When Les Misérables opened in London’s West End in 1985, many critics gave it an unfavorable review, declaring it bloated, dreadful, and “witless.”1 Despite the negativity, performances sold out quickly, and the original run lasted more than thirty years. Les Misérables remains one of the most popular musicals of all time.
The musical also happens to be a favorite of Clark Gilbert’s. President of BYU–Pathway Worldwide (BYU–Pathway) and former president of BYU–Idaho, Gilbert says, “Seeing Les Misérables live on the West End or on Broadway, with all the talent, technical production, and audience interaction, is simply magical. I worried when they made the 2012 film version that it would lose some of the magic of the live theater production. Fortunately, the creators asked, ‘What’s unique that we can do in film that you can’t do onstage?’” The result was a revolutionary new take on film musicals, featuring live singing and dramatic visuals that are virtually impossible to achieve in the theater.
“Rather than replicating the theater and just trying to do it digitally, they’ve taken advantage of the native medium of film,” Gilbert says. “Similarly, quality online learning requires you take advantage of the media, use technology to allow students to interact in teams within cohorts, measure learning, and give the instructors access to data about student engagement and performance. This is all unique to an online environment.”
Though public perception of the industry has long been colored by for-profit programs of questionable caliber, online-learning offerings have expanded dramatically in the last two decades, with increasingly high-quality educational programs that are recognized for their value.
Historically, education has been considered the silver bullet when it comes to alleviating prejudice, reducing poverty, lowering crime, and addressing other social issues. But as traditional formal education is not feasible for many people, increasing the reach and decreasing the cost of educational opportunities—particularly in postsecondary education—requires its own panacea: online modality.
A Tough Act to Follow
Just like the Les Misérables stage production, online learning received a fair amount of criticism when it initially emerged in the late 1990s. However, an increasing number of education experts now hail web-supported learning as a game changer; in fact, the president of MIT wrote, “digital learning is the most important innovation in education since the printing press.”2
The evidence supports that. One series of studies found that online instruction is “as good as or better” for students than face-to-face education.3 In 2002 an estimated 1.6 million students enrolled in at least one online course4; in fall 2018 more than 6.9 million students—over one-third of all higher-education students that year—signed up for online learning.5
But how do employers feel about degrees from distance-learning programs? Perhaps more favorably than you might think: as many as 83 percent of executives believe degrees earned online are as legitimate as degrees earned traditionally.6
“It depends on the quality of the program and the quality of the students,” Gilbert notes. “Some online programs have high placement rates, and some have rates that are embarrassingly low.” Thus, for many employers, the deciding factor isn’t how a degree is earned but where. Accreditation, reputation, and proven alumni success are the most important considerations. “A student who goes to a high-quality online program in today’s world can do very well, particularly in some of the professions such as technology, healthcare, and business,” he says.
Setting the Scene
Though online courses are delivered via the internet, most aren’t cobbled together quickly like some web content might be, such as social media posts. The best distance-learning courses are deliberate and purposeful, and adhere to high academic standards. Online courses are not synonymous with remote-learning courses, however. Using web tools to deliver an in-classroom learning model results in a different experience which, as in the case of the global turn to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, may lead to inferior educational experiences (see below: Online, Not Remote).
Internet-supported courses include (1) web-facilitated courses, which utilize web-based technology to support course objectives but meet in person; (2) hybrid (or blended) courses, which deliver much of the course content online and have regular or occasional face-to-face interaction (such as BYU Marriott’s Accounting 200 course, which features the famed instructional videos by former professor of accounting Norm Nemrow); and (3) online courses, which present more than 80 percent of the content online and rarely hold face-to-face meetings.7
The majority of on-campus BYU courses are web-facilitated, with many students and faculty using the learning-management system BYU Learning Suite. In this article, we refer to both the latter two categories—hybrid and online courses—with the terms distance or online.
“There are three essential elements of an online-learning experience,” says Carolyn Andrews, academic product manager at BYU’s Division of Continuing Education and an April 2020 graduate of BYU’s instructional psychology and technology doctoral program. “The first is course design. Instructional designers (IDs) are critical, and there are a host of online-course standards that must be followed, including federal laws requiring regular and substantive interaction and compliance to the Americans with Disabilities Act and copyright laws. Well-designed online courses take a considerable amount of time to develop. Many IDs and experienced faculty report taking four to six months or longer to develop a course. It is an iterative, continuous improvement process.”
Courses offered through BYU Online also adhere to the US Department of Education’s distance-learning regulations, the Online Learning Consortium’s best practices, and Quality Matters standards, and steps are taken to ensure that all online courses conform with the learning outcomes of their traditional equivalents.
The other two necessary elements of a successful online-learning experience, Andrews says, are instructors who are trained to teach online and students who are dedicated not only to course completion but to content mastery and deep learning. “Students need to take responsibility for their learning,” she says. “Skipping over content to complete graded assessments is short-changing the learning experience.”
Though it’s easy to focus on the weaknesses of and obstacles presented by distance learning, this educational option offers myriad opportunities unique to the modality. Students can engage with course content by using web-based tools, such as collaborative digital-learning spaces, articles and videos that support learning objectives, and text annotation software such as Hypothesis. Online modality also allows students to learn at their own pace and easily go back and review, enabling mastery. Students can build relationships with the instructors and with each other through online forums, collaborative assignments, and even personalized avatars (depending on software) and other methods of sharing their personalities.
“The ideal situation is to have all three essential elements of online learning. In truth, just like in-person classes, there’s always going to be variation,” Andrews says. “But excellent course design and an engaged course instructor will always matter much more than course delivery mode.”
The Hidden Many
The online learning field has grown exponentially in the past twenty years, and programs affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU have quickly become leaders in the industry. In 2018, BYU–Idaho was identified as one of only seven US higher-education institutions that enroll more than one thousand distance-education students studying from outside the US and the only institution with more than five thousand such students.8 And BYU–Pathway’s enrollment in 2020 is expected to total over 50,000 students in more than 150 countries. But Kim B. Clark, former president of BYU–Idaho and current NAC Professor of Business at BYU Marriott, remembers a time when the university’s online offerings were just beginning to take root.
One of Clark’s priorities upon assuming the presidency of BYU–Idaho in 2005 was to explore ways to use technology to bring education to people not currently enrolled in postsecondary-level coursework. This led to the 2009 launch of BYU–Pathway’s pilot, PathwayConnect—a hybrid learning program combining online learning with weekly face-to-face gatherings—which prepares students for higher education.
“It became clear after just a little while that there was a real hunger for education out there and that many, many people face significant barriers to education,” Clark says. “The data now shows that about 70 percent of students have no other option for higher education. So to judge the program’s efficacy, we were comparing online learning with zero learning, no education. And in that context, the impact of online learning for those students was tremendous.”
Targeting this population is an important part of the BYU–Pathway mission, Gilbert says, and distinguishes the program from others that focus on traditional students. “There are three forms of online innovation happening in the industry,” he explains. “The first extends the traditional model for traditional students with online options for on-campus students; the second replaces the traditional model but still serves traditional students, offering an education solely online; and the third serves a different population altogether—a new model for a new student population. That is where BYU–Pathway is focused and why it is growing so fast.”
Gilbert calls this group “the hidden many”: nontraditional students who would not typically be able to access a higher education. By helping the hidden many explore online-learning options, he says, BYU–Pathway and other Church-affiliated learning programs are tapping into an underserved population: those who may not be able to participate in the traditional college experience, for reasons including academic confidence, financial concerns, disability, extracurricular activities, mental health issues, work conflicts, or family responsibilities. To better serve these students, BYU–Pathway employs innovative techniques including predictive analytics, remote-student mentoring, and a certificate-first program that offers a credential after only one year of schooling, creating immediate value should a student be unable to persist to the bachelor’s degree.9
By nature, the program can be considered a social entrepreneurship venture, as it has a strong mission that dramatically impacts lives and is financially stable and scalable. “About 55 percent of Church members in the United States and 85 percent of members internationally have no associate’s or bachelor’s degree,” Gilbert says. “We’re trying to make this as affordable as possible for the student while still providing a high-quality education.”
Stealing the Global Scene
Onnastasia Cole struggled to graduate from high school because she grew up in an unstable environment lacking necessary academic support. She didn’t initially consider college as an option, but the Pathway program provided her an accessible entry point.
“Pathway definitely helped me build the confidence I needed to succeed in the classroom again,” Cole says. “The hybrid learning format was great for me because it gave me plenty of time to study—plus face-to-face interaction with my peers once a week. I’m grateful that Pathway was an option because it opened so many more doors than I thought possible.” She graduated with a certificate from BYU–Pathway in 2015 and with a BA in professional writing from BYU–Idaho in 2019.
Students such as Cole are one of the primary motivations behind the many Church-supported, distance-learning programs, says Stephanie Allen Egbert, a 2020 BYU Marriott MPA graduate, associate in the Office of the Commissioner of Church Education and director of the Church’s Global Education Initiative, an education support effort for youth in developing countries. “I can give you all the reasons, from a corporate perspective, that a company would want to do an online learning program, such as cost savings and return on investment,” she says. “But truly, when I talk to people in Church programs, they say, ‘We just want to reach more people. We just want more students to come and be blessed with the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”
BYU–Pathway’s partnership with BYU–Idaho was recently expanded to Ensign College (formerly LDS Business College). Other Church-supported programs include online seminary and online institute; EnglishConnect, which teaches English as a second language; BYU Online; and BYU Independent Study middle and high school courses, which now can culminate in a high school diploma through the new BYU online high school program.
“No matter where you live, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have access to a high-quality, affordable, spiritually based education,” Gilbert says.
Waiting in the Wings
Looking to the future, Clark believes that the Church’s involvement in the online education industry will only grow. “I believe that, in time, BYU will play a huge role in online education across the whole Church, across the whole earth,” he says.
Of course, no one predicts that online education will ever replace traditional education, just as made-for-film musicals will never supplant the productions on Broadway or in the West End. Instead, they balance each other out, says Egbert. Rather than devaluing classroom education, distance learning complements it by providing another vehicle to reach the same learning objectives. For example, quiet students might thrive in a distance course, since “online learning is open to more personality types and ways of thinking rather than privileging those who think quickly and speak first in face-to-face classes,” Egbert says.
“Online learning is not going away. We need to figure out how to embrace it,” she continues. “It actually prepares you for work in a global world with virtual teams. Online learning sets you up for success in our multi-modal world.”
Online, Not Remote
Distance education got a lot of attention in spring 2020 as traditional classes from kindergarten to college transitioned to online delivery due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, comparing native online learning with remote learning is like comparing a made-for-film musical with a filmed stage musical: one is intentionally designed for viewers at home while the other is not.
“Online learning got a bad rap during that pivot to remote teaching,” says Carolyn Andrews, academic product manager at BYU’s Division of Continuing Education. Many students around the world “were finishing their semester courses in a new modality. This pivot to remote teaching left the instructor with insufficient time to master the web technologies and no time at all to learn effective online pedagogy and teaching best practices. Instructional designers, hailed as the sherpas of a course development team, were either unavailable or scarce on campuses across the globe. And both instructors and students were dealing with economic, physical, social, or mental health,” she says.
Kim B. Clark, NAC Professor of Business at BYU Marriott, believes that native online-learning programs will likely see growth due to the sudden demand for distance learning. “The pandemic has actually shown how valuable and how powerful it is to have these technologies,” he says, applauding the massive accomplishment of BYU faculty in transitioning to online classes in only three days, partly due to the many resources made available through the university.
Clark notes that increased mass exposure to the online modality will be beneficial not just during the duration of pandemic restrictions but afterward as well. More students may consider distance learning in the future, and skills that teachers acquire as they learn online pedagogy——through resources such as the BYU Center for Teaching and Learning’s Teach Anywhere instruction series for faculty——can help them further integrate web-based technologies in future classes or simply provide new perspectives on important objectives, such as increasing student engagement.
If anything’s for certain, it’s that the distance-education industry will only continue to expand. “For nearly two decades, online learning has been the fastest area of growth in higher education,” says Andrews. “That will continue to be true post-COVID.”
Article written by Clarissa McIntire
Illustrations by Adam Nickel
- Michael Billington, “Twenty-Five Years On, They Ask Me If I Was Wrong About Les Misérables,” Stage, The Guardian, 21 September 2010, theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2010/sep/21/les-miserables-25-year-anniversary.
- L. Rafael Reif, “MIT’s President: Better, More Affordable Colleges Start Online,” Education, Time, 26 September 2013, nation.time.com/2013/09/26/online-learning-will-make-college-cheaper-it-will-also-make-it-better.
- I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, January 2014, onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradechange.pdf.
- I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003, The Sloan Consortium, September 2003, files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED530060.pdf.
- “Fast Facts: Distance Learning,” US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2019 (forthcoming), table 311.15, nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80.
- Rachel Zupek, “Employers on Online Education,” CNN, 29 March 2010, cnn.com/2010/LIVING/worklife/03/29/cb.employers.online.education.
- Allen and Seaman, Sizing the Opportunity.
- Julia E. Seaman, I. Elaine Allen, and Jeff Seaman, Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States, Babson Survey Research Group, January 2018, onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradeincrease.pdf.
- Clark G. Gilbert and Michael B. Horne, “A Certificate, Then a Degree,” EducationNext 20, no. 1 (Winter 2020): 86–87, educationnext.org/certificate-then-degree-programs-help-tackle-college-completion-crisis.