For people who have time to do homework but don't have the time or the means to get to a college campus, Internet-based courses offer an option to keep motivated students involved and progressing toward their educational goals.
Online instruction not only offers students flexibility, it can also provide viable alternatives for overcrowded, underfunded schools, like the University of California at Davis.
"Student numbers are increasing - classes are getting larger," notes Harry Matthews, director of UC Davis Media Works and a professor of internal medicine. "Lecture halls are no longer big enough to hold the whole class, and it's not possible for students to do any group activities."
UC Davis is writing up the results of a two-year study that measured the effectiveness of courses taught entirely online. With a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the study looked at ten undergraduate, general education courses, tracking exam scores and final grades to evaluate student performance.
The basic question raised was, does the Internet offer a better way to teach? The answer is a resounding maybe.
Many students find they get more out of participating in an online learning community than a conventional classroom. Rather than sitting in a huge lecture hall, scribbling notes and being fairly anonymous, according to Matthews, the center of online learning is the society, not the institution.
"[Online instruction] offers a way to get back to the original idea of the university, where it created a community of learners," he believes. "With an online course, students and instructors can learn from each other."
Preliminary results from the study show student performance in the online version of a course is slightly lower: a course's 98-percent pass rate, for example, dropped to 96 percent. "That's fairly typical of the sorts of changes we tend to see," says Matthews.
While online instruction is a form of distance education, the two methods are not the same. Distance education means the instructor and the student are in different locations, interacting through technology. The course may rely on the Internet as a delivery method, but not always. Cable, video and television also are used.
Virginia LaRoe, an undergraduate at Indiana University, enrolled in two online courses while a student at American River College. She says she needed to complete both English courses, but didn't have the time to attend lectures.
"The online courses are set up so students can participate when it is convenient for them - as long as they meet the deadlines," LaRoe said in an
email. "I think English courses lend themselves to an online setting since the bulk of the assignments are reading and writing - both of which, to me, are very solitary in nature."
LaRoe found she had more interaction with both the instructors and classmates in her online courses. Often students' schedules won't match their instructors' office hours, or an animated class might prohibit students from participating as much as they would like.
"I thought the courses were well rounded in that the profs encouraged things like class discussions and peer editing via message boards and email," she reports. "This opened up a lot of free-
flowing discussions that are often cut short during lecture meetings. Students have the opportunity to think their ideas through and outline them articulately in text rather than taking the floor in the classroom."
The online courses didn't affect her competitiveness as a transfer student; in fact, she enrolled in an online computer course through an Indiana satellite campus as she prepared to transfer.
Marsha Leeman-Conley, instructional technology coordinator for ARC, says the goals are the same, it's just the method that's different.
At ARC, the Internet is used for 32 different courses. Some are fully online, others are Web-enhanced (the instructor adds an Internet component to the course material) and others are hybrids, in which instructors substitute Web-based lessons for class meetings. This fall, 1800 students are enrolled in fully online courses, while 8000 are taking courses that use the Internet in some capacity.
Leeman-Conley reports that enrollment as well as course offerings have increased the past two years, partly because the Los Rios Community College District purchased its own Web server through Blackboard.com. This allows the district's four colleges to use a somewhat standardized environment for Web-based course material that is specific to each campus. For students, Leeman-Conley says, it offers familiarity; for faculty, it offers a chance for more technical support.
"My job is not to teach just how to use a piece of software, but teach them how to incorporate the Internet into their teaching strategies," she explains. "For instructors, part of the learning is navigating the Web to see what other people are doing and see new ways to do things. Other colleges use our online courses, we link to theirs. It creates a collaboration within many disciplines."
Larry Chase, a professor of communication studies at Cal State University, Sacramento, feels an instructor must be service-oriented to succeed in online instruction. He teaches two fully online courses, Theories of Persuasion and Attitude Change, and Introduction to Scientific Research in Communication. There are always "papers" to comment on.
"It's exciting and it engages me to become a better teacher because you have to be organized to put something on in print," Chase says. "I have one-on-one interaction with every student who participates. Paradoxically, listening becomes more important in this silent world."
A key issue for instructors is ensuring that the student who shows up for the first class meeting is the same student who actually posts the homework on the course's Web page. Like many instructors, Chase requires the final exam to be taken at school. For remote students - he's had students from Tennessee, Germany and San Jose - those students must establish a relationship with a testing center at an educational institution to take the exams.
Over the semesters, Chase has tried conference calls, study group meetings and even chat rooms for student interaction and discussion. Now he relies on weekly postings and chat room assignments, allowing students to form their own groups. He sets a deadline for each assignment, rather than requiring students to be online at a specific time "because you could cancel students out." He also offers voluntary community service learning activities, such as volunteering to answer phones during PBS pledge drives, and designing and administering a survey for the Sacramento Zoo.
Like any academic course, the time and cost for the college to produce a first semester online offering can be great, but when that cost is spread out over many semesters, the investment diminishes. For students, the tuition costs can be less because they're not paying for the use of facilities, but they are helping support the infrastructure and those associated costs. Remote students enrolled in a single course pay only that course's fees. An added benefit is that they gain technical skills.
"Technical skills are important for them in the workplace," notes Leeman-Conley. "They have to use a computer, they have to use email. An online course teaches them where to find information and how to evaluate evidence."
For more information on education online, examine these sources.
- arc.losrios.edu - American River College. (916) 484-8011. Click on 'Off-Campus Classes,' then click on 'Class Offerings' under the heading 'TV & Online Classes.'
- calstate.edu - California State University. Click on 'Campuses' for links to all the colleges in the CSU system.
- cccco.edu - California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. Click on 'Find a College' for the website, address and phone number of all California community colleges.
- csus.edu - California State University, Sacramento. (916) 278-6011. Information on web-based courses is at 'csus.edu/distance/web.htm'.
- ucdavis.edu - UC Davis. For online courses, click on 'Schools & Colleges,' then 'UC Davis Extension.' (530) 752-1011.
- UniversityofCalifornia.edu - Website of the University of California system.