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[November 26, 2006]
Off campus online: Distance learning becoming more popular among students who work, have families
(Modesto Bee, The (CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Nov. 26--Jeremy Whitley's best friend is his dry-erase board.
The board keeps him organized, which is key because Whitley is taking 18 units at Modesto Junior College this semester -- a full load of six classes.
And he's doing it all from home, like millions of Americans taking advantage of booming distance learning programs offered by local colleges.
One in six college students -- about 3.2 million people -- took at least one online course last fall, according to The Sloan Consortium, a group of institutions committed to quality online education.
Whitley lives with his parents and siblings. While he doesn't work, he helps out at home by baby-sitting his nephew and running errands for his family.
"I help everyone else and do school when I have time," Whitley said.
Before the Internet, distance learning programs were offered through mail and on TV and radio. As technology made computers run faster and the Internet became cheaper and more accessible, they grew exponentially.
"The Internet made distance learning sexy and respectable," said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education Training Council.
College students pay the same fees and buy the same textbooks as those in traditional classroom courses.
Modesto Junior College has 156 online courses scheduled for the spring semester; San Joaquin Delta College offers hundreds. California State University, Stanislaus, is offering 25 this school year as part of the campus's pilot program. The University of California at Merced has no online program, while Columbia and Merced colleges offer a few online classes each.
Popular degree programs for distance learners include business, criminal justice and health care administration.
The convenience and accessibility of distance learning is unparalleled, especially for students who work full time or have families. Students have access tonotes, lectures and activities around the clock.
"If I want to do it at 10 o'clock at night, I can, or 5 o'clock in the morning, I can," MJC student Louise Kaster said.
Hundreds of studies contradict the perception that distance learning is easier than being in the classroom.
But distance learning programs can be easy targets for cheaters and companies that offer phony classes. Online classes also are expensive for colleges to offer -- licensing software and technology support for faculty and students is costly.
It can also take more time for instructors to prepare online coursework.
Kaster goes to class before she cooks dinner, while she's working and on the weekends.
The Newman mother of three adult sons is back at school pursuing her teaching credential. In her 40s, Kaster works as a nanny during the day, completing schoolwork while the 2-year-old she watches takes naps.
"If I had to commute to go to school with all that, I think it would limit the number of classes I could take," she said.
MJC uses WebCT, a Web-based virtual campus where people submit assignments and chat with instructors and peers.
After enrolling in classes, students visit their class's Web site through a program such as WebCT. Students can click on icons for homework, quizzes or units. Units usually are divided by week and include notes, directions for assignments and chapters of textbook reading.
This fall, Kaster is enrolled in five classes at MJC, including introduction to theater. To get the same experience of theater, online students are required to attend performances and write reviews, Kaster said.
Kaster spends at least four to five hours working online Saturday and Sunday and at least an hour a day on weekdays.
Distance learning allows Whitley to baby-sit his nephew and run errands for family members throughout the day, studying in between tasks.
In three semesters, he's completed 45 units. Whitley hopes to continue at Stanislaus State and earn a bachelor's degree in business administration.
"Now, it's a challenge. I want to see if I can graduate (from MJC) without going into the classroom," he said.
Online classes can encourage more discussion from students who feel intimidated when they speak to large groups.
"I can say what I want to say," Kaster said of online chats. "Discussion and interaction between students can be better. You're able to communicate more and there's more time to think about what you want to say."
But it's also harder to meet fellow students.
"You don't make as many friends when you're just online," Whitley acknowledged.
Sage onstage or sideline guide?
"When you're face-to-face, the instructor has a more powerful presence," said Jim Clarke, coordinator of distance education at MJC. "Online, the instructor is a guide on the side. Students learn more, it's more student-centered. The student takes on more of the responsibility for learning."
A lecturing instructor is referred to as a sage on the stage -- where they take on most of the responsibility for engaging student attention, motivation and learning.
"There's a lot of studying you actually have to do. No one's telling you what to do," Whitley said. "The dry-erase board is my best friend. It keeps me organized. I write all my deadlines and passwords on it."
Success at online courses means being disciplined and motivated.
"It's a lot harder to teach yourself," he added.
Stefani Clayton, 31, said she started taking classes at MJC because she wasn't getting anywhere without a college degree. Clayton wants to eventually teach English at the college level.
With four children, ages 8 to 14, attending traditional classes is difficult, if not impossible, she said.
"I have two kids in traditional school and two kids in year-round school. It's a whole lot easier not having to deal with child care," Clayton said.
Clayton said she works online from 7 a.m. to noon Monday through Saturday.
"It's all the same work. I like it because you can work independently. In class, there's a lot of distractions, people interrupt the instructor, they have to slow down for people," Clayton said.
Because programs at local colleges still are developing, officials don't have exact data on their online students.
Eighty percent of online students are undergraduates, generally older and more likely to be working and with families, according to a survey by Eduventures, a consulting and research firm. Only half pursue online degrees, illustrating a trend to mix online and classroom learning.
"It's hard to get your entire degree online," Clarke said.
The target age group for most distance learning programs is 25- to 34-year-olds.
After graduating from high school, Erin Bishop went to college for a year but dropped out. Now 28, she's working for an accountant in Turlock and hopes to transfer to Stanislaus State to get her bachelor's degree in accounting.
Bishop gets home from work at about 5 p.m., then works on the Internet for about three hours a night, and spends the majority of weekends studying and reading, she said.
Because of the increasing cost of a college education, many more students, young and old, are working to put themselves through school.
"Who can really go to school and not work?" Bishop asked.
Online vs. traditional instruction
Observers expect distance learning to grow because it's now legal to use federal financial aid for online courses.
But classroom instruction probably won't be phased out. Online classes are just another way for colleges to meet all of their students' needs.
Most programs combine online and classroom instruction, offering hybrid classes. Bishop takes classes that combine online and classroom time. She's taking an accounting class that meets once a week for lectures.
MJC officials are not pushing instructors to teach classes online, but they do offer training for those who want to utilize the medium. Most instructors want to use whatever tools will add to their students' learning.
Training will help increase professors' comfort with online teaching programs and decrease the gap between students and their less-technologically inclined professors.
"I've noticed the generational gap lessening in the five or six years I've been at Stan State," professor Dennis Sayers said. "I've seen a lot more of an effort on the part of faculty to use technology."
Programs such as Blackboard and MJC's WebCT are password-protected to prohibit the whole online community from viewing a professor's lesson plans. MJC also offers an online help desk 24 hours a day.
College professors also are taking advantage of other distance learning tools such as mobile learning and podcasting.
"People just don't have as much time to sit themselves down in front of a computer as they might need, but they do spend a lot of time driving and listening," Sayers said.
Not for everyone
Not every student will find online courses valuable and not every class can be taught online.
"I know I should be in the classroom environment for my weaker subjects," Kaster said. "And some classes aren't even offered online."
Some classes won't work online, including those that rely heavily on labs or activities. Sayers teaches credential classes for soon-to-be teachers and said those are almost impossible to adapt for distance learning.
Even though labs are more hands-on, several colleges and universities require students to complete virtual labs beforehand to increase safety, Clarke said.
Whitley and his mom enrolled in the same art appreciation class at MJC -- his was online, hers met in the classroom.
"My mom's a more visual person, so being in the classroom fit her better," Whitley said.
When trying out a distance learning program, students need to be sure it is accredited by a legitimate organization.
Between 300 and 400 accrediting agencies are phony and more than 1,000 diploma mills are fake, according to the Distance Education Training Council.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org) offers a list of real distance learning programs.
Sometimes, students find their own way of cheating the system. With online courses, there's no way to tell for sure who is completing a student's assignments or taking tests.
"There are ways to cheat, someone else can take your (online) test," Whitley said.
That's why some professors require students to take quizzes and exams in person.
Students gain from distance learning classes what they put into them.
"It's something everyone should try and see if it's for them," Whitley said.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at 578-2339 or email@example.com.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Modesto Bee, Calif.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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