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

Published: Saturday, June 25 2011 12:39 a.m. MDT

University of Phoenix student Trevor Hansen studies at his Salt Lake City home Thursday.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Trevor Hansen plops down in front of his small oak desk, flips open his silver laptop and starts emailing his classmate about a project due Monday.

There's a motocross poster on the wall, a snowboard in the corner and a framed picture of him pushing his niece on a swing on the top of his desk.

The 25-year-old Salt Lake City resident just got home from an eight-hour workday and will be leaving for a softball tournament in about an hour, but he has a little bit of time to work on his online class.

"It's really convenient," Hansen says of finishing his bachelor's in finance degree online. "I don't really like going to class, and I wanted to work more."

Over the last several years, more and more students are taking the same route. More than 100,000 college students in Minnesota are now taking classes online. From 2005 to 2010, the number of Utah public college students taking classes online jumped by about 15,000, according to Utah System of Higher Education Data. And innovators like Henry J. Eyring, BYU-Idaho administrator, and Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard Business professor, authors of the new book, "The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out," say that to be competitive in the future, colleges need to embrace high-quality online courses.

Yet some students and professors are still leery of online classes.

Hansen is afraid that a number of employers may not view an online education the same as they do a traditional college experience. Other students like Jarom Moore of Orem say they don't like the format of online classes. And there are professors nationally and in Utah who refuse to teach classes online, calling them "inferior."

Elayne Clift, a writer, journalist and adjunct professor currently living in Vermont, said she taught an online class a couple years ago and vowed never to do it again.

"All the joy of teaching and the deep importance of learning cannot happen very readily in an online environment," Clift said. "I think it is part of the demise of the academy, part of the crisis of higher education."

Clift, who has taught college writing courses since the late 1980s in schools like Yale, Emerson and Payap University in Thailand, said online courses are part of the "dumming-down" of academia and that she saw more plagiarism happen when she taught her online class.

Yet schools across the country are finding ways to make online classes more interactive and are finding that many students prefer it.

BYU-Idaho launched a new online learning program late last month called Pathway, which is geared toward 18- to 30-year-olds who have not earned an associate's or bachelor's degree but are interested in doing so. Students are eased into the college experience with a light load of online classes the first year and a weekly study group with the other 15 to 20 students at their location, said Andy Cargal, spokesman for the university. There are currently about 22 sites around the nation where the Pathway Program is offered and two international locations. The university plans to expand the program by about 10 sites each year.

Weber State University, which had the most public college students taking online courses in the state as of 2010 with over 7,150 enrolled, now offers two-hour professional development courses twice a month to help professors develop better online courses, said Gail Niklason, associate of continuing education at the university. They learn about incorporating video and other interactive tools. She said 90 full-time faculty members out of about 480 have been through the training over the last five years.

Many organizations warn students to research their classes before taking them, especially if the university is online only. Several lawsuits have been filed over the last several months against for-profit colleges, which often have a big online base, over best practices and validity.

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

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