Utah schools use technology to expand, enhance education

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

A new Regional Campuses and Distance Education building will openat Utah State University this fall.


SALT LAKE CITY — Students at Utah's colleges and universities will find more educational options than ever when they return this fall as schools increase the number of online and hybrid courses being offered.

They're benefitting from the growth of distance education, which includes online classes, interactive video conferencing (IVC), and hybrid courses that blend a classroom setting with a strong online component.

"Whether (distance education) is their first choice or their last choice it's another option," said Dan Clark, senior director of Distance Education at Utah Valley University, where the program has grown to keep up with the press of students seeking an education at the school.

Utah Valley University has roughly 33,000 students, Clarke said. Last fall, 38 percent of students participated in some form of distance learning and this year that number is expected to top 40 percent. 

Cory Stokes, director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Utah, said online enrollment has grown exponentially in the past five years.

"In 2001 we had about 1,200 students in online classes," he said. "This fall we expect to have 12,000."

Stokes said there are relatively few students at the university, roughly 200, who solely take online courses. The vast majority, he said, will register for one or two courses online to augment their campus schedules. The university currently offers 315 courses online and 10 to 15 are added each year.

"It's tough for students to work a job, pay their tuition and make time to attend classes," Stokes said.

Andrea Jensen, director of WSU Online, said Weber State has been offering online courses for 15 years and, like the University of Utah, has seen rapid growth. In 1997, there were 77 students enrolled in online courses. This fall there will be more than 12,000 students, which means that 38 percent of the student body will be enrolled in at least one course online.

At BYU, online courses have been offered for years in the form of "independent study," where students are not bound by a semester calendar and work under their own pace and direction to achieve academic goals. Students also pay to take those courses in addition to their full-time tuition.

But this year, BYU will test out the typical online model by offering 12 courses for students that are included in regular tuition and are completed within a semester calendar with faculty and classmate interaction, Independent Study director John Taylor said.

Each of the 12 courses, which cover mostly general education subjects, has 25 "seats" available and filled up within days of being offered, Taylor said. If successful, Taylor said more classes will likely be offered online in the future.

"It's a very significant difference for us this year," Taylor said. "We're really looking forward to it."

But Stokes said the growth in online course enrollments is expected to eventually plateau. He said a larger, emerging trend in higher education is hybrid courses that combine the social elements of a classroom setting with the advantages of online technology. Hybrid courses, he said, combine the strengths of different teaching methods and allow opportunities for students to get out of the classroom for hands-on learning.

"The hybrid really changes the way a course can be taught," he said.

At Utah Valley University, Clark said there has been a push for faculty to enhance their courses with technology. He said his staff holds a Hybrid Course Boot Camp where they help faculty identify the best delivery methods – such as online or face-to-face instruction – for key concepts and offer incentives for moving toward 50 percent of their course delivery being done online.

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