Today’s online college courses can help students overcome the challenges of time, location and obligation in order to pursue their dreams of higher education.
A few years ago, a stay-at-home mom couldn’t take a college course without the added expense of childcare. A college student who moved to a new city could not finish his degree at his original college, and a Registered Nurse would have to take time off to obtain her bachelor’s degree.
Tammy Terpstra, a senior at Purdue University Calumet, has taken two online courses. She said the pros to online learning are listening to lectures and doing work any time and not being committed to a specific class time aside from tests and quizzes.
Students can also do course work anywhere with computer access.
Online courses also have some downsides, said Terpstra, of Lansing, who is working toward a double major in Spanish and criminal justice. Issues range from a server being “testy” to computer crashes to professors who are not as technologically literate.
The courses also lack the social interaction found in a classroom setting, she said. Online students need self-motivation and self-discipline to succeed.
Christopher Young, the director of the Center for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at Indiana University Northwest, said the university is committed to online education as well as continuing the face-to-face classroom experience.
Young said online education has accelerated in the last two or three years at IUN and Indiana University. Within the IU system, IUN is near the top in terms of online course development in part thanks to professors receiving grants to develop online courses. This fall, IUN will offer 91 online courses.
The Center for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at IUN offers a variety of services but has become closely associated with online education. The center offers a course for faculty members to provide the tools needed to teach an online course. It also puts the instructors in the role of student, giving them a feel for what it is like to learn in an online course. To date, 93 faculty members have taken this course.
"They gain a better understanding of the usefulness of an array of instructional resources that are available, how to be clear when providing assignment instructions and feedback without the benefit of face-to-face interactions and how to be accessible to students in a meaningful way," Young said.
Preventing cheating is one challenge facing online educators. Some professors might want students to take tests on campus but online students may live in a different location. For example, four students currently taking online courses at IUN live in Indianapolis.
“They are developing technology to deal with that but I think sometimes it’s up to the instructors,” Young said. Some rely on the honor system while others rely on technology or creativity.
“If you have students from your area, you don’t have those problems. But as it begins to open up to students from say all of Indiana, then you really have to come up with new methods.”
Online learning allows IU regional campuses to pool their faculty resources, Young said, and it creates new collaborations between different campuses. Eventually there will be programs that go from start to finish online only.
Young, who is also an associate history professor at IUN, said the courses he has taught online have appealed to every type of student. The process works well for some schedules, allowing for family life or work obligations.
“But I don’t think it’s for every student,” he said. “There’s a learning curve in how to take an online course. If people have the motivation and are willing to put in the hard work, just like in any class, they’ll be successful.”
He said students know what to do in a traditional college course and that some have a perception that an online class might be less challenging.
“That perception will go away as time goes on I think. More and more people will have experience with taking an online class.” In his seven years at IUN, online learning has changed rapidly. Some high schoolers are already taking online courses for dual credit, exposing them to the online learning medium.
There are advantages and disadvantages but for the most part it’s been embraced, especially at IUN, Young said.
Peggy Gerard, the dean of the College of Nursing at Purdue University Calumet, said the school’s online programs meet a need for nursing professionals working toward higher education. The college offers a 100 percent online accelerated Registered Nurse to bachelor’s of science program. The online program, which began in February 2010, is the only one of its kind in the Purdue University system.
It was revamped from its on-campus roots following recommendations from the College of Nursing and nurses practicing in the area. Nurses have different schedules, shifts and days off, making it complicated for them to attend traditional courses.
“This really allowed them to be able to participate in classes, complete assignment and keep moving forward without having to juggle work and life commitments,” Gerard said.
The technology can be a challenge depending on a student’s experience level, Gerard said. “Students in our program range from students who just graduated from associate’s degrees to people who graduated over 20 years ago from an associated degree program and therefore may have limited or no experience with online education.”
Students are now required to attend an orientation class where they practice the skills needed to succeed in an online course.
Students in the online nursing program can be from any part of Indiana or in any state in which PUC has received operating authority, Gerard said. Students from Illinois and alumni who have moved to other areas of the country are among PUC’s students.
“The program has been very successful. Our outcomes are very good. We have strong satisfaction among graduates. Our average time to completion is 18 months and that includes students who might have to complete other classes,” Gerard said. More than 88 percent of students who start the program complete it.