Learning Outside the Classroom

When Jennifer Williams, 19, took her first online class through Cisco Junior College, she admits she was somewhat skeptical about the experience.

These days, Williams, who is currently taking four such courses at CJC in criminal justice as electives to fill out her associate degree in art, loves taking classes online.

Scheduled to graduate in May, she said the online options fit her lifestyle well because she had a baby in February.

"I needed time at home to do most of my work," said Williams, who also said the online option has been much easier than trying to attend traditional classes while raising a child.

For reasons ranging from convenience to scheduling, many are turning to online classes at two-year and technical colleges in the Big Country, mirroring national trends.

Joe Butler, dean of technology and distance learning at Cisco Junior College, said interest in online classes at his school has grown consistently.

The college has seen a 361 percent bump, based on the way it tracks online numbers, in seats in its online classroom from 2004-2005 to the 2008-2009 spring semester.

Students at the college, which has campuses in Cisco and Abilene, say that the convenience of the course work is a big draw, and some say that it’s the only way they can attain their educational goals, Butler said.

"Some physically cannot get to Abilene or Cisco for a face-to-face class," he said.

But many students, even if they could attend regular classes, prefer the online coursework because it allows them to work on it in their own time, he said.

According to a recent report by the Instructional Technology Council, enrollment in distance-education courses at community colleges grew by 11.3 percent from fall 2006 to fall 2007.

The report found that seven in 10 colleges, out of 139 community colleges across the country, said that student demand exceeded class offerings, and that 74 percent of the schools that responded offer at least one online degree — meaning at least 70 percent of the course work required for the degree was offered on the Internet.

According to the report, 64 percent of colleges plan to increase the number of "blended" courses, for which 30 percent to 79 percent of course content is delivered online, with some face-to-face meetings.

Texas State Technical College, as of January, has begun offering all of its computer programs online, said Susan Bewley, career and education specialist with TSTC-Sweetwater, although students still have the option to have time with instructors in a classroom setting.

The online-only option has drawn great interest, she said, despite not being extensively advertised. Nontraditional students seem particularly attracted to the courses for a variety of reasons, she said, mostly because they can work full time while going to school.

And students who traditionally would be in the classroom also are embracing the model. Some elect to live in the TSTC dorms but take all their classes online, Bewley said. TSTC offers a number of other classes online, including general education.

Britt Canada, dean of institutional research and technology at Western Texas College in Snyder, said the recession, the cost of gas and flexibility attract students to his school’s online offerings, although he said it is often difficult to tabulate an exact number of online students.

"If a student takes one class online and then five in a classroom, how do you count those students?" Canada said.

But Canada said Western Texas sees online classes as the future, a way to expand the school’s reach to other parts of the state and extend its viability.

And like at TSTC, some students live in the college’s dorms but take their classes online, he said.

Currently, the school offers a tableau of online classes, including English, government, history, and math and science. Canada said the school eventually wants to offer a full associate degree online.

"We actually offer biology online, which is kind of an interesting thing," he said.

"You’d think with the labs that would be a difficult thing to do, but we’ve found that you can do a really good job of showing people what they need to look at through the online method. … In a sense, it’s more individualized."

Online classes help students speed past areas they understand and take additional time to work on items they are struggling with, he said.

Cisco offers a variety of courses ranging from general education — English composition, college algebra, government, psychology and sociology — to specialized fields such as criminal justice and child care technology online, Butler said. The college also is looking to offer some online industrial technology classes.

It is theoretically possible for someone to do almost all of the course work for a basic associate degree at Cisco online, Butler said.

The school doesn’t currently offer lab science totally online, instead having a hybridized version that requires students to physically come to class to take the laboratory portion.

"That’s really the piece that we’re missing to offer a general education associate degree," he said.

Sarah Zell, who teaches biology courses online for Cisco, said she was hesitant because "so much of biology is taught in the hands-on labs."

"But we decided that I would put the lecture portion of the class online and still require the students to sign up for a face-to-face lab that meets at the Abilene campus," she said. "This does limit the students who can take my online lecture to those who are in the area, but I think the hands-on part of the lab is too important to turn into a strictly virtual experience like some offer."

Zell said she crafted the class to be as creative, fun and interactive as possible to make best use of the online medium.

"The feedback I’ve received from the students is all very positive," she said.

Some areas, such as criminal justice, have a few classes that simply don’t lend themselves well to online education, Butler said, requiring a face-to-face component.

But despite some limitations, Cisco and other schools like online classes for a variety of reasons, including cost savings on physical space for classrooms, he said.

One online course computer server can handle the needs of 4,000 students, whereas the junior college’s Abilene education center tops out at a capacity of 3,000.

"It’s like a whole other campus, but it resides in this one little server," Butler said.

The proliferation of broadband access has allowed Cisco opportunities to expand its online offerings to include more video, podcasts and other content requiring larger file sizes and download speeds, he said.

Technology also offers students other advantages, such as online office hours for instructors.
The future may offer even more opportunities for area schools.

Kevin Brown, project manager with TSTC’s education technology division, said the technical school is looking at innovative ways to offer online class content, such as using virtual world software Second Life.

Using on-screen avatars that navigate a three-dimensional, infinitely extensible online universe, the technology hasn’t been used for much coursework — yet.

But Brown said many at the school believe it is the future of the online classroom.

Second Life allows for both much of the feel of real-world interaction and instruction, while offering much of the same convenience of other online options.

"It’s an online educational experience, but we’re getting a face-to-face learning outcome out of it," he said.

The technology, at its best, also may allow those who use it a chance to do things that are either too expensive or too dangerous to experience in a real classroom, Brown said.

Butler said students involved in online classes need to be self-motivated and organized, and the Instructional Technology Council report said the completion rate for online work lags behind that of traditional courses, with the retention rate for online classes being 65 percent, compared with 72 percent in face-to-face meetings.

But the right student can thrive in the online environment.

Williams said she has enjoyed taking classes online, adding that the information sticks with her better because of the necessary level of personal involvement.

"They let you learn at your own pace," she said of the experience. "And it stays with you a little more because you’re teaching yourself." (Reporter News)

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