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Going to class -- online: Growing number of students taking courses over Internet
[May 06, 2006]

Going to class -- online: Growing number of students taking courses over Internet

(Charleston Gazette, The (WV) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) May 6--Cindy Preast is a busy woman. She juggles her time as a single mother of three in Fayetteville between baseball games, teacher conferences, work meetings in Bluefield and studying for her bachelor's degree.

But, at 45, Preast hasn't set foot in a classroom for almost three years. Most of her studying -- and test-taking -- is done online.

She is among a growing number of students across the state taking online courses toward their college degrees.

"It's a lot better for most adults who are in the work world because we're used to it," she said. "You work it in when you have you time for it."

Most of the state's colleges have entered the realm of online education. Some colleges combine lecture and labs with partial online classes, with course instructions posted on the Internet and online discussion boards. Others have it all, from assignment to test, on the Web.

According to West Virginia's Virtual Learning Network, nine of the state's universities offered online classes this spring. The same number of community and technical colleges offered online options.

"We call it 'click and mortar,'" said Matt Christian, the director of Marshall University's center for instructional technology, as a play on traditional "bricks and mortar" class buildings.

"We just offer the online as a way to better serve our students," he said.

At Marshall, where Preast is earning her degree, students could choose from among 150 different subjects this fall. About 4,000 students logged on for the classes, Christian said.

He said officials expect to add about 25 classes every year.

Community and technical college students sign up the most often, he said, because they're most likely to have problems finding time to visit campus, he said.

Other schools, like Beckley-based Mountain State University, which has branch campuses across the state, offer predominately online classes.

The school even has a separate online bookstore that deals with students' Internet textbooks orders.

Preast says she prefers the online atmosphere.

"It's nice to be able to do this in your pajamas," she said one day last month while checking her log of grades this semester.

The courses, where students can log on to view assignments, class discussion boards, grades and professor comments, are prime for busy and nontraditional students, Christian said.

He said they do take a dedicated student with good time management skills.

However, Preast thinks anyone could do well in an online course. Most of the classes she takes are general studies and classes that would be lecture-style in the traditional classroom.

"It's helped me perform better at work," she said.

She said the requirement to pace herself has helped with time management.

But, as an adult, some aspects of the online course can be tiresome. Preast said some of her classes required individual proctors to oversee her test taking. The proctor must sign a document claiming the student did not cheat, Preast said.

"I don't want to have to ask someone to come look over my shoulder to make sure I didn't cheat,' she said. "It's a little embarrassing."

Regardless, online classes are becoming much more popular. A report from Ball State University said that nationwide online classes grew 18 percent in the past year.

Schools like West Virginia University didn't have any classes 10 years ago. Now they have 980 sections of different classes.

Marshall started in 1997 with about 12 courses, Christian said.

Smaller schools, such as West Virginia State University, have been reluctant to offer fully online classes.

"They have a lot more technical support at the bigger schools it's easier for them to make the transition because they've got instructional design people," a spokeswoman for the college said.

Those schools often use online discussion lists to supplement face-to-face courses, though. That way, students can still have some components of the class at their fingertips.

Traditional classes still have the largest appeal, because people aren't sure if they'll be able to miss out on a professor's instruction and still perform well.

Online education does have its costs. Preast pays about $465 per class. Still, she estimates that some of the cost is offset because she doesn't have to pay for babysitters and gas.

To contact staff writer Anna L. Mallory, use e-mail or call 348-5163.

Online Class Facts

-- Eighty-one percent of all higher education institutions offer at least one fully online or blended (some classroom work, some online) course;

-- Complete online degree programs are offered by 34 percent of institutions;

-- Among public institutions, 97 percent offer at least one online or blended course, and 49 percent offer an online degree program;

-- Sixty percent of academic leaders accept the legitimacy and value of online education. Forty percent do not;

-- Of those 60 percent who accept the value of online education, nearly all believe the learning outcomes for online schooling are equal to or superior to face-to-face instruction;

More than 1.6 million students -- 11 percent of all U.S. higher education students -- took at least one online course during the fall 2002 semester. Of those students, 578,000 -- or more than one third -- took all their courses online.

Source: Sloan Consortium

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