Researchers look at effects of bringing classes online

<p>Source: Richard Novak</p>

Source: Richard Novak

With the recent partnership between the University and Pearson eCollege, the University has expanded its already large pool of fully online undergraduate and graduate programs, but challenges still remain in the effort to make the experience worthwhile for students.

Erica Boling, associate professor in the Graduate Department of Learning and Teaching, said hurdles are to be expected in the rush to integrate relatively recent information technology into the learning experience, but it will be necessary to do so in the digital age.

The University offers six masters degrees fully online, each between 30 and 42 credits each, said Richard Novak, associate vice president of Continuing Education & Distance Learning.

Each online course costs $100 in addition to the normal per credit rate of $333 for in-state students and $768 for non-residents, and fulfills three credits, Novak said.

He said the money goes toward supporting the infrastructure costs of the online programs and classes to familiarize faculty with the logistics and methods for teaching.

The University has more than 9,000 enrollments for online courses this year, up from around 7,000 last year, Novak said.

Boling said the main complaints students have with online programs is the lack of face-to-face interaction compared to traditional classes.

She said the integration of new multimedia technology, such as audio and visual components, allow for better discussions and a feeling of personal interaction.

Past research shows that online courses have shown a higher dropout rate than regular courses, she said.

“We’re finding we’re maintaining higher enrollments difficult,” she said. “People think, ‘Oh it’s an online course, it’s [going to] be easy,’ and it’s not.”

She said online courses that include audio and visual aspects, however, do not follow the trend.

“We’re doing research. … Students are saying [these classes] feel like part of a community,” she said.

Boling said certain people may learn better or worse with different teaching methods. The common idea that individuals have specific methods of learning, such as audio or visual, which are their only methods of absorbing information is largely untrue.

“There has been criticism of that argument,” she said. “Recent research indicates that we all learn in a variety of ways.”

Boling said offline, small-group learning in a face-to-face environment is highly effective because of the meaningful, personal and efficient way which information is communicated. But when groups get too large, she said it gets increasingly difficult to reach all students in the lecture hall.

She said her large online courses however, allows her to remember her students.

“When I have 30 or 40 students, I find I actually get to know my students better [online],” she said.

Alisa Belzer, associate professor in the Department of Learning and Teaching, said in her experience, incorporating an online aspect has had mixed reactions from students.

“[Graduate] students like the convenience of not having to come to campus, but many students, they’d rather be together,” she said.

She said often, problems students have with online courses come from the poor interface setup in programs created by faculty.

“It’s challenging to transform what you teach [into an online format] … what you lose is the spontaneity and the back and forth,” she said.

Belzer said formats that allow students to take control of discussions and include professors and experts in conversations better simulate in-class learning, but faculty members are often less familiar or comfortable using the Internet for teaching purposes.

The University offers a certificate in educational technology, which consists of three classes to teach educators how to effectively integrate the Internet into their courses, Boling said. Much of the teaching for the program is done online.

The first course focuses primarily on the introduction of new technology to students, while the next two offer more practical instruction on how to use and integrate multimedia into courses.

“One of the things we do is model kinds of ways to communicate and educate, while learning about different technology,” she said. “The courses actually embeds the students in the experience … rather than just reading how to do it effectively, they are doing it themselves.”

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