Online learning: Wave of the future or demise of the academy?

Published: Saturday, June 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Raj Nisankarao, president of the National Business Association, suggests that students look at the curriculum of the class and the type of class to make sure an online version would be an appropriate one. He said different businesses will look at online classes in different ways but many want students who have had extensive online experience and may look at online classes as a plus.

Lauren Fowler, professor at Weber State, has been teaching at least one online class a semester for the last several years. She said she usually chooses to teach a lower-level class online because she believes she interacts better with upper-level students face-to-face. But Fowler also would not recommend first-semester freshmen to take online courses because "they are already overwhelmed with how difficult college is," she said.

Fowler suggests that there be an online preparedness quiz before signing up for an online class because she's had some students email her up to four weeks into the semester who haven't ordered the book yet and are just starting the class.

Yet Fowler believes online education will continue to grow because it allows anyone, anywhere to take college courses.

In fact, colleges say the rapid online growth is fueled mostly by students.

Salt Lake Community Colleges said the demand has been such that a few years ago the college decided that 25 percent of the classes would be online. As of 2010, they were No. 2 in the state in the number of students taking online classes.

UVU's vice president of academic affairs, Ian Wilson, said he originally thought students were registering for online classes as a fall back, but over the years, he said, the online courses have often been the first sections to fill up. Students lives have gotten busier, he said, and about three-fourths of UVU students now work at least part-time so having more flexibility when it comes to taking classes has become more important. In the fall of 2010, nearly a third of all UVU students took at least one class online, said Mike Rigert, spokesman for the school.

This much growth in classes is quite extraordinary, said Bill Byrnes, associate provost for Southern Utah University. Normally a new class takes months to create and be considered and goes through lots of committees, he said. Next year, SUU will offer 117 classes online.

Continued online growth in Utah's public higher ed seems inevitable, though. Even Utah's 2020 Higher Ed plan — to have 66 percent of 25- to 64-year-old Utahns with a post-secondary degree or certificate — names online programs as one of a few ways to accomplish this. "Online learning is going to remain part of the future of education at all levels and will remain an important way higher education is delivered," said Gary Wixom, Assistant Commissioner for Academic Affairs for the Utah System of Higher Education.

Yet universities like Southern Utah and Weber State say they are planning on meeting as a college soon to discuss what kind of growth they really want online courses to have.

Weber State said at least right now, it takes as much time, if not more time, out of the professor's day to teach an online course. Not only are the teachers often in constant contact with students, answering their questions and concerns, but they are also vigilantly adding more interactive tools to their classes.

April Hoyt, 31 and mother of four, is grateful for the opportunity she has had to get her education online. Hoyt is currently finishing up an online degree in communicative and deaf disorder at Utah State.

Even though she said she would rather take classes in the classroom to get the interaction with professors and peers, she said it would have taken her twice as long to take in-class courses.

"I would just be starting my degree in the fall if it weren't an option," Hoyt said. "I am just glad this is available to people like me."

EMAIL: slenz@desnews.com

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere