Worcester Telegram & Gazette News - Online college courses skyrocketing

Worcester Telegram & Gazette News - Online college courses skyrocketing

Whether you're 14 or 44, odds are increasing that you will take an online course at some point in your educational or professional career. The classroom experience will include a lax dress code and a professor who doesn't really care what time you arrive or whether you interrupt the lecture to make dinner, board a plane or go to work. The "campus" is as big as your computer and goes anywhere you can carry it, from soccer practice to Iraq.

That convenience has everyone from high school students to professionals wedging laptops into diaper bags or suitcases and registering by the thousands for online classes. Shrewsbury-based UMassOnline had 16,400 enrollments last year. Massachusetts Colleges Online, the consortium of state and community colleges, has 11,000 to 15,000 enrollments a semester. Add private schools and for-profit companies, and the offerings are staggering.

Colleges, including a local community college and a state college, offer entire degree programs online, and a national report released last week showed slightly more than one-third of public school districts enrolled students in "distance" education courses (via audio, video or Internet) in the 2002-03 school year.

The courses appeal to people who wouldn't have access to them otherwise, but their flexibility even draws students in college dorms who find it more convenient to take a class at 11 p.m. than at 8:30 a.m.

It might sound like a social and academic redefinition of the school experience, and experts said it isn't for everyone. But with 56 percent of all colleges and universities offering distance education in the 2000-01 school year, up from about 33 percent three years earlier, the increase is clear.

Donna M. Ballentine of New Salem is among those driving up the numbers.

She's taking online classes for her associate's degree in business management from Mount Wachusett Community College and already is researching an online bachelor's degree at the University of Massachusetts. She pays the same rate she would for on-campus courses and uses the same curriculum. When she graduates, her transcript will not indicate whether a course was taken online or in the classroom.

Ms. Ballentine uses a wheelchair because of an injury and is raising her grandchildren, so online learning makes it far easier for her to do the coursework. But even when she's done with the wheelchair, she said, she'd keep studying online; she doesn't miss the on-campus experience.

"I'm 47. I'm not a young teenager. I'm very involved with stuff besides" school, she said, referring to her church and the local board of health.

That's a typical response from online learners, according to P. Bradley Nutting, coordinator for the Liberal Studies Program at Framingham State College, the program into which online students from Mount Wachusett can transfer for an online bachelor's degree.

"Traditionally, the people who have gone into the program were people who had been in the work force 10 to 15 years, usually had some college, but often from a variety of different places," Mr. Nutting said.

"Many of the people are those who have been working for a fair amount of time and have hit a glass ceiling that they can't go any further without a degree, but they don't need a degree in a particular major," he added.

Online learning also appeals to people with specific time or distance challenges, such as those in the military. Online courses have also helped employers, including the state and hospitals, offer professional development courses.

The state Department of Fire Services enrolled 274 students and had a waiting list of almost 60 more when it offered its first online course last year, a spokeswoman said.

The Massachusetts State Police has offered online in-service training for five years, and the Irish national police, known as the An Garda Siochana, visited UMassOnline last week to learn how to use technology more efficiently in recruiting and training.

But while online courses make sense for many older adults, some people are less enthusiastic about the possibility of 18-year-olds doing an entire degree online.

"Students will learn more in their first year of college than they will at any other time in their life," said Amy P. Gauthier, director of residential life and housing at Clark University.

"It's the first time you learn to compromise about when you go to bed, when you wake up" and how to be considerate to roommates, whether they're from the United States or halfway around the world, she said. Online students miss that experience.

Lance Schachterle, associate provost for academic affairs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said online learning is "far more suited to nontraditional students" who are at least 23 years old.

WPI offers online graduate programs, but does not let its undergraduates count transfer credits from online courses.

But online courses also can be a boon for students already on campus, according to David A. Caruso, vice president for academic affairs at Worcester State College. Worcester State doesn't offer an entire degree online, but students sometimes take a course or two online even while living in the dorm.

"It's often a flexibility-of-time issue," Mr. Caruso said.

The students might have a job during the day or simply want the ability to do coursework at 11 p.m. instead of in the morning. But those students still participate in campus life, he said.

"We still feel that part of it is very important, especially for traditional-aged 18-to-24-year-old students," he said.

Online offerings also make it easier for traditional students to get the courses they need to graduate.

Through Massachusetts Colleges Online, state and community colleges can open online seats to the rest of MCO if they're under-enrolled. Then another college can claim a few chairs in the course and offer them to their students.

"It's like an airline reservation system," said David B. Kelley, executive director of Massachusetts Colleges Online.

"It has made public higher education a lot more efficient."

Anyone looking for a cost break by taking courses online might save more on mileage than on tuition.

Most private colleges and universities charge the same rate for on-campus and online tuition, according to John G. Flores, executive director of the Boston-based U.S. Distance Learning Association.

Massachusetts state and community colleges charge the same for online courses as they do for on-campus ($150-$250 per credit hour at state colleges, $100-$150 for community colleges, Mr. Kelley said), but UMassOnline charges more online than it does on-campus, and there is no discount for state residents.

David J. Gray, chief executive officer of UMassOnline, said the online operation does not receive state money, so its prices follow market trends. University of Massachusetts trustees gave UMassOnline a loan (without state money) in 2001, and Mr. Gray said he hopes to be self-sufficient in a year.

In 2004, UMassOnline sent 92.5 percent of the $15 million it generated back to campuses, he said.

Professors who teach online agree that online degrees aren't for everyone, but there can be unexpected benefits.

Mr. Nutting, of Framingham State, for instance, extolled the dynamic between professors and students in a classroom that might never be reproduced online.

But, he added, some people say they know more about their online classmates than their on-campus ones.

"They say, `I got to know these people better online than I would in the classroom looking at the backs of people's heads,'" Mr. Nutting said.

Jacqueline Reis may be reached at jreis@telegram.com

Date: 03/06/05