Distance, online learning on the rise

Distance and online learning are steadily growing among students seeking a flexible educational opportunity, according to the Instructional Technology Council.

This year at Youngstown State University, 1,798 students are enrolled in online classes, a 39 percent increase from fall 2010.

At YSU, the course completion rate for distance education is 80.5 percent, and course completion for traditional classes stands at 80.1 percent.

Sal Sanders, an associate professor in health professions, teaches online and traditional classes. He said the comparable rates “reflect the fact that we’ve learned a lot more about how to run a distance learning course and how to provide support for students.”

Annette Burden, interim distance education director, said in an email that her concerns with distance learners are the same as many distance education directors.

“Are the learners who take online courses self-motivated, organized, able to work on their own without continual intervention and willing to ask questions?” Burden asked.

According to an online education survey done by the Babson Survey Research Group, more than half of the academic leaders who participated believe that “face-to-face instruction is ‘superior’ or ‘somewhat superior’ in supporting student-to-student interaction.”

However, 80 percent of academic leaders believe that online learning is better for students to work at their own pace.

Sanders said a distance learner must have strong computer skills.

He added that he remembers a student who was signed up for two online courses but  had trouble logging into the online course.

“It turned out that he was typing the Web address into Google instead of the Web browser,” Sanders said.

Sanders suggested that the student take a basic computer course before attempting online classes. During the phone call with this student, Sanders heard a child crying in the background.

“[The student] said, ‘That is why I cannot wait. I need to get my degree,'” Sanders said.

Sanders added that online classes could be convenient for some students.  

“Especially here, we have single parents and students with families,” Sanders said.

Sanders mentioned students enrolled in online courses who also hold down full-time jobs and are considered professionals in their field.

Sanders said he believes that students have the ability to retain information taught via online courses. He said that, in many cases, he has more interaction with students in his online classes than in his classroom.

“In a classroom, there might be five students leading the discussions. Online, I am interacting with each of them individually,” Sanders said.

Burden said one of the misconceptions that students should consider when deciding to take an online class is that it might not be easier than a face-to-face course.

“Often, it is more rigorous than a face-to-face course,” she said.

She advised that the students treat the online course like a virtual classroom.

“So make a time commitment to get into your classroom several times per week as you would in a traditional setting,” Burden said.

Sanders said some distance learning courses exsist that require students to present a final presentation on campus. However, there is a cut off with the distance.

For example, he said he had a student from Germany who presented a project via Skype.

“In a perfect world, we would have loved to fly out to her,” Sanders said.