Online classes provide new medium for learning

Ray Bressette

Across the nation, 6.7 million higher education students have enrolled in an online course during their college career,  making up a third of the nation’s college students.

70 percent of universities report that online learning plays a critical role in their long-term strategy, according to the Babson Survey Research Group in San Francisco.

Northern Michigan University is one of the many schools across the country with rapid growth in online learning.

During the past decade, NMU has increased their number of offered courses online from 26 in the fall of 2004 to 114 in the winter of 2013, while 146 online courses are being offered this summer to meet the high demand of online learning at NMU.

Elizabeth Monske, an assistant professor of English at NMU, also trains teaching assistants in the English department in the art of online teaching.

According to Monske, when online courses were first offered at NMU in the late 1990s, they were meant as a replacement for correspondence courses, where distance learners would receive an assignment in the mail to be completed and sent back to receive a grade or for a student working full-time who wished to receive an associates or bachelor’s degree.

Monske said while NMU still has students enrolled in online classes from cities all across the nation, online courses have  grown to accommodate on-campus and Marquette-area students, as well as distance learners.

“I don’t think these courses were ever meant for the kid in pajamas,” Monske said. “However, these courses are now reaching a whole new world of learning for students and are reaching a group of students in the Marquette area, helping them further their education as well.”

Katherine Place, a sophomore criminal justice major, is one of these students living in Marquette who benefit from online courses. Place works 28 hours a week to help pay for college. With a heavy workload, Place said online learning provides her with the best opportunity to succeed in class.

“I learn a lot better when I am focusing on myself,” said Place. “When you’re reading chapters and going over notes, the sense of independence makes you learn the material on your own, which helps if you strive better through individual work.”

Students seeking online courses should have great self-discipline and the ability to produce work under strict deadlines. With nobody reminding students about assignments and quizzes, one has to be very organized and prepared to put in a good amount of work, according to Place. “You can’t slack off and push things aside, you have to take the class seriously to succeed.”

Tom Gillespie, an instruction al technologist at NMU who provides support and assistance to professors with online courses, said that changes over time such as the switch in course management from WebCT to the Moodle system known as “EduCat” has strengthened the online courses at NMU.

“Based on surveys with professors and students, we’ve been able to serve them with what we feel is the best software that accommodates their educational needs for an online class with EduCat,” Gillespie said.

EduCat’s software features allow for online courses to have open thread discussions through chatrooms, wall posts and message boards as forms of classroom discussion in ways that have been limited with previous software used at NMU, according to Gillespie.

Not everyone on campus is on board with online learning at NMU. While Robert Goodrich, an associate professor of history at NMU, has been teaching online courses for a decade, he is largely critical of online learning.

“Most higher thinking that we’re trying to get at in college is not just about memorizing facts,” Goodrich said. “Creative thinking requires heavy engagement with professors, one that tends to see smaller results in that aspect of courses online.”

Goodrich also said while some students come into an online course with expectations that a course will be easier online than in person, an online class will actually be harder if the proper amount of work is done to receive a good grade.

Goodrich said he holds his online students to the same level of expectations as his students in his classes held in person, with the same quizzes and homework assignments.

While the number of students taking online classes seems to increase each year, he adds that he cannot find a statistically meaningful difference in grades between online and on campus classes.

“It’s all with what kind of effort your students are going to put forth in the class,” Goodrich said.

While the number of online courses offered at NMU along with the number of students enrolled in these courses continue to increase, according to Monske, NMU is not an online school.

In order to have online certificates, such as an associates or bachelor’s program, the school would have to change its accreditation, which is not something NMU plans on doing any time in the near future.

“Students and parents still want face to face contact,” Monske said. “I don’t think students are going to want to go completely online at NMU. But while we have such an important tool such as the internet, it is important that we use it.”