The State of Online Education: Exclusive Interview with Dr. Marina V. Kostina, Distance Learning Expert

Dr. Marina Kostina

Marina Kostina, PhD is a distance learning Program Director, curriculum designer, online professor, researcher, and trainer. She specializes is web-based distance learning, curriculum development and interactive face-to-face course building. She holds a PhD in Distance Learning, Foreign Language and Education from The University of Iowa. In this interview with Best Online Universities, Marina shares her expertise on the state of online education, and how it will continue to evolve. Marina blogs at Effective Online Teaching and Training. She can also be reached on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.


  1. You currently hold four different positions. You’re a Distance Learning Consultant at Blended Schools Language Institute, a Distance Learning Professor at Argosy University and Kendall College and a Distance Learning Consultant at Laureate Education. How did you get to be such a pioneer in the online education industry?
  2. What are your main research interests in the field of e-learning and technology? Are you working on any specific projects right now?
  3. What should online institutions be doing to secure their reputation in the space of higher education?
  4. What qualities make someone a good candidate for online education?
  5. What are the benefits of online education compared to traditional learning models?
  6. Are there any disadvantages of online education, and can they be overcome?
  7. How do you see online education evolving in the next 10 years?
  8. How do you think federal or state regulation and legislation will impact online education in the coming years?
  9. What challenges do educators face in an online learning environment and what is being done to overcome those challenges?
  10. How are traditional universities incorporating online education into their curriculum?
  11. Over the past 5 years, what are the most notable online learning developments?

1. You currently hold four different positions. You’re a Distance Learning Consultant at Blended Schools Language Institute, a Distance Learning Professor at Argosy University and Kendall College and a Distance Learning Consultant at Laureate Education. How did you get to be such a pioneer in the online education industry?

Having 3-4 positions nowadays seems to be not only a norm but a necessity. We live in a different time compared with 5 to 10 years ago. Our life is becoming increasingly multi-dimensional as we have to co-exist in different worlds: a face-to-face world, the cyber world, and a social networking world. Being able to multi-task is a new required skill. Today’s economy also dictates that we develop multiple streams of income. I personally love “wearing different hats” when it comes to distance learning (DL). I have tried myself in the roles of an online student, an online professor, and a leader of online programs. Being able to analyze DL from these different perspectives allows me to have a fuller picture of this new educational environment and to deeply understand its challenges as well as its benefits.

I have been in the DL industry as it is known today since its inception. I started teaching online in 2004 and then shortly after accepted a position as a Distance Learning (DL) professor and the Director of Assessment at the American College of Education. Since no teacher preparation programs for the DL environment existed at that time, I was literally “thrown” online and had to find a way to become an effective DL educator. I realized that online and face-to-face environments are very different, and I decided to examine it in my doctorate study. I became fascinated with the psychology of DL and I made it a goal to share my findings with online instructors and trainers to help them be more effective, increase their connection, engagement, and enjoyment online.

2. What are your main research interests in the field of e-learning and technology? Are you working on any specific projects right now?

I believe that in order to stay up-to-date with the fast growing field of DL and perfect my skills as an online professor I need to continue to be actively involved in both research and teaching. Research helps me find answers to numerous unknown issues and teaching allows me to apply my research findings and test their validity. For my dissertation I explored autonomy, student-instructor dialogue and student satisfaction with the online environment.

I am very interested in studying how connections are built online and how one can establish a strong online presence. I co-authored a book on this topic with Dr. LaGanza which will be published in April 2012. This book revises the teacher’s role and pedagogical approach to include an awareness of how the teacher can relate to her students and trainees on the intellectual and emotional level in order to optimize outcomes.

3. What should online institutions be doing to secure their reputation in the space of higher education?

I think that online institutions need to realize that online environment is not just an adaptation of face-to-face teaching. It is a new context which requires different set of skills and strategies for both teachers and students. I believe that most institutions today do not concentrate enough on the psychology and pedagogy of DL, giving technology too much power and building a sort of one-size-fits-all online programs. Technology is just a tool. Certainly, online instructors need to be able to navigate in the cyber space, however, first of all they need to understand that online pedagogy is very different from that of the traditional classroom and realize that differentiated learning needs to be in the center of their teaching.

4. What qualities make someone a good candidate for online education?

It is important to understand that in the online classroom, learner autonomy becomes very important. Students have varying degrees of autonomy and thus require different levels of support and student-instructor interactions. Some teachers are aware of this situation and may adjust their styles to match each individual student’s needs, while others might treat their students in a one-size-fits-all fashion. It is impossible to speculate on a teacher’s sensitivity to their students’ needs and their motives, just like it is difficult for teachers to interpret each student’s developmental level when it comes to autonomy. Hence, the only way students can reveal their true autonomy and their need for interaction is through an open dialogue with their teacher. While it may be intimidating to approach teachers who hold a position of power, especially in a web-based classroom, it is important for students to realize its benefits. By sharing their feelings and needs with the teacher, the students may understand the reasons and the motives behind certain types of student-instructor interactions and build stronger connections through honest communication. Similarly, as a result of such interaction, the teacher will become aware of the students’ needs and may adjust his/her interaction styles to match those needs. This situation can increase student-teacher connection and minimize a feeling of isolation common in online learners, while also helping to prevent students from withdrawing from the course.

In addition, self-reflection, self-knowledge and metacognitive skills become crucial online. Even in classes with highly developed interactions, many students still feel a certain degree of isolation online. This feeling is natural and can be even beneficial for their learning. Online learning is more student-centered, and it is also student-driven. Students will find themselves often developing the content of the class and guiding conversations with their peers – something that is usually associated with teacher’s role in the traditional classroom. While this might feel scary and strange, through these processes students are building their own autonomy. This means students should be aware of their abilities to relate to others and to learn from outside sources. Each person’s education is an individual path, and there is no prescription for how much interaction with the teacher and peers each student must have in order to succeed in a web-based class. However, what does matter is the learner’s ability to know what they want and don’t want, what makes them connected and what pushes them away, how to self-motivate and take charge of learning, and how to communicate their needs to their instructor and to their peers. To conclude, students need to be in charge of their learning, become self-reflective, and express their needs openly. As a result, students will see that their online experience will make them a more successful learner that is better equipped to deal with real life challenges.

5. What are the benefits of online education compared to traditional learning models?

There are some obvious benefits of online education compared to the traditional setting. In the current global economy, DL presents many opportunities for educational institutions to provide cost-effective and green learning, not bound by time or geography. DL also offers convenience and flexibility, structured presentation of material, exposure to authentic texts and tasks, visual and audio aids, student control, and customized and differentiated instruction. Contrary to the common belief that online environment is impersonal I suggest that this context has the potential for building an even stronger bond between the members of the learning community than the traditional environment.

6. Are there any disadvantages of online education, and can they be overcome?

Despite its numerous benefits, web-based DL is far from being a perfect educational environment. While high-tech developments bring attractive and glamorous features to the DL environment, these very same technological advancements have been criticized for dehumanizing the educational process, and have posed several challenges that are specific to this new learning environment.

Because of the lack of physical cues, some students and teachers might feel as though they are completely alone and isolated from others, however this does not need to be the case. Online learning has the potential to create strong interpersonal bonds. I often build even deeper relationships with my students online than in a traditional setting. It is also a great environment for those who are often shy in class and do not like to be put “on the spot.” Many of my introverted students blossom online and become some of the most active participants.

Another feature of an online environment is that it is especially difficult to understand in the beginning with its seemingly faster pace. It is very easy to become overwhelmed with work and fall behind online (much easier than in a face-to-face classroom), therefore it is crucial to ensure that the students meet all of their deadlines as projects can start piling up, creating more stress and more frustration. It is a good idea for the students to print out their course calendar and post it somewhere they can look at it daily. In addition, they should create a schedule where they designate a couple of hours every day to their online class and stick to it. If students and teachers are on top of their assignments, online learning can become more enjoyable as they can create their own hours and can work from anywhere in the world.

In addition, some students and teachers are very intimidated by technology. They think “I am not computer savvy. How can I succeed in a class that is fully online?” Certainly, any new educational tool or platform requires a learning curve. However, after the first week you will be able to navigate in your learning management system with no problems. Make sure to view tutorials prior to the beginning of the course and log into your classroom several days before the first day of classes to see if you have any questions before class begins. If you feel lost online, contact your instructor immediately. Most instructors will provide their contact information, which includes their email address and phone number. Personally, I always give my cell number, but that is not a requirement. Make sure you know how to contact tech support in case the learning management system does not function properly. Remember that you really cannot learn the ins and outs of technology until you actually use it. Allow yourself a couple of days to feel awkward and frustrated, but keep logging in to develop your skills. By week two, you will have mastered your learning management system.

7. How do you see online education evolving in the next 10 years?

I hope that our learning management systems will become super intelligent and will be able to adapt to students’ varying levels of autonomy, their learning preferences, personalities, interests, and background knowledge. It will be great to see such systems to not only accommodate these differences but even predict learner’s level of success and suggest an individualized path to reach common outcomes. Such systems will have to be very dynamic and very interactive in order to fit each learner’s unique profile and adjust to it. I think the field is realizing that differentiation is one of the most powerful capacities of DL and will naturally progress towards this type of structure.

8. How do you think federal or state regulation and legislation will impact online education in the coming years?

I hope that federal and state regulation will lead away from the highly standardized distance learning structure with a one-size-fits-all management system at its core. Many online programs fail precisely because they are unable to respond to the needs of diverse learners, resulting in poor quality of education, high dropout rates and increased costs. Funding more research in the field, hiring developers to design adaptive systems, and providing full time teaching opportunities to the highly qualified professors is a must if we want the industry to grow.

9. What challenges do educators face in an online learning environment and what is being done to overcome those challenges?

There are several challenges that educators face online. Some of these challenges deal with the specifics of this new educational environment itself. Many teachers have a difficult time understanding that their role online must change. Online classrooms are no longer teacher-centered, and often not just student-centered, but also student-driven. Online teachers must be not just a knowledge giver but a relationship builder to ensure that their students develop their autonomy without feeling isolated in this environment. Many educators are not aware of this and are trying to transfer their talents from the traditional to the online environment without success. Traditional approaches to teaching in this context are not only ineffective but also results in increased work load for both students and teachers and often reflect an old style correspondence-like teaching. The advancements of technology nowadays allows for very high interactions, community building, and project-based learning, which should be at the core of online instruction.

Some other challenges deal with the lack of administrative support. Often those who run online programs are very removed from the online classrooms and do not understand what is involved in teaching online. Besides, while the role of a DL teacher must change, their status should not. Unfortunately, we observe an abundance of low paying adjunct type of positions for online professors. This creates a very difficult and frustrating situation for the educators who do not have job security and job promotion. I believe that it is mandatory to provide online teachers with more stability, respect, and higher pay for their hard work.

10. How are traditional universities incorporating online education into their curriculum?

Despite the fact that distance education has gained popularity in the last few years and is expecting tremendous growth in the future, it is still not fully recognized by many traditional institutions as an effective educational environment and is often disregarded altogether. If it is adopted, it is often confused with self-learning and self-instruction. Traditionally, DL was indeed a very isolated activity where students worked on their assignments independently, such as in correspondence courses. Most DL courses in the past had a pre-set structure in which the outcomes, the pace, and the content of the courses were predetermined by the course writers and not by the students. Today however, there is no need for such pre-determined structure as our technological capacities allow for much more differentiation. Distance study today is more than a self-study, and I think once traditional institutions recognize it, they will give much more value to this new educational setting.

11. Over the past 5 years, what are the most notable online learning developments?

As I mentioned previously, we can observe a shift from the correspondence-like approach in DL to the personalized approach. Due to new technological advancements that have emerged in the past five years, more and more opportunities for differential responses to learners, based on their aptitude, prior knowledge, and motivation are available online.

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