By JAMIE DAVIS
El Dorado NEWS-TIMES, Thursday, August 9, 2007
As the Internet has taken on an increasingly large role in modern education, and as gas prices continue to increase, distance learning is becoming more common among U.S. two-year colleges, according to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics.
According to the study, there were more than three million enrollments in all online courses offered by two- and four-year institutions in 2006. The NCES study indicates that public two-year institutions have the greatest number of enrollments in distance education courses, with almost 1.5 million students opting for online classes.
Among the reasons cited by the NCES for the increase in popularity of Internet classes is the modern student’s struggle to balance educational needs with job and family responsibilities, health issues, and financial wcrries.
South Arkansas Community College, like most of today’s two- and four-year colleges, has made distance learning available as a response to students’ preferences for the ease and comfort of learning at home and on their own schedules.
“The reason the popularity for online classes is growing is that there is no drive, there’s no gas costs. You don’t have to be on campus at a certain time. For those eight-to-fIvers, they can work all day and come in and have dinner with the family, watch some TV and send the kids to bed. Then they can get online and do their homework for a couple of hours. It works toward their schedule,” said Terry Patterson, Director of Distance Learning at SouthArk.
Such classes at SouthArk are offered through a campus website called Blackboard, said Patterson. Blackboard allows students to upload assignments, take quizzes and exams, post comments and questions about course material to class discussion boards and communicate with classmates and instructors via e-mail.
“It’s not a difficult process,” said Patterson. “Blackboard is a learning management system. It’s a website where you log in and you access your course. It allows you to exchange e-mails, post discussion board topics and articles, read materials. You can watch videos, save your files. It’s specifically geared toward education.”
Though there are many advantages to online classes, they are not for everyone, Patterson warned. Students should exhibit at least a basic knowledge of computer and Internet use before enrolling because the computer is an integral part of the online classroom, said Patterson.
“That’s one of the things we look at is to see if the student is competent and ready, because if they’re not, we need to make sure they are,” said Patterson. “A student who understands what is expected is going to go into that class and not panic halfway through or realize it’s too much. If they have the basic computer skills they need, if they’ve worked around computers in the last two years, if they feel comfortable on the Internet, that’s what is important. They
do have to have those basic computer skills.”
Even if a student is familiar with computer basics, there still exists a need for self-discipline, said Patterson.
“A student can’t just come in and take an online class,” said Patterson. “That’s one of the first things I get concerned about. When a student takes a course, are they taking it because they think an online course is easy? Because it’s not. You have to be a very independent person. You have to be able to learn things, to have to want to push yourself. Many people sometimes just look at the good reasons to take an online class, and they never think about the
other issues they have to deal with.”
Patterson said the successful online student is able to meet deadlines and follow a regular study schedule without becoming easily frustrated.
“They’ve got to be able to set their own schedule and keep to it. If they schedule themselves to study three hours everyday working on their class, they need to keep that consistent because if they fall behind in their studies, they become more nervous and frustrated,” said Patterson. “There are some students who, just because the first exam they take doesn’t work properly, they get frustrated.”
Patterson said distance learning is not only beneficial to students, it is also cost effective for the school. “Think about it. You don’t have to spend money on a new building. The only power you use is a computer box and a server. You don’t have to have a security guard to keep the offices open. You don’t have to have desks and chairs and projectors. There’s no increase in gas, water, or power usage and costs. All those things that we expect a classroom to have, they don’t have to be there because they’re built into the software,” said Patterson. “It makes a very good return on the investment for any college or university. The University of Phoenix is the largest university in the country, and that’s why.”
Although some critics of distance learning claim the virtual classroom reduces the amount of quality interaction between the students and the instructor, Patterson said the exact opposite is usually true.
“I think the issue they’re stating is that the faculty member is not creating communication. In my opinion, there has to be communication to have learning. The instructor establishes quantitative and qualitative goals. Tell them what you’re going to teach them, teach them, then tell them what you’ve just taught them,” said Patterson. “Also, there are discussion boards in the classes, and the anonymity in those discussions can be good for students.
One of the most important things is there are some subjects you wouldn’t talk about in a face-to-face class that you will taik about in an online class. Hot-button topics like abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, some people feel uncomfortable saying things about those topics in front of other people, so giving them the edge room to be able to say their opinions, you’ll get extremely good discussions going, and that enhances student understanding of materials.”
Critics of distance learning have also chimed that there is a high potential for cheating and plagiarism in online courses. Patterson said while this claim is somewhat true, then, are products and methods used to prevent such occurrences at SouthArk.
“As online learning becomes more popular, the issue of cheating has come about, and so to deter these types of issues, we have technology that lets us know who’s doing what and allows us to be able to track the students and make it where it is not as easy to cheat,” said Patterson.
“There are people who will cheat, and there are pecple who will think about cheating, andwe want to at least deter the people who are thinking about it.”
Apart from technology that tracks a student’s movements within the system, Patterson said he also advocates unique wording in online exams and assignments.
“Sometimes what you’ve got to do is, for example, define Newton’s Fifth Law of Inertia, and then ask the student to describe how it applies to their daily life. You make them not only think, but also appiy the knowledge in their own words,” said Patterson.
“If you know how a person writes, and they immediately change, the teacher knows there’s a problem. You have a writing style, and I have a writing style. If you were to write a paper for me for my class, the instructor would know that I didn’t write it, that I cheated. So there are ways to deter it.”