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Distance education moves higher education into the future

29 January 2013 No Comment


It is an age when the importance of higher education grows every day, yet more classes are moving out of the classroom and onto the World Wide Web.

Known as distance education , this modern way of learning gives traditional students with other responsibilities more options for arranging a schedule. It gives working adults the ability to go back to school, often without entering a classroom.

Heather Geist is joined by her cat, Chloe, as she takes online courses at home through University of Phoenix. Geist, who has already earned an associates degree is working on her bachelors degree through distance learning. (Public Opinin, Markell DeLoatch)

At its inception, university faculty were paid extra to teach these courses.There’s no argument that distance education is more common today than it was in 1998, but there is an argument – between union faculty and the state – over whether professors should still get these incentives.

It’s a point of contention during current faculty union contract negotiations.

At Shippensburg University, distance education has been growing since its start there in 1998, according to information developed for Public Opinion by Dr. Barbara Lyman, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and Dr. Christina Sax, associate provost and dean of academic outreach and innovation.

Distance education provides Shippensburg with the opportunity to serve new and different audiences within and beyond the region, Lyman and Sax said.

At Shippensburg, distance education comes in two forms: video conferencing and online education .

Video conferencing allows students in multiple locations to take the same class at the same time. A course using this technology features a two-way television that allows a faculty member in one of the locations to teach all students at once.

Shippensburg offers classes that are 80 to 100 percent online. In most of them, faculty and students do not interact in real-time, but instead communicate via e-mail and on discussion boards.

There are also classes in which faculty and students interact in real time using web-conferencing tools, Lyman and Sax said.

Who enrolls?

Shippensburg offers distance education courses throughout the year to graduate students and to undergraduate students in the summer and winter semesters. There are some exceptions.

Many students take summer and winter online classes to catch up or get ahead on their degree requirements, to make room in their academic year schedule for specialized experiences, such as internships, student teaching, and research, and as a way to find time to pursue multiple minors or degrees, Lyman and Sax said.

Enrollment in distance education classes in the extra semesters has grown significantly over the past decade. Summer enrollment increased from 155 students in 2000 to more than 1,600 in 2012. Since being introduced in 2006, winter online enrollment grew from 211 to 640 in 2012.

In the fall 2012 semester, 126 students participated in 10 graduate online classes; 335 students participated in 18 graduate video conferencing classes; and 14 students were enrolled in one undergraduate video conferencing class. These numbers are comparable to those for spring 2013, although actual numbers have not yet been determined.

What’s available?

Shippensburg University’s Curriculum Committee has approved 180 distance education courses.

The number of classes that come out of this depends each semester on the needs of a program and the students, Lyman and Sax said.

So far, these courses have been offered in 28 of Shippensburg’s 33 academic departments. According to Lyman and Sax, each department determines the appropriateness of distance education to its program and builds it into long-term plans.

“Some academic departments at Ship have not yet included distance education in their plans due to the unique pedagogical considerations of their discipline and the ability to achieve student learning outcomes in a comparable manner via distance education ,” Lyman and Sax said in a report.

Although not all programs offer distance education , the number of classes is increasing as more faculty get trained to teach online, they said.

Trained to teach

More than 100 of the 328 faculty at Shippensburg are trained to teach online classes.

Training is required, and it covers how to develop and teach an online class and the functionalities of Desire2Learn, Shippensburg’s online learning management system, Lyman and Sax said.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education ‘s collective bargaining agreement for 2007-2011, which is still in effect while contract negotiations continue, states that the state system encourages faculty to participate in distance education courses.

This section of the agreement is one of several that have been in contention in recent months as the state system and faculty union continue to negotiate for a new contract more than 17 months after the expiration of the current one.

Kenn Marshall, communications manager with PASSHE, said Monday he could not provide specifics on the state system’s current proposal, given the back-and-forth state of negotiations.

Throughout negotiations, PASSHE has consistently said that it is seeking costsaving measures in the new agreement. Distance education is one of the main areas where it could accomplish this. According to the 20072011 agreement, faculty receive $800 per credit for the first time a course is taught. Faculty members teaching online classes also receive $25 for each student enrolled. Other payments can be added onto that.

In an opinion piece released Dec. 5, Gary Dent, PASSHE vice chancellor for human resources and labor relations, stated that to recognize the significant growth in distance education , the state system proposed ending the incentive payments faculty receive for developing distance education courses and the additional stipend received for each enrolled student.

The incentive payments started in 1999 when distance education courses were almost nonexistent in PASSHE schools, he said.

But learning how to develop these courses can mean more work for some professors.

“Developing distance education courses is much more involved than developing traditional courses,” said Dr. Robert Stephens, director of the MBA program at Shippensburg. “Faculty must commit significant time to learning how to use various technologies, organizing materials within that technological framework, and continually updating those materials.”

Stephens has much experience in the development of distance education courses, as the MBA program is its main area of use.

Carrying out a lesson in an online setting requires more preparation than for a traditional class, because faculty must record lectures and manage online discussions for days and weeks rather than over an hour in class, he said.

Interacting with students is more drawn out, because most communication occurs over e-mail, not face to face.

Online vs. traditional

Stephens believes the perception among students and faculty is that distance education course quality is not at the same level as traditional classroom courses. His experience disproves that.

“It is possible to have an excellent teaching and learning experience through ( distance education ), but it requires skills that many faculty and students haven’t yet fully developed,” Stephens said. “Students must be selfmotivated, disciplined and proactive. Faculty must be detail oriented, highly organized, and technologically savvy.” Heather Geist, who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology through the University of Phoenix, agreed with this in regard to students.

“I think being an online student makes you a better student since you have your mind made up that you are determined to be an A student,” she said. The Chambersburg resident chose online education because she wanted to go back to school several years into adulthood. She enjoys being able to do school work at any time that is convenient to her and having the freedom to complete that work in an atmosphere of her choosing.

“If you want to, you can lounge in your pajamas while doing your school work. If you cannot sleep you can get up and hit the books,” she said.

Geist also feels taking a course online takes away the pressure one might feel in a typical classroom. In addition, she said she benefits from the ability to teach herself by some other means if she does not understand the material based on the textbook or other provided information.

While going to college online may not come with other college experiences, Geist feels that the freedom distance education offers makes up for it.

As a full-time employee and mother, Christina Ford chose to enroll in several distance education classes at Shippensburg in the master’s program for curriculum and instruction in early childhood. It was her second experience, as she had taken one online class while working toward her bachelor’s degree at Slippery Rock University.

She found that different professors had different ways of running their online classes. Most professors, she said, gave students specific dates to turn in specific assignments. One professor just gave students a list of assignments and allowed them to choose when to turn each in; Ford found she did not like this because it encouraged procrastination.

Overall, Ford loved taking online classes because of the convenience.

“I was able to work from my home and still be with my family,” she said.

The future

“Distance education is no longer on the fringe of higher education . It is now in the mainstream of higher education across the country,” Lyman and Sax said in their report.

The Sloan Consortium, an annual report of online learning recently released, shows growth in various areas of online learning, including a significant increase in number of students enrolled (see breakout).

With its ability to reach more people than a traditional classroom, distance education is positioned to aid in the projection that by 2018, 65 percent of jobs will require some type of college education .

“While distance education is not likely to replace traditional face-to-face programs and ‘bricks and mortar’ institutions, it is not possible for the U.S. to meet these goals and needs exclusively through traditional face-to-face means of higher education ,” Lyman and Sax wrote.

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