Cover Story

From a Distance …

Online Courses Increase Enrollment and Visibility for Local Colleges
September 18, 2006 Cover

September 18, 2006 Cover

Online courses began as static Web sites and E-mail between students and faculty, but now they’re dynamic, comprehensive, and increasingly popular. As a result, they’re changing the way students learn and the way colleges teach.

At Holyoke Community College, students have the option of taking a number of courses online, from management to meteorological science.

Dr. Colin Cavell teaches U.S. National Government online for HCC, a popular class that has only one hitch: sometimes, his students have to keep the time difference in mind when E-mailing him with a question, at his home office in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Cavell’s class is a textbook example of the flexibility afforded by online learning.

Online courses, now more commonly referred to as ‘distance learning’ or distance education, are an increasingly prevalent aspect of the American system of higher education. Most students enrolled at traditional four-year and community colleges will take an online course during their college career, or at least take a course that includes online components, such as presentations, study guides, or quizzes.

Distance learning presents many opportunities for students — they take courses at colleges across the country or around the world — and challenges for educators, who are adopting to a new way to teach traditional and non-traditional subjects.

Those closely involved with the evolution of distance learning at colleges and universities say that it’s not likely online courses will ever fully replace traditional classroom settings completely. But they don’t take the numbers of students using online classes to manage, augment, or complete their educations lightly, either.

Brick and Click

Gloria Defillipo, Dean of Distance Education at Holyoke Community College, said about 50% of the college’s total enrollment take advantage of some online component each semester, and that’s not including students in traditional classes who take advantage of so-called ‘Web enhancements.’

“We can’t possibly measure how many classroom courses also use online aspects to enhance the course – that’s too widespread,” she said. “But students can earn their degrees entirely online, or take part in ‘brick and click,’ hybrid courses that have online and classroom components. The numbers of those students is definitely increasing, and there is a big future for distance learning.”

HCC, which introduced its first distance education-based courses in 1999 (“they were basically notes posted online and links to Web sites,” said Defillipo), now offers five degrees and five certificates that can be obtained solely online, as well as 19 degrees that can be earned through a track that is 80% virtual.

Defillipo added that the majority of students enrolled in those courses of study live close to the college, and use distance education to study in a way that meets their learning style better than a classroom environment, or to help juggle an already busy work or family schedule. Some, however, utilize HCC’s online education system from beyond the Pioneer Valley. Students living in different parts of the state, including the Berkshires, Cape Cod, and Boston’s South Shore are currently enrolled, while others continued their education at HCC after a move – one HCC student is earning college credit while on military duty in Iraq.

“It definitely gets our name out there in a way we never could before,” said Defillipo. “But one of the biggest positives about distance learning is that education can continue even after life has moved you.”

Quiet as a Mouse

That could be one reason, she added, for the continued growth of distance learning, as well as the acceptance thereof in the world of higher education. Once relegated to correspondence courses and online schools such as the University of Phoenix, distance learning is now a very real, and very large, part of the American college system. Harvard University, for instance, created its extension school nearly a century ago, to offer continuing education courses for both credit and enrichment; its distance education division is now one of the school’s largest offerings. That shift has some real backing, nationally, too – the United States Distance Learning Association in Boston currently includes 27 state chapters and a number of for-profit sponsors who contribute up to $30,000 each annually to the cause.

Locally, every college has some type of online presence in terms of course offerings. In addition to HCC’s expansive set of programs, American International College, for instance, introduced a blended master’s degree program for its nursing students that takes place largely online.

And UMass is leading the country as well as the area in the field of distance learning. UMassOnline, its distance learning division, saw a 32% increase in program revenue during the 2005-2006 academic year, bringing in $22.9 million, and enrollment increased by 23%.

David Gray, UMassOnline CEO, said he attributes some of that growth to program expansion – 28 new programs were launched this past academic year alone.
“We continue to see impressive growth in online enrollment,” said Gray, “largely due to the quality and diversity of our academic programming. Our faculty and staff are committed to fostering an innovative and rich learning environment.”

Gray explained that the new programs created were a response to consumer demand and a need to fill niche markets. Two graduate-level counseling programs were added, for instance, as well as a masters program in Gerontology, a bachelor of arts completion program, a behavioral intervention in autism certificate program, a forensic criminology certificate program, and a plastics engineering certificate program.

“We are particularly pleased that plastics engineering is now available entirely online,” he said. “The program is one of a kind in the United States; offering it online enables us to serve a niche market, but with a global reach.”

On the Homepage

But distance learning is not just a tool to reach markets far from the bricks and mortar of a college campus. Debbie Bellucci, Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Distance Learning at Springfield Technical Community College, said while the majority of students who take advantage of online offerings at STCC are local, she too sees firsthand the vast growth in the field of distance learning, and the challenges that creates for colleges of all sizes.

“In 1999, we started with three courses, that were mainly lecture notes on a static site,” said Bellucci. “Interaction occurred outside of the course via E-mail.”

But now, STCC offers several courses with a Web component, including a liberal arts degree that can be achieved entirely online. That has created a major focus at STCC to constantly improve the online courses, but also the delivery and accessibility thereof. And that, Bellucci said, must be done within the same framework and set of standards applied to traditional courses.

The prime differences between online offerings at traditional institutions and most universities and schools that function entirely in a virtual environment, said Bellucci, are that colleges like STCC are accredited, often employ existing faculty to administer distance learning courses, and usually offer the course both online and in a classroom, to meet the needs of various students.

“Here, online courses also run a full, regular semester,” she added. “That means the program cannot be as self-paced as some online courses that can be taken outside of traditional academe. Students can complete their work anywhere, anytime within a given week, but after that there are certain parameters. When Saturday comes, that homework, or discussion board post, or quiz has to be posted.”

In addition, Bellucci said many colleges are now being called upon to draft specific policies for their distance learning programs, in order to address issues that may arise as well as further improve the online learning experience.

Discussion boards, for instance, provide an important tool for effective distance learning – they mimic classroom discussions, and consequently student comprehension levels, better than e-mails between student and instructor. But while they provide for multi-faceted conversations, Bellucci said, those conversations are taking place among a faceless audience and a class of students that often haven’t met each other, or their professor.

“The aim with discussion boards is to get students to comment with the instructor serving as a moderator,” she explained. “Instructors can allow students to exchange ideas, while also stopping tracks of discussion that are off-topic and correct misconceptions.

“But sometimes, that can lead to discussion boards becoming complaint boards, or debates get too heated or off-course,” she noted, adding that the problem prompted STCC to instate a ‘civility policy’ for distance education students.

Quizzes and final exams also pose a challenge for online faculty, who must essentially assume that any test administered online is an open-book test.

“Typically, that means instructors have to be more creative about how they set up the exams,” said Bellucci, explaining that true or false questions are given less frequently, while essays and short-answer questions better test a student’s overall comprehension.

Live and Learn

And communication between faculty and students is always encouraged, added Defillipo, who said distance learning allows for equal treatment for all students, whether they are studying in Holyoke or Iraq, or learning from a professor also in the Middle East.

“Learning doesn’t have to stop anymore when things change,” she repeated. “It can just keep going, wherever life takes you.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]