Gas prices, flexibility attract students to online classes

TRAVERSE CITY – Ten years ago when Northwestern Michigan College began offering online classes, 96 students were enrolled in six online courses offered.

Flash ahead 10 years. The number of students taking Internet-based classes has increased by more than ten-fold. During this past spring semester, NMC offered 81 online courses with 1,100 students participating in at least one of these classes.

Jan Oliver, director of educational media technology at NMC, says online classes are now usually the first to fill up.

"This spring semester we only offered three new (online) classes, yet our enrollment in them was up 50 percent from last year."

NMC refers to online classes as "distance" or "online learning." They can take on many different forms – some classes are taught completely online, others require weekly meetings, and some classes are a combination of both. Many online instructors say the virtual classroom offers a safe, professional atmosphere where everyone can participate.

"It really forces those students who might sit in the back of a traditional classroom to join the discussion," says Dr. Nicole Runyon, who teaches online classes at several colleges and universities, including Davenport University, out of her Leelanau County home.

At NMC, the most popular courses taken online are the "core classes," which include history, English, and psychology. However, the demand for business-related classes has forced the college to add more online courses for business-minded students over the past decade.

Sherry Howard-Spreitzer is the Business Academic Chair at NMC and one of the first instructors to teach an online course for the college. Her online career began with "Introduction to Business Computers." At the time, this course was only offered three times a year. Now it is offered six times a year. Howard-Spreitzer says she is a big supporter of online classes because they can help prepare students for the professional world.

"In any type of career, employees need to know how to problem-solve and communicate clearly," she says. "The nature of online coursework will hone these skills."

Howard-Spreitzer gives this example: "Each semester begins with students requesting help in an e-mail message with something like, 'Help, I'm stuck and I don't know what to do!' To which I reply, 'I'll be happy to help, but I need specifics.' There's a first lesson in communication. No doubt I will get a return message with a clearly-stated question."

There are many reasons students opt to take an online class instead of a face-to-face class. Some say rising gas prices are a factor, but most say the flexibility allowed with an online class is the main attraction.

"If students need to complete their work at 3 a.m. when the kids are sleeping, that's okay. If a student has to travel unexpectedly to Beijing for work, that's okay, as long as they can get online," says Runyon.

Kim Crockett of Kingsley works full-time as a manager at Bath and Body Works at the Grand Traverse Mall. She takes up to three online classes a semester at NMC, and says it helps her to stay on track toward obtaining a degree in elementary education.

"I work full-time, and I'm a full-time student, so online classes help me do both."

Current students include everyone from high school seniors, to retirees, and even members of the military serving overseas.

"This was the first year that I had to find a test proctor for someone taking classes while in Iraq," said Oliver.

Before students sign up for an online class, Howard-Spreitzer says they should make sure that they have the motivation, organization, and self-discipline required to be successful.

"There's something about the word 'online' that seems to come across as easier. That's typically not the case."

For more information about online courses at NMC, visit www.nmc.edu/flo/online.

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