Classes on the go: Distance education becoming more popular

2010-08-10T05:00:00Z 2010-08-10T10:04:37Z Classes on the go: Distance education becoming more popularBy TODD FINKELMEYER The Capital Times tfinkelmeyer@madison.com madison.com

Unlike many who take courses during UW-Madison's summer session, Peter Owen hasn't spent any hot evenings catching up on his studies while sipping a cold beer on the Memorial Union Terrace.

Owen is a 24-year-old first lieutenant stationed in Iraq with the 724th Engineer Battalion of the Wisconsin Army National Guard. So instead of sitting near the shore of Lake Mendota while finishing coursework, he's knocked off some required readings and listened to recorded lectures on an MP3 player while seated in the back of a military transport aircraft waiting to take off on another mission.

"I have really enjoyed the opportunity to keep working toward my degree while deployed," Owen, who is taking a foreign policy history course from UW-Madison professor Jeremi Suri, says in an e-mail interview. Owen was a graduate student at Valparaiso University pursuing a masters in International Commerce and Policy prior to being deployed.

Welcome to the modern world of "distance education," a field that incorporates various styles of teaching and a range of technologies to deliver education to students who aren't sitting in a traditional classroom. While evolving technology continues to drastically change how people communicate, get their news and make purchases, it's generally having a less dramatic impact on how higher education is delivered -- at least at a place like UW-Madison, where just 2.5 percent of all credit hours are taken through distance education courses.

"One of the motivations for this course is my sense that teaching is often not as innovative as it can be," says Suri, who is teaching this online course for the second straight summer. "We fall into patterns and ruts, and that's probably true of any profession. I'm not saying we should throw out the traditional ways of teaching, but I'm interested in shaking things up and experimenting in different modes of delivery."

It's no secret, however, that many professors on campus still thumb their noses at online-based courses and view them as something only lowly regarded, for-profit institutions put out for public consumption.

"Many of these online universities are offering an inferior product," says Suri. "I've looked at some of them, and they're crap. So why are some of these places thriving? It's because they're delivering a product people want. So I think it's time that real institutions with quality products get into delivering more distance education."

Everything in Suri's eight-week, three-credit summer course -- "American Foreign Policy: A History of U.S. Grand Strategy From 1901 to the Present" -- is online. The class website includes a syllabus, which spells out course details and links to the online journal and newspaper articles that are required reading. The site also hosts short video lead-ins to preview each of the three, hour-long, audio-recorded Suri lectures students listen to each week. Those in the class - which include 100 typical undergraduate and 30 graduate-level students, most of whom have ties to the military - can download the lectures onto an MP3 player or other recording device to listen to at any time, anywhere. Or they can sit at their computer and listen to the hour-long talk, which includes additional information via PowerPoint slides. There are online discussion sessions and online office hours, with one main written assignment, a midterm and a final exam.

"The combination of a rigorous military schedule and improvements in modern technology made the distance class ideal for me," Kimberly Jones, a 25-year-old Army captain who took the course to learn more about U.S. foreign policy, says in an e-mail interview. "I was able to use my phone to download all the lectures, so when I found that I had time and opportunity I listened to the lectures and took notes. Due to my commitments to work, church and continuous house guests (we live in Hawaii), the distance learning allowed me to listen to lectures, conduct readings and post discussions with flexibility and thoroughness."

Jon Pevehouse, a political science professor, is teaching a similar set of students this summer in an online-only course titled, "Problems in American Foreign Policy (Poli Sci 359)." He agrees that the flexibility distance education courses offer students is the biggest positive, but notes there are some drawbacks.

"It does cut off some flexibility on my end," he says. "Last (month), with the WikiLeaks incident (where the website leaked tens of thousands of classified military documents), I would have loved to have spent the next day's lecture digging into that. But a lot of these things have to be recorded two and three weeks in advance, so it does cut off some pedagogical flexibility."

Jesse Pruett, a 39-year-old Army reservist living in Alexandria, Va., who is taking Suri's course, also feels some loss: "Although there was some give and take in the online discussion forum, I did miss the exchanges, debates and interactions that seem to be a big part of traditional brick-and-mortar classroom settings."

In the end, however, most agreed these were relatively minor drawbacks for the opportunity to take a course from a highly regarded professor at a name-brand university.

"A key benefit is the flexibility and the lack of an attendance requirement," says Pruett, who has a newborn at home and is pursuing a master's in international relations. "Obviously, living in the D.C. area, I would not have been able to take the course in a traditional format. I also traveled during the course, coincidentally to Fort McCoy, Wis., for a couple of weeks of military training and to California for civilian purposes. It was difficult, but the online format meant it was still possible to maintain the workload, something that would have been impossible with a conventional route."

Basic idea is nothing new

Although the basic idea of distance education is nothing new -- UW-Madison professors in the agriculture department were sending informational pamphlets to farmers across the state in the late 19th century -- upgrades in computer and online technology in recent years have led to an explosion in this form of teaching and learning.

According to a report from the Sloan Consortium titled "Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009," some 4.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the 2008 fall semester -- a whopping 17 percent jump over the previous year. That hike far exceeds the 1.2 percent growth during that time in the overall higher education student population, with more than one-in-four college students now taking at least one online course.

And there is no indication this trend will slow anytime soon.

In June, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels established WGU Indiana, a partnership between the state and Western Governors University aimed at expanding access to higher education for those in the Hoosier state. Under the partnership, this online university will technically remain a private school, but Indiana residents will be able to use state scholarships to pay for tuition there. Just last week, a committee of education and business leaders in Texas recommended that students there complete at least 10 percent of their coursework toward a degree outside the classroom through options such as online courses.

At UW-Madison, 152 "distance education" courses -- which the university classifies as those "taught primarily by means of interactive video, recorded electronic media or the internet" - were offered in 1999-00. By 2008-09, the most recent year for which figures are available, that number more than doubled to 365.

Despite that jump, just 2.5 percent of all student credit hours at UW-Madison in 2008-09 were through distance education courses according to the school's Data Digest.

"We're having ongoing discussions about how do we find this sweet spot, so to speak, between making sure students get the whole Wisconsin experience as a resident student on campus -- that includes research opportunities and service learning and all the high-impact, traditional practices -- with the latest technologies," says Aaron Brower, UW-Madison's vice provost for teaching and learning. "It's a very deliberate discussion about how can we best use technology in our teaching."

Conference in Madison

Madison was the center of the distance education universe last week as 1,000 people from across the country took part in the 26th annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning, a three-day event at the Monona Terrace Convention Center.

Jane Terpstra, the conference's director and an outreach specialist with UW-Madison's division of continuing studies, says there are numerous valid reasons for a college to consider adding more distance education options. A sometimes overlooked advantage, notes Terpstra, is that it gives students an important leg up in experiencing different ways of learning and communicating.

"Computer learning and communication is so important these days," says Terpstra, who also teaches courses in UW-Madison's two distance education certificate programs. "It's important to become comfortable with new technologies and to learn how to communicate even if you aren't face-to-face with someone."

Another reason for adding online offerings is if there is a backlog of students attempting to get into courses that are a prerequisite to numerous higher-level classes. Most online courses can be taken at any time of the day, so they don't interfere with other classes that meet on specific days at specific times. Offering these high-demand courses online can then help alleviate bottlenecks that keep students from graduating in a timely fashion.

Adding distance education courses can also make sense for schools trying to reach students from a large geographic region. Perhaps these students don't have time to drive all the way to campus, but are willing to log on at home to take a class.

"Accessibility, to me, is the biggest issue for looking at offering more online courses," says Suri. "We can not assume anymore that all the people who need to learn in our society want, or can afford, to show up on campus. Especially in the summer. This way, if you have to leave campus and work in Milwaukee or help out on the family farm, you can still get some credits taken care of and graduate earlier."

And the faster students get through school, the more slots that open up for new students. This could help alleviate some of the political pressure there always is to allow more students into UW-Madison.

"One problem we're trying to crack is it would be nice to have more students, but we don't have enough dorms and classrooms," says Kathy Christoph, the director of academic technology in UW-Madison's Division of Information Technology. "So I'd love for people to think hard about, ‘How can technology help with that problem?' Then measure whether we're successful by seeing if we are able to teach more students successfully without having to build more dorms and classrooms. But there is definitely an art to designing online courses where the students really have a good learning experience, so that won't be easy."

Wedemeyer led the way

Charles Wedemeyer, a former professor of education at UW-Madison, is considered one of the fathers of modern distance education, says Bill Tishler, a media specialist with the university's Division of Continuing Studies.

In the late 1930s, Wedemeyer expanded his reach to those off campus by using the university's radio station to broadcast English lectures. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he worked as director of UW-Madison's correspondence study department from 1954-64, where he devoted his energy to nontraditional education research. These studies are recognized as the foundation for distance education practices, and Wedemeyer became an independent study and continuing education consultant to a dozen foreign countries -- including Great Britain, where he was a chief consultant to the Open University, the world's first successful distance teaching institution which opened in 1971.

Tishler says UW-Madison started offering statewide distance learning programs on television in 1959, and that continued through the early 1990s, before the Internet came along and started to quickly change the game.

"This university has really been a pioneer in distance education," says Tishler, a proponent of expanding distance education options on campus, and who produces the classes taught by Suri and Pevehouse. "But I'm not sure we've ever really embraced our own pioneering work. As a research institution, I guess we're doing well. But as a teaching university, we don't always practice what we preach."

Unlike UW-Madison, the University of Wisconsin System as a whole is making a concerted effort to expand its distance education offerings, and today features a website which serves as a gateway to the roughly 1,200 courses across the system that require no campus visits to complete.

UW-Madison, which became one of the first universities to offer a Certificate of Professional Development in Distance Education back in 1993, today features a range of graduate and professional development programs in engineering, business, education, pharmacy and nursing, to name only a few, that are distance education based.

For now, however, there is little pressure to significantly expand distance education offerings for undergraduates at a state flagship institution. UW-Madison, like its peers, already is at capacity and turns away thousands of applicants each year because most young students straight out of high school still want that on-campus "college experience." They look forward to moving away from mom and dad, to the face-to-face interactions with professors and other young people, and to attending college football games.

Conversely, universities which don't continually reassess their distance learning options could quickly find themselves behind the curve.

"I really think these online-only classes are going to mushroom," says Suri. "Not only because more and more of us (at UW-Madison) are trying it, but because students are demanding it."

Copyright 2015 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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