Popularity of online classes

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By Derek Rich

By Derek Rich

With the face of college education constantly retooling itself to reflect 21st century technologies, more students are incorporating trips down the information superhighway into their RCC plans, according to figures released by the Open Campus Department.

In a snapshot taken on the Sept. 21 census date, online courses had 4,711 enrolled seats in 186 course sections – up from last fall’s 4,164 occupied slots in 147 sections. In stark comparison, the current data shows a 35 percent increase from the 3,072 registered in Internet-based classes in the fall 2003 semester. When the program began in 1999, it included a mere 105 seats, distributed among three sections.

Glen Brady, RCC’s director of Distance Education, sees the rise as evidence of a changing-of-the-guard.

“Distance education started with telecourses and it’s evolved and progressed from there,” said Brady. “The surveys show that even our basic telecourse students have Web access, so we’re trying to encourage our instructors to offer online content.”

The numbers did little to contradict this theory. A study of 287 telecourse students conducted last year found that 95-percent of its participants had Internet access, but Brady quickly inferred that situational factors played a far greater role.

“We’re offering students more ways to take a course – based on their lifestyle,” said Brady. “Whether they’re working part-time or full-time, with kids at home and things like that, we’re offering them more opportunities to get their education.”

The results of a second survey – taken with a focus group of 927 online students in the fall of 2004 -characterized the courses’ appeal to both the blue-and-white collar crowds. Fifty-two percent of its respondents reported having daytime job shifts, during the hours when most traditional, face-to-face RCC classes are offered. Forty-two percent said their work schedules exceeded 40-hours per week.

Alysia Holness, took five online courses at RCC before transferring to the University of California-Riverside and had nothing but praise for the system.

“The online classes were better for me because they gave more flexibility,” said Holness, noting that the lack of a rigid lecture schedule made it easier for her to arrange life around her workload accordingly.However, not everyone shares this perception.

“Most college students don’t have the attention span to take an online class, and those who say they do are lying,” said student Chris McNutt. “I’m five assignments behind in my calculus class and don’t even know what’s going on anymore. A class you don’t have to show up for? Do you know how far behind I’d fall in the first week?!”

Student Andrea Feaster’s sentiments fell into a similar camp. Feaster tried to take a psychology course through the Open Campus program last year, but said that she withdrew once it became apparent that she lacked the discipline to remain current with the material.

“I don’t have problems in the ones I physically go to … but I need other people in my classes to help me out with questions. I need a teacher there that I can actually talk to,” said Feaster, adding that she wouldn’t recommend the program to any first-time junior college student. “I think that, at the start, you need to find out what your own studying style is – because it changes from high school to college.”

The issues of self-motivation aren’t the only question marks surrounding RCC’s booming digital classrooms. Like their chalkboard counterparts, online classes are plagued by concerns about academic integrity – maybe even more so, given that the lack of officials to monitor test-taking situations could encourage more dishonesty.

“I’ve known people who have cheated,” said Holness, noting that she once knew a pair of students who traded online test-taking duties to accommodate their own individual course-specific aptitudes.

“One would take the other’s history exams, then the other would return the favor on math tests … but, truthfully, it does depend on the teacher and how careful and strict he or she is,” Holness said.

Prof. David Baker, who is teaching five online sociology courses this semester, adapted his curriculum to deal with such scenarios.

“My problem with online (classes) is that they’re not that amenable to community college students,” said Baker. “In my courses, they have a lot of reading and writing to do, because I don’t give exams. I don’t trust the system with exams, since I don’t know who’s taking them.”

However, according to Open Campus Dean Bob Bramucci, district measures against academic dishonesty are – at best – more deterrent than punitive.

“If you let people know ‘hey – I really care about academic honesty and I’m going to enforce it,’ I think that that has a preventative effect,” said Bramucci, noting that the campus already subscribes to state-of-the-art anti-plagiarism software, which can be utilized at RCC officials’ discretion. However, Bramucci conceded that the bulk of the responsibility with regard to both combating cheating issues and improving the online experience does fall on the instructors’ shoulders.”If you set up a course with only three major assignments – a project, midterm and a final, for example – you’re much more likely to get who people who try to get a ringer to take a test for them,” Bramucci said, adding that the district also offers specific training seminars for potential online instructors. “When you have four-to-five assessments in a course every week, good luck trying to get your friend to take 65 tests for you.”With the Open Campus growth showing no signs of slowing down, Bramucci views the program as a work-in-progress, a situation that depends largely on the availability of new innovations and enhanced communications between its operators in its ongoing process of becoming more streamlined.

“Just as we can’t force faculty members to teach online, we can’t tell them how to deal with specific issues in their classes,” Bramucci said. “What you do, though, is find the money to secure the tools, then make those tools available for them to use.”

Tools that are, both in the present and future, necessary to perfect what he views as an educational sea change.

“I really think what it is – at heart – it’s a revolution,” Bramucci said. “College has always meant rearranging your life to get this very valuable thing … I think the fundamental change is now you’re rearranging school around your life.”

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