CONTINUING EDUCATION: Education after Hours – Online courses give students unmatched convenience

Consider that most people hadn’t even heard of online courses less than a decade ago.

Now consider that programs like the Virtual Learning Collaborative offered by the Michigan Community College Association (MCCVLC) will offer 400 online courses this fall alone. And over 5,000 people will tap into those to finish a degree, start a dream or further their career.

“For some people, taking their classes on line is the only way to start or continue their education,” noted Ronda Edwards, director of academic programs for MCCVLC. “We get a lot of full-time professionals working and wanting to better their credentials.”

While online courses are now commonplace, colleges are finally seeing a general acceptance–and demand–that has been lacking in past years.

For the MCCVLC, its pilot program in 1999 attracted only 12 institutions and 47 different courses. In just a few years, the program has grown to 28 community colleges that offer everything from “filler” classes for those completing a degree through a traditional college setting to complete online associates degrees and certificates.

“The VLC is unique because it allows community colleges to share courses among each other and allows students a lot more options,” Edwards said.

A majority of online courses fall in the 100- and 200-level. But in just the last year, the online world has unfolded for those looking to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Baker College started its online counterpart, Baker On-Line, in 1994. Last fall, they registered 7,100 students for their online business degrees, which include 10 master’s, seven bachelor’s and four associate degrees.

“Sixty percent of those were outside of the state,” said Chuck Gurden, director of graduate and online admissions. “We have students in 23 foreign countries. You can take the classes from anywhere in the world. For example, our Cadillac campus can’t offer all of the classes that students need at one time, but students can stay on track with the online courses.”

Because of the intense one-on one that often accompanies online courses, Baker limits class size to 12 students.

For each class, students are required to do a threaded discussion with classmates five out of every seven days.

Many online courses require students to get on line to receive and submit assignments, as well as interact with other students through chat rooms, threaded discussions or email. All programs offer a short “how-to” for beginners.

“There is more interaction with an online course because you can’t hide,” Gurden said with a laugh. “In a traditional class, you get two or three students that answer all of the questions and everyone else fades into the background.”

Northwestern Michigan College instructor Sherry Howard agrees. She teaches computer information system courses on line, which currently include Introduction to Computers In Business, Unix Operating Systems, Internet Publishing and Web Programming. These 100- and 200-level courses attract a combination of working professionals and traditional students both full-time and part-time–many of whom she gets to know more personally than she would in a chalkboard setting.

“Surprisingly, I feel I really get to know my students even though I don’t meet most of them face-to-face,” she said. “They often send me tidbits of their personal life and of their work (by e-mail).”

Because Howard often receives pictures from her students, she prints them out and puts them in her grade book to put a face with the name.

“I get wedding photos, pet photos and family shots,” she said. “One of my favorites was my student kneeling between his two small sons holding the fish they just caught. The student added a note that he was the one in the middle. I love that photo!”

Lauren Keinath, NMC instructional designer, noted that the only interaction lost on line is the non-verbal.

“But they talk about more personal things than they ever do in a traditional classroom,” she said.

And this is just one of the changes that have come with time. Now, instructors are doing more and more to make online courses not only an alternative, but an asset as well, Keinath said.

“Instructors are feeling much more comfortable in this medium,” she said. “They are getting more innovative and interactive. We insist that the online courses don’t become a watered-down version of the traditional course. Some NMC instructors use video and audio in their online courses. It’s even changing the way they teach their traditional courses.”

Like Baker College, NMC caps their online courses at a lower number. Their enrollment numbers have nearly tripled in the last few years.

In the 1998-1999 school year, they offered 22 online courses and hosted 366 students. Last year, they offered 43 online courses and hosted 900 students.

Likewise, they are a member of the MCCVLC and interact with students and community colleges all over the state.

The biggest downfall to online courses remains the completion rate. Both NMC and MCCVLC offer students a self-test before they jump into the program.

Technical skills are no longer the hindrance for most students–its motivation and self-discipline.

“We still find too many students that sign up that shouldn’t,” Keinath said. “On average, about half or more statistically drop out. But NMC does better than that. Usually, it’s about a 70 to 100 percent completion rate.”

North Central Michigan College in Petoskey is also a member of MCCVLC. From their location, they offer two courses online, depending on the MCCVLC to offer a wider variety to their students.

“For smaller schools especially, rather than develop an online curriculum independently, it makes sense to collaborate with others,” said Naomi DeWinter, director of student services at NCMC. BN