-to-face learning where that remains necessary. Tarring quality providers in the last group by associating them with the scams of the first group is illogical and harmful to a proper debate.

Stuart Hamilton, CEO Open Universities Australia

From Steve Foerster
As a distance learning specialist, I read John Richard Schrock's diatribe against distance learning with sad amusement. Has this old-fashioned view really not yet died its final death? There is voluminous evidence that the mode of instruction alone produces no significant difference in students' ability to learn. Those interested in the subject may, for example, wish to consult Thomas L Russell's book, The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, which is an excellent review of the relevant literature.

Schrock is also mistaken that university professors as a group oppose online learning. Even the university where he is on faculty, Emporia State University, has an online degree completion program. In addition, Schrock is a commentator for Kansas Public Radio which is housed by the University of Kansas, another institution offering programmes through online learning. Perhaps Schrock's colleagues embraced the 21st century while he wasn't looking? Either way, hopefully in time he too will join us there.

Steve Foerster
Director, E-Learning Services
Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia

Dr Schrock replies:
Criticism of distance-learning has been dismissed by the very argument Director Foerster presents: since Kansas and Emporia universities offer online degrees, the faculty must therefore be fully behind them and I am a lone "old-fashioned" hold out. To the contrary, many "traditional" faculty nationwide are critical of these programmes, as can be read in articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education each month. The broader issue of online programmes being on a slippery slope to diploma mills was discussed in the paper just last week.

Comparisons of online and face-to-face courses often use large lecture classes where teacher interaction with individual students is not possible, in contrast to the rich context of a classroom of 12-30 students where teacher-student interaction is intense, immediate, and effective. Large lectures are more show time than teaching, and only mature independent learners survive.

Comparison of such large lectures and internet courses will show little significant differences, especially if the tests cover material closely aligned with the online materials - education research is notorious for getting the results the researcher wants.

I am very familiar with "research" showing no difference between computer simulations and laboratory dissections - the questions used in those surveys were all "lecture" questions. To ask lab questions - identify this, locate that - would be "unfair" say the pro-simulation researchers. Likewise, to measure the richness of intellectual discussion and growth in intense face-to-face courses, not possible on the internet, would be called unfair.

The isolation as well as the inefficiency of internet communication requires students to make substantially more effort to learn by electronic correspondence. Aside from serving remote Australian farm students by radio courses, distance learning began in the 1960s with airborne TV broadcast classes, and was a failure.

Today's popularity of online courses is driven by convenience, not quality. There is a reason US armed forces do not commission nurses unless they have at least 60% of their coursework face-to-face. Sure, listening to music on a CD, radio or TV is convenient but if you want the genuine rich experience, go to the live concert.