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Popularity of online courses changing the college experience

TAMPA — Carolyn Ford used to have dozens of eyes on her when she introduced her University of South Florida course.

Now she has just one — a high-definition camera.

"I love mountain climbing and Rollerblading," Ford says as the camera rolls.

The students who sign up in the fall for her graduate class will likely not meet Ford in person. But together, teacher and students expect to log in dozens of hours e-mailing, chatting, instant messaging and more.

Welcome to USF's ECampus.

As enrollment in online college classes soar, driven by students who expect high-tech opportunities, faculty members like Ford are creating a whole new kind of campus — one where students won't need to step inside a classroom.

"A student could live on campus and not need to leave his or her dorm room except possibly for exams," said Kathleen Moore, USF's associate vice president for academic affairs and ECampus.

Virtual classes still aren't the majority, but the move to an online format is persistent and steady.

The college experience — a campus filled with 20-somethings who live in dorms and join clubs and fraternities — is "becoming more and more of a minority," said Jeff Seaman of the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group that tracks online education.

The change has some administrators wondering how these students will develop social skills and maturity, traditional byproducts of the college experience.

• • •

More than 20 percent of college students took at least one online class in 2007, according to a study by the Sloan Consortium. That's about 3.94 million students — almost double the number of students in 2003.

USF's enrollment in online courses have quadrupled in the past six years to more than 84,000 students. This summer has seen a 12 percent increase in online enrollment compared with last summer.

At the University of Florida, about 380 class sections were available online in the fall. UF undergraduate business students can even take a third of their degree online.

This fall, Florida State University will offer 28 undergraduate courses online and more than 100 graduate-level classes.

Students like Vana Ramkissoon are driving the demand for online courses as they seek flexibility and are skilled in emerging technology.

In the fall, Ramkissoon, 20, took USF courses while living with her friends in Gainesville. She'd log into her marketing classes after days spent serving coffee at Starbucks.

Ramkissoon, originally from Temple Terrace, said she liked working at her own pace but had trouble when she needed recommendations from her professors. A professor who taught one of her online courses said "no." He didn't know her.

"Obviously, you don't get the same teacher interaction," she said.

Some administrators acknow­ledge such concerns and the lack of face-to-face interaction affecting students.

"We don't want them hanging out in their apartment building," said UF associate provost for e-learning Andrew McCollough.

That's why UF offers a leadership academy and first-year orientation courses to draw students into campus life.

Others argue that students may actually interact more online, when perhaps they're less inhibited.

"There's so many exciting things going on in online teaching that aren't really even possible in a face-to-face class," said Diane Williams, director of USF's Center for 21st Century Teaching Excellence.

To ensure students are interacting with their professors and peers, USF taps into a menu of options: chat rooms, social networking, Twitter, text messages, videos on YouTube and podcasts, Williams said.

Students also can watch lectures in real time. Through a program called Elluminate Live, they can instant message each other during the class and click on a hand icon to ask a question using a microphone.

"It's almost like you're there," said USF engineering graduate student Scott Donaldson, who once watched a class while in Dubai.

Skype, an Internet phone service, has even allowed for some online language classes.

One of UF's best tools for peer networking was created by undergraduate business student Bryan Howard, who was taking all his classes online. He was frustrated with his entrepreneurship class and needed a place to vent.

So Howard launched the Gator Online Student Association, which, in two years, has turned into a popular forum where students chat about everything from classes to football.

"We've become very good friends," he said.

He's now pursuing an online master's degree from FSU in instructional systems, with a concentration in open and distance learning.

He hopes to design distance learning courses, either at a university or as a consultant.

"That's how much I enjoyed it," he said.

• • •

The shift online isn't cheap on the front end.

It costs USF about $25,000 to convert each course to an online format, Moore said.

It's an investment, she said, and because there's little cost involved with upkeep, it's worth it in the long run.

USF's ECampus is run by the Center for 21st Century Teaching Excellence and its media innovation team.

The team works out of a newly renovated center in the student services building, where the team puts together flashy graphics and blogs for online courses.

They've even filmed a webisode featuring local actors. The humorous series for an education course was filmed on campus in a style similar to the popular TV series The Office.

"We ask faculty what they want to achieve," said Bridget Patel, the team's online program development coordinator. "And then we center the tools around that."

For a geology class, that meant an animation to describe a complex energy process. For a well-traveled educational psychology professor, that meant a blog filled with photos and maps.

But the technology always comes second to the content, Patel said. "It's not the technology that's going to make you successful," she said.

Williams has studied student interaction for years and believes lectures aren't the best way for students to learn. She prefers online tutorials, workshops and online group projects, like wikis, which track each student's input.

If professors prefer to lecture, they can use the Elluminate Live program, which allows them to give live lectures to students across the globe. But Williams said the USF center is providing more options for interaction that don't require people to meet at the same time.

That's how professor Ford's speech pathology courses work. She'll often pose a question in an online forum and tape lectures that students can watch at their convenience.

She assigns wikis for group projects, and her students analyze case studies, take quizzes and contribute to the discussion forum every two weeks to prove they're on top of the material.

It's extra work for her. She has to learn new technology and organize her course meticulously because online teaching isn't like in-class teaching, she said — she can't correct herself immediately.

But it's worth it, she said. She wants to help students learn in the most efficient way, and she's not worried about her students lacking interaction.

"Feedback is quick online," she said. "I talk to those students more than I do to my ones in class."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Popularity of online courses changing the college experience 06/13/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 14, 2009 7:30am]
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