A decade ago, TV commercials for online college classes showed 20-somethings lounging in front of their computers in T-shirts and pajama pants, making it look like earning a degree was as easy as playing video games.
That image, while appealing to young people, left older generations wondering whether online study - formally known as distance learning - was just another passing technology fad. Surely this wasn't the future of higher education. But in many respects, it is.
Online classes and degree programs are being offered by a growing number of private and public colleges. Distance learning is here to stay and is proving a valuable alternative for thousands of Americans, such as:
• The busy mother of three who cannot afford child care but wants to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree.
• The mid-career man who cannot afford to reduce his work hours but needs a master’s degree to earn a promotion and a better salary.
• The globe-trotter who wants to complete a degree even while relocating three times in two years.
Consider Steven Moya, who last spring received a master’s degree in procurement and acquisitions from Webster University in St. Louis. He took several of his classes while he was deployed in Iraq with the U.S. Army. Moya was among 140 online graduates in Webster’s Class of 2013.
Webster, founded in 1915 by a Catholic religious order, has the handsome brick buildings and towering trees of a well established institution. It began offering online courses and programs in 1999, and today the private, non-denominational institution offers 19 graduate degrees, five undergraduate degrees and five certificate programs online.
Public institutions are moving to online courses, too, in many cases to respond to the competition from non-profit and for-profit private schools. But they also are trying to satisfy their mission of being accessible to people in their communities.
Transferring curriculum from the traditional classroom to the Internet is not as simple as videotaping long lectures. Modesto Junior College, one of the oldest community colleges in California, now has a full-time professor whose job is to help his colleagues learn how to effectively teach online.
Michael Smedshammer, an English professor at MJC since 2000, now holds the title of instructional design coordinator. His 40-hour seminar for other professors is offered online, naturally. Smedshammer believes that online courses have to be nothing short of spectacular. Why? Because the students who enroll in them likely are very busy, very stressed and perhaps very sleepy.
Lectures need to be short -- five or six minutes at most -- and compelling. Assignments need to be rigorous. Class discussion also is part of the learning experience, albeit in a different format that can be more inclusive than traditional classes. A student sitting in a classroom with 40 other people might be reluctant to raise his or her hand and ask a question. In an online course, that shy student can email the professor or post a question in a discussion group – and do it any time of night or day. Professors need to respond quickly, but also in a conversational tone. Smedshammer suggests an occasional smiley face (emoticon) can be a way to keep the discussion going.
In some online courses, professor and students are all signed on at the same time. Educators call this arrangement synchronous distance learning. Others online courses are asynchronous, meaning the professor posts the material but students are signed on at different times.
To circumvent the procrastinator who might want to wait until the last night to complete a 10-week online course, the professor will make lessons available at staggered intervals throughout the term, setting deadlines for completion of assignments and online quizzes.
Most brick-and-mortar schools are not requiring all their professors to teach online classes, but that day could come. Increasingly,faculty job postings ask for experience and expertise in creating web sites and online instruction. The University of California at San Diego now offers an extension program in online teaching. Educators who enroll in the extension class must complete a series of six courses – all online – to earn the certificate.
The demand for online college classes is still gaining momentum. Distance learning has become one of the ways our country can achieve the dual goals of making college available to more Americans and of creating a workforce more competitive in the global economy.