Online courses transforming college classes

Popularity of online courses growing, despite faculty concerns

Online courses

When William Hurford Lawrence received the first graduate degree issued by Washington State University in 1902, it’s a pretty safe bet that neither he nor anyone else at the school could have envisioned the advent of online learning, let alone the computer.

Today, however, colleges and universities across the nation – including WSU, WSU Vancouver and neighboring Clark College – are offering a growing number of online courses for working professionals and local undergraduates. It’s a trend that is rewriting the book on American higher education, creating sweeping change in course delivery.

Consider these numbers: According to “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States,” issued by the Babson Survey Research Group, 32 percent of all higher education students, some 6.7 million people, took an online course from a university in 2011. The study cites enrollment increases for ten straight years and a growing number of colleges (62.4 percent in 2012 versus 32.5 percent in 2002) that offer fully online degree programs.

At Clark College, 246 classes are now primarily online, with many including a hybrid approach that requires some time on campus, said Chato Hazelbaker, chief communications officer. In the last five years, he added, the total number of full-time Clark students enrolled in online classes rose from six percent to 11 percent.

Similarly, WSU Vancouver has seen the number of hybrid courses that use the Internet as well as some form of in person classes double from about 10 last year to 20 this year. More online courses are offered through the main campus in Pullman.

“We anticipate the bulk of our online growth will be in this (hybrid) area,” said Brenda Alling, WSUV’s director of marketing and communications.

Meanwhile WSU’s online MBA and Executive MBA programs now have a combined 250 students, up from 15 students in the inaugural class in January 2011. Students in the all-online program get two hours of live sessions over the Internet each week, which is less about lecturing and more about interaction between students and faculty. If work or other obligations interfere, students can view the video and read lecture notes later. Also, the Executive MBA program brings together upper management from all sorts of industries who share from their individual experiences on such things as leadership and management style.

Brent Bradshaw, vice president of group operations, Western United States for Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers, is a WSU EMBA student. With a demanding job, lots of business travel and a busy home life, he prizes the time flexibility in the program.

“I currently do not have the ability… to carve out specific time slots in the week where I must be sitting in a classroom on a campus,” he said. “The online option allows me to attend class when I am sitting in a hotel room, airport lobby, the kitchen in my house or my office. It also provides me the ability to miss the scheduled lecture time due to a timing conflict and listen to the recording at a later date when I have some available time.”

Bradshaw, 40, had been planning to attend graduate school for several years, and saw his recent promotion and move from Vancouver, B.C. to Vancouver, Wash. as an opportunity to further fine tune his skills and career options. He sees the interaction with fellow professionals as a big plus, but said the demanding and accelerated coursework and lack of in-person time with fellow students is not for everyone.

For those folks, WSU still has a “traditional” in-class MBA and other graduate degree programs. However, the school is increasingly experimenting with hybrid or what WSU calls “blended learning” classes. These courses include in-class time, but employ techniques like “flipping,” an approach that has students doing homework, viewing video and doing research online, then getting together in class to discuss what they’ve learned.

As the popularity of online courses has grown, so too have faculty concerns and criticisms. Some faculty fear being replaced by technology and criticize the quality and relevance of online classes.

Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at WSU Vancouver, helps allay some of those concerns.

“I really stress that this is what they’ve always done,” he said. “If you’re a great teacher of sociology you don’t say that your domain stops at the boundary of the discipline… The web is a huge deal, but from the professor’s perspective it’s a new set of literacies and a new set of pedagogical opportunities. If you tend to see your job definition in very black and white terms, it can be scary. But in my experience, most faculty aren’t like that. They get the why, they just need help with the how.”

Velle Kolde, director of WSU’s Executive MBA program and a former Microsoft executive, also acknowledged faculty concerns. However, he said, the university’s online courses are “designed for the way people live and work today.” There is so much digital communication going on with friends, colleagues and business partners often located across the country or across the globe, that it just makes sense to develop new, digitally-based forms of education, he said.

As for quality, Kolde said WSU has been delivering online education for 20 years, learning from its mistakes and successes to create a better online experience. US News and World Report seems to agree, listing WSU’s online MBA programs #1 in its latest college and university rankings.

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