Online learning may
change DI legislation
With the proliferation of courses – and even entire degrees – offered over the Internet, the higher-education landscape is changing and adapting to new technologies. And as its member institutions change the way they offer education, the NCAA is investigating how it will adapt its eligibility standards to meet the needs of today’s student-athletes.
Two proposals in the 2008-09 Division I legislative cycle address that adaptation.
• Proposal No. 2008-32 would allow online and other nontraditional courses offered by an institution to be used for full-time enrollment requirements. An alternative proposal would limit the number of credit hours a student-athlete could earn through nontraditional means.
• Proposal No. 2008-35 would allow nontraditional courses taken at a different four-year institution to fulfill credit-hour and progress-toward-degree requirements, with an alternate proposal limiting the number of credit hours.
The Legislative Council will consider the proposals at its January meeting, but Council members already heard at their October meeting from faculty athletics representatives who support the use of online courses, though some fear abuse through cheating or the perception that online courses are less academically challenging.
At a meeting of Big Ten Conference administrators and faculty earlier this year, Minnesota FAR Linda Brady talked about her experiences teaching online courses in nutrition and health, her field of expertise. Brady has offered at least one online course per semester since 2001, and said that while the classes are often more work for faculty members – reflected in the higher cost to students, they offer a different way of learning to students who might not thrive in a classroom setting.
“Lecture classes may not match everyone’s learning style. Some kids are more kinetic learners, some are spatial learners, some are auditory learners, some are visual learners,” Brady said. “There are so many different ways to learn, and we tend to focus on just one kind. I want to make sure that we don’t accept the theory that the only way to learn well is to go to class.”
Online courses also offer flexibility for both student and instructor, she said. Students can complete coursework in their pajamas, and professors can grade the work in the same garb. Time spent getting to and from class can now be focused on the work. Brady said most of her classes are populated by students who are on campus already, but who prefer the flexibility and convenience of an online course.
But it’s not for everybody. Christine Jackson, associate director of academic services at Louisville, said that in her experience, kids learn more face-to-face. She acknowledged that student-athletes stand to benefit from the online courses because of their demanding schedules, but also said the courses are often more difficult because “you have to basically teach it to yourself.”
Jackson, president-elect of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, said the organization applauds the NCAA for looking into the situation.
Critics already inclined to think athletes are shuttled into less-challenging majors might argue that allowing online courses to count toward eligibility would push student-athletes to shop around online for easier coursework.
Brady is quick to disagree, however. She said her classes are demanding and require a lot of work from students through weekly assignments and online quizzes and tests that require critical thinking and reflection. But she pointed out that, just as the quality of in-person courses depends on the organization and preparation of the instructor, the same is true for online courses.
“Good classes are fine, but there will be classes out there that are not put together well, that are easy. But you are going to find that anywhere, in any kind of course,” she said. “I think it’s got to be the individual institution certifying these classes as meeting their needs.”
Bruce Jaffee, FAR at Indiana and a member of the Legislative Council, also believes there should be some institutional autonomy involved in allowing student-athletes to take online courses. If a course is available to the general student body for degree credit, it should be available to student-athletes to meet eligibility requirements.
“It’s important to treat student-athletes just like any other student. We don’t give any special breaks to student-athletes, but we shouldn’t penalize them in any way, either,” Jaffee said. “I think the key is for an institution to have quality control, but also understand that all courses, all subjects and all teachers don’t instruct and learn in the same way.”
Of course, Proposal No. 2008-36 would allow student-athletes to use online courses taken at institutions other than the one at which they are enrolled, which would not give a certifying institution control over its quality. For that reason, Jaffee thinks that proposal faces a rougher road to adoption.
Some situations, he said, would be appropriate: For example, a student at Minnesota wants to take a third year of Swahili, and Indiana offers it online.
“That makes great academic sense – it’s almost like an interlibrary loan,” he said. “But the drawback is that you can control what’s going on at your institution, and you know the standards at your institution, but you don’t know the standards someplace else. You don’t know exactly what you’re accepting.”
Brady said people often ask if she suspects cheating on assignments, quizzes and exams. She says she knows it exists, and she catches most of it.
“People cheat in regular courses, too, when writing their papers,” Brady said. “I am monitoring and watching where and when they take the quizzes. I can’t predict that there is no one there giving them the answers, but anyone doing that is going to have to be smarter than (the student in her class).”
Whatever happens with the two proposals in this year’s cycle, it’s clear the idea of nontraditional coursework is not a temporary fad. Hundreds of institutions have at least some online courses and dozens are offering complete degree programs over the Internet. Jaffee said the fact that the Association is discussing the issue now is a step forward.
“The NCAA has generally been criticized for reacting to technology rather than anticipating it,” he said. “What’s interesting about this legislation is it’s still an emerging educational technology. The initiative on both these things is to get a handle on it before it potentially becomes a problem.”
© 2010 The National Collegiate Athletic Association