CHAMPAIGN – Like a growing number of students at Parkland College, Arthur Baker and Alex Adcock opt for convenience, and they're earning credits online this summer, not in a classroom.
Baker, a University of Illinois sophomore business major, said he signed up for a summer psychology class because he had to fulfill a requirement and wanted to get it out of the way.
"It was a great course," he said. "The pace was steady but reasonable so I could procrastinate or just get it done. I took it with two friends, Kyle Rose and Rich Thompson, and we helped each other out with the hard parts. We had good feedback from our teacher, and the quizzes were clean. I want to be a lawyer, so I think that class will help me out."
Adcock, a Parkland student who's looking at majoring in digital media, did a lot of studying for his art appreciation class at work at Parkland manning a computer help desk.
"Most classes have discussion boards so you have the feeling of being in a classroom," said Adcock, who's taken several online classes before. "You can learn some things in an hour that would take two hours in a classroom."
Numbers tell the story about the rapid, consistent growth in interest in Parkland online classes and those that are hybrids, requiring students to spend some time in class.
The first year they were offered, 1996-97, enrollment was 165. The trend really took off in the 1999-2000 school year when online enrollments grew by more than 100 percent to 1,987. Last school year, enrollments online totaled 10,911.
According to Admissions Director Mike Henry's most recent report to the Parkland board, the head count in online classes increased 7.6 percent from spring semester 2005 to spring semester 2006 – from 2,985 students in spring, 2005, to 3,212 students in spring 2006.
Headcount is much lower than class enrollments because many students take more than one class online.
Henry said he expects that growth to continue. He said education forecasters are calling the next wave of students coming up to college "the gamers" because they grew up playing computer video games.
"This seems to be the way people are wanting to do things now," Henry said. "A lot of the initial growth online was for graduate students, but now it's come down to the other levels. Also, I think because of economic things going on like gas prices, students at commuter campuses might consider taking a class online before they consider driving to campus.
"It's a way to work in credits while you're doing other things."
Tom Ramage, vice president for academic services, said he's been predicting for five years that online enrollment would slow down. "I've been wrong for five years," Ramage said.
He said most students enrolled online intend to transfer to a four-year college. Many, like Baker, are UI students who want to pick up extra credits, some are high school students earning college credit and some are enrolled at other universities and sign up for Parkland classes because they like the class – or the teacher.
"At a university in Tennessee, the nursing program found out about our Chemistry for Health Professionals class and 15 to 20 students were enrolling every semester," Ramage said.
Ramage said the first Parkland class offered online in 1996 was Jim McGowan's English composition class.
"They were experiments," said Ramage, who joined the Parkland staff in 1998. "Faculty members had to do everything by hand. But it was evident to college leadership that this was a trend worth tracking. I was hired to promote it. I did it in a nonstandard way. Instead of creating training programs for faculty we concentrated on supporting faculty.
"We gave them free rein and said, 'What do you need from us to help you do what you want to do. You're the architects. We bought lots of software, everything they needed. We made recommendations. Faculty members loved it. Enrollment doubled every semester."
Through trial and error and as technology rapidly improved, Ramage and faculty learned what works online and what doesn't work.
"You can't learn to weld online," he said. "It's hands-on. So are many nursing classes. Speech 101 had an interesting evolution. We tried putting it online, doing speeches on videotape, but the students got creative. They edited. Their audience was the dog."
"It's difficult to do a speech without a live audience. Now students in that class do coursework on computers but they come in five times a semester to do speeches. At some point, we'll probably do speeches at a distance via interactive video."
Ramage said Parkland has now put almost every class online that works, but enrollment continues to grow because the college hires new teachers to open up new class sections.
"Now 10 percent of all the credits earned at Parkland are earned online or in hybrid classes," he said. "All our departments have something online. About 80 percent of our students enrolled online are also enrolled in traditional courses using online for scheduling flexibility."
Brett Coup, director of distance and visual learning, said online learning eases classroom space because students working on computers at home aren't occupying seats.
"We're looking at how to get students who are more distant," Coup said. "We have the potential to teach students all over North America."
He's seen it happen. One student who moved to Florida finished her degree online, meeting the speech class requirement by taking it at her local community college.
"We have a connection with Franklin University, and a student can get a degree here and transfer to Franklin which has a lot of classes online," Coup said. "Some students could get a bachelor's degree taking everything online and finding a local community college for that one speech class."
Coup said he's had a number of students from other countries enrolled. Most are UI students who've gone home for the summer but want to earn extra credit, but since the U.S. has been in conflicts abroad, he's also seen military members in classes.
"We see students on active duty in Iraq," Coup said. "They were pulled out of classes to go there. We feel like we're doing something useful for them."
Biology teacher John Moore said he was interested early in online classes, and his pathophysiology class was one of the first online. But Moore took it off in 2003, in part because he likes to see the people he's teaching and in part because he was uncomfortable with the security of distance testing. But even though he sees weaknesses in the system, he also sees strengths.
"I had a student in Germany," he said. "One year, I had most of an entire nursing program from a southern university. You can literally teach students in other countries."
Moore's working on a new online class in cross-sectional anatomy.
"It deals with images and X-rays," he said. "It will be offered to Parkland students in radiologic technology who will take tests on computers in a supervised room. The beautiful thing is, they can study and test at 2 p.m., 9 a.m., whenever they want."
Center uses a team approach
Parkland College's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning focuses on online learning because its mission is to help teachers improve student learning – and their own.
"We look at technology as another learning tool, and we try to design courses with student learning in mind," said Associate Vice President Fay Rouseff-Baker, head of the Center.
"Students have different learning styles. Some are auditory, some are visual. We try to cover every type of learner in online classes with things like chat rooms, conferencing, Web sites."
Rouseff-Baker's office houses technical experts to help teachers design online classes to accomplish that goal.
"We advocate a lot of assessments during a course to find out what's working and what's not," she said. "We're all about supporting, enhancing, asking questions. Teachers learn good course design, and they're mentored by other faculty members. We have people who will do all the work for them."'
The center holds workshops to introduce new faculty members to new technology. Rouseff-Baker said she expects online learning to grow.
"We're exploring other areas to offer," she said. "And people who use the technology are thinking about new ways to use it. I know retired faculty members who want to continue to learn, and this might be right for them."
Rouseff-Baker's excited about a new plan to use online classes and other resources to help students who come to Parkland not prepared to do college-level work get up to speed.
"Some assume online just won't work for those students, but we're making visuals so learning isn't 100 percent reading for students with reading deficits," she said. "I think we'll have some success. Students learn better when they're engaged."
Rouseff-Baker said faculty members using the technology get other faculty members excited about it. "I'm passionate about this," she said. "It's exciting to see faculty members as learners along with their students."