Donald Woods wants to be a documentary filmmaker someday. Although he has film-making equipment, ambition and a growing knowledge base, right now he’d like a car. The 22-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Greenspun School of Communications uses the bus to get to school from his east valley home, which sometimes can be a challenge, he admits. But online courses are helping him march toward his graduation goal, which should happen in about a year and a half.
For the past two years, he has been taking at least one online class each semester, sometimes more. Subjects like core writing and math translate well online, he believes, and Woods doesn’t see a compromise in educational quality by not being in the actual classroom. If anything, he thinks online courses require even more discipline.
“In a normal classroom, you have to be there. They take attendance. If you don’t, you miss notes,” he said. “Online you have to have the discipline to actually look at it and not put it off.”
Woods is one of millions of Americans who use online classes to bridge transportation or geographical divides. A long-running research study from Babson Survey Research Group shows there are about 6.7 million students at American colleges taking at least one online course. The most recent survey was distributed during the fall 2011 semester. The figure is a 570,000-student increase from the same time the previous year.
“The rate of growth in online enrollments remains extremely robust, even as overall higher education enrollments have shown a decline,” said Jeff Seaman, the study’s co-author.
Furthermore, and to Woods’ point, 77 percent of academic leaders surveyed viewed the online educational experience as good or better than the classroom environment. And nearly 70 percent of the academic leaders also said online learning was critical to their long-term strategy.
Most schools, like UNLV, assess a per-credit fee for online courses to help fund online infrastructure and expanding class offerings. At UNLV, a $34 per-credit fee for taking an online class funds the entire online education department at the school. No state dollars are contributed to the department and some 30,000 enrollments (one student taking one class is considered an enrollment) a year are seen at the school, according to Mark Fink, the school’s director of online education.
Terry Norris, director of e-learning at the College of Southern Nevada, said the school has been offering online learning options since 1996. When he started at the college in 2004, 950 class sections were offered. Today, there are 1,900. A particular class, such as English 101, can have multiple sections. Some introductory English classes have up to 30 sections in them, he explained.
Like others, Norris pointed out the obvious math, writing and other introductory courses — ones with heavy reading, writing and note-taking — that transfer to the online environment rather seamlessly. But he also said more hands-on programs and courses still use the online course management software to communicate with students and illustrate concepts and information.
“Most of the trades are not online, but I will tell you HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and the culinary programs still use the learning management systems to post information,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how much they do use it. Even with a science lab class, I’ve seen some amazing lab kits that allow you to do some of the experiments at home.”
UNLV’s graduate nursing program is an online offering as well that recently received a ranking of 18th among 101 online nursing programs studied by US News & World Report. UNLV has plenty of other offerings that are going either completely or almost completely online as well.
Gael Hancock is the program manager for UNLV’s Master of Hospitality Administration offering. The executive program is done completely online. It started 12 years ago and recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its first graduating class.
“We started when there wasn’t Skype or online videos, YouTube. Of course, we do all that now,” Hancock said.
The graduate hospitality emphasis in some ways is a perfect fit for the online world. One of the major requirements for admission into the program is at least three years of management experience. Most of the students are now working in the hotel industry and need the flexible schedule to take the classes anyway. It allows for the perfect mix of taking in new information, engaging in online discussion with peers, then applying the experiences and new insights to real-world working situations without having to trouble with commuting to a campus, Hancock says.
Both UNLV and CSN are members of Quality Matters, or QM, a program started 10 years ago to establish national benchmarks for online courses. CSN’s internal policy requires each department to have committees that review each course.
“The key thing is not so much content because it’s going to be there,” Norris said. “But what we’re really evaluating is how a course is set up, the ease of access to information. Can you find the syllabus and easily navigate?”
The emphasis now is on the learning management system, Norris added. Some software programs offer a lot of flexibility for instructional delivery. Some instructors use a lecture-capture function in CSN’s system that allows professors to record campus lectures for later viewing.
“It’s almost better than the actual classroom. You can access it whenever you want and as long as you need it,” he added.
Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation for the American Council on Education, said there is also a great emphasis on what she termed as “learning analytics and adaptive learning.” She sees more courses with small quizzes and assessments embedded into course material to force the learner to stay on top of information. While she said institutions have autonomy when deciding on the courses’ academic quality, the good institutions are always looking for different ways to better the experience.
Fink said the online environment must still try to achieve the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy where students analyze, apply, evaluate and create with their new information.
“It’s about engaging students in thinking and not just knowledge acquisition. It’s systematic, scientific thinking, pro-social and emotional and creative thinking,” he said.
To engage a student to this level, Fink says the online environment can indeed be interactive and collaborative with discussions. The school is evaluating an interactive textbook for an English class and he also gives the example of a criminology class that offers 3-D layouts of the Clark County Detention Center for students.
His department is always looking to videographers, app and graphic designers to make for a more engaging experience. Having an eye on ways students can get immediate feedback on concepts is also important, he added. Fink says a lot of online learning is still a hybrid experience balancing in-class experience with the virtual and taking the step to put an entire program online still takes time and evaluation of all learning circumstances.
“I think we’re somewhere between infancy and maturation. It’s tough to tell exactly where, though,” he said about bettering the online learning experience.
Norris also said the availability of online tutoring services has become more popular in recent years. CSN contracts through a third-party provider that offers 24/7 access to online tutors. In writing classes, for example, students can submit drafts of papers for feedback. The tutoring company, called Smart Thinking, also offers tutoring for nursing topics as well.
Creating a quality experience falls both to students and faculty, Fink said. The school has an in-depth frequently asked questions, or FAQ, section for students looking to enroll in an online class. The questions help students determine whether they have the discipline required to complete an online course.
On the faculty side, like CSN, UNLV departments have committees that review online courses. By fall , each faculty member who teaches an online course will be required to take a “fairly stringent” how-to course for online classes, Hancock added.
Bringing outsiders in
Most educators and experts in online learning don’t see online offerings overtaking campus-based classes. But instead they will bring access to those who can’t regularly make it to a campus. Both Hancock and Norris tell stories about teaching classes that have students from Alaska, the East Coast, as well as international students from Africa, Greece, Macau, Singapore and other areas of the globe.
Hancock and Fink explained that having students in different environments makes for more valuable discussions that can give a class a more global feel instead of just focusing on core subject material.
“The students really learn a lot from each other because of that,” Hancock added.
With outreach being a primary driver for online learning, last year MOOCs, or massive open online courses, became a hot topic. The free courses are available to anyone with an Internet connection, and professors who construct the classes can use them for altruistic purposes such as getting effective dialogue on a specific research topic or to enhance their reputation and build name recognition.
While most colleges and universities are waiting on the sidelines for now before offering too many MOOCs, schools like University of Texas, Brown, Wesleyan University have been working to expand the offerings. Fink said UNLV is studying MOOCs but emphasizes they must “be purposeful and follow the mission of the institution” before they are completely embraced.
The Babson online survey also looked at MOOCs and found only 2.6 percent of higher education institutions offered them and 9.4 percent had MOOCs in planning stages.
Academic heavyweights Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have formed edX, a program that will deliver more MOOC offerings to those who want to learn about anything from intricate technologies to a Shakespeare lecture. Duke, Princeton and University of Michigan are also experimenting.
“It’s something that we really saw take off in the summer 2012,” Sandeen said.
For now, these classes are noncredit offerings that are catching the attention of thousands of people worldwide. But the American Council on Education is also evaluating some MOOCs to see whether they have the rigor and standards to count for credit toward a degree. Some observers view the move a game changer that could boost outreach but could also create a university revenue problem. Nevertheless, Sandeen foresees MOOCs eventually becoming credit-worthy.
“It’s heading in that direction,” she said. “I do think it will go that way.”