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Online education is growing, reaching new audiences

Two things are certain about online education in 2020: the phenomenon will continue to grow in higher education settings, and institutions will continue to deliver it in their own unique ways.

If you’ve been on social media in the last few weeks, you may have seen posts regarding Open SUNY, drawing attention to the state’s online higher education system network of 64 campuses. Students enroll at one school in the network but have access to 23,000 courses being taught around the state. They also get a coach that stays with them throughout the SUNY system, potentially from community college to graduate school.

“That’s going to have a significant impact at MCC,” said Terrance A. Keys, associate vice president of instructional service at Monroe Community College. While MCC has a range of degrees available online, it has linked three specifically with this newest version of SUNY online learning. That could result in about 3,000 more MCC students going through this online system. Last fall 158 (nearly one fifth) of MCC’s 839 courses were offered online.

“We’re just getting more SUNY students through a different funnel with a slightly different support system around them,” Keys said.  But a larger-than-expected number of students are coming through the Open SUNY system for MCC’s spring semester, Keys said. (The system doesn’t have its formal launch until next fall and registration for spring was still going on as Keys talked.) “It’s consuming all of our energies right now,” he said, as the system works on streamlining support systems for the rush of students.

SUNY has had online learning for some time, Keys noted, but until recently didn’t do much to market the possibilities. Its new push is meant to counter the 40,000 college students who “leave” the state each year online, seeking degrees from for-profit entities such as Southern New Hampshire University or University of Phoenix.

It’s too early to tell how much SUNY online enrollment will grow, but various local schools in and out of the state system have shown an ever-upward trend.

At Rochester Institute of Technology, online courses have grown by 33 percent in the last five academic years, while enrollment in those courses has increased 52 percent, even though online classes form a tiny fraction of all the courses offered there. Additionally, RIT participates in edX, a network of 140 institutions offering what’s known as mass open online classes. In that edX network, RIT has served 1.2 million students from an average of 186 countries at a time.

“For us, edX was a good first step.” said Therese Hannigan, director of RIT Online. Cyber Security is one of five “micro-master” programs the university has put online through edX. The RIT brand appealed to that arena, she said. “We’re known, but we’re not known for every program that we have,” Hannigan said.

EdX offers its courses for free but students may pay to get a certificate verifying that they’ve completed a class or line of study.  The courses, however, may entice a student to pursue a traditional degree online in which they pay the same tuition as on-campus students. RIT currently offers 35 credit-bearing programs online.

SUNY Geneseo, by comparison, is still dipping its toes in the bath, but the water is heating up.

“Online offerings are in the process of growing pretty dramatically right now,” said Paul Schacht, professor of English and assistant to the provost for digital learning and scholarship.

Geneseo offers most of its online classes during the January intersession and summer. This January’s online courses are double the 23 courses that were offered last January. Enrollment went from about 500 students last year to 870 this January term.

Like many schools, Geneseo had a January term years ago but later abandoned it. Schacht said Geneseo brought back its January term two years ago specifically for online classes.

“It gives students a chance to meet prerequisites for the coming semester, to get ahead if that’s something they want to do. It’s helpful for students who are on the New York Excelsior fellowship to complete credits in a given year,” Schacht said, referencing the state scholarship program that requires maintaining a specific academic pace to maintain eligibility.

At the University of Rochester, online offerings tend to be mostly in the university’s graduate programs, said Eric E. Fredericksen, associate vice president for online learning and associate professor in educational leadership. There has been, however, a recent influx of summer offerings for undergraduates. Meanwhile online grad courses are growing.

In 2013, UR’s Warner School of Education offered a couple of online classes in education, Fredericksen said. Last summer, there were 33 classes offered. In UR’s School of Nursing, about 45 percent of graduate enrollments are from online students.

Some students in those programs do live in other states, Fredericksen said, but noted “distance from campus isn’t the biggest driver for why students take online courses.” Rather, students in education and nursing in particular tend to seek graduate degrees while they are already employed. Online courses allow them to fit their academic schedule around their employment.

And work schedules can get wacky at times. Fredericksen noted some students who also work as athletic coaches find online courses easier to manage during the athletic season, but then take courses on campus in their off season.

Local colleges have been engaging in online programming for decades. RIT, for instance, began teaching courses “online” with cable television 40 years ago, Hannigan said.

The thought used to be that such courses made higher education possible for people at great distances from campus. But with some exceptions — edX, notably — online students today are more typically quite close to campus if not they’re not actually on campus. They might be taking face-to-face courses on campus most of the time and add in a few online courses as well.

“Probably the biggest motivator for the student is that it makes plotting out their two-or four-year progress at Geneseo to a bachelor’s degree easier because it gives them greater flexibility,” Schacht said. All Geneseo freshmen are required to take a critical writing and thinking course in their first year. Having an online section of the course makes it easier for students to meet that requirement.

For those students who are entirely online, there is often still a geographic proximity to campus. The local online-learning experts agreed that students pick their online program based on whether the school’s campus is close enough to visit if that becomes necessary. Some online courses indeed have an in-person requirement, such as an intensive seminar once a semester.

Online courses are taught differently in some ways from face-to-face courses.  To allow students to move at their own pace, all the material for the entire semester needs to be made available at the same time. That takes an adjustment for faculty members who might be used to planning lessons, presentations and assignments a few weeks out instead of completing the entire semester’s planning before the first day of class even begins.

“Many people who go into teaching at the college level are subject experts, but they  might not have a teaching degree, said MCC’s Keys. When organizing an online course, “you spend a lot of time thinking about teaching, thinking about delivery.”

RIT’s Hannigan agreed. “We have experts in so many different fields. But expecting faculty to be an expert in online delivery…”

The local online experts said instructional design is particularly important in online courses because the student working at midnight or on the weekend can’t simply raise their hand and get a question answered by the professor. MCC offers faculty developing an online course a technology expert and a librarian to assist in the designing of the course.

The Warner School now offers — online, of course — a certificate in online education.

Hannigan said research in online education offers some lessons in best practices. Putting up a video of a one-hour lecture is probably not one of those best practices. “With technology, we can see where someone drops off in a lecture,” she said.

The best online courses include animations, short videos, graphics and interactive texts that allow a student to explore links that provide deeper context for the lesson being taught.

Geneseo’s Schacht said he posts a literary work in his English classes and students are required to make annotations on the text, rather than just answer questions about or offer an opinion of the work.

“Good instruction is when students are actively engaged,” UR’s Fredericksen said. “When you have higher levels of interaction, it’s all good,” regardless of the mode of delivery.

Some of these tricks of the online trade are filtering into face-to-face classrooms, the local college experts said.

Even so, online classes are not for every student.

“Online, your grade is determined by participation, not just logging in,” Keys said. “There are students who will not be successful at this because they’re not that well organized, and that’s why face-to-face classes will never go away.”

The person who enjoys the back-and-forth of a class discussion may be disappointed by online discussions, which don’t take place in real time, and sometimes are artificially structured. Some courses might require everyone to post a comment by a certain time on a topic, and then respond to each person’s original post.

Local educators, though, say good course design can go a long way to make sure discussions are useful and interactive.

It seems to go against intuition, but the educators said online learning is often more engaging than in-person classes. They’re even less isolating at times.

That’s because for everyone who loves debating issues face to face, there may be even more people who keep their hands down in class. These are the people that online learning experts say often thrive in an online environment.

“Every class I’ve been in, there’s always the handful of students who are really outspoken, and a student who never says a word,” Keys said. “Some people do better up on the stage and (with) quick thinking. Other people like to reflect and think a bit before they respond.” Online discussions allow those introverts and slower responders time to gather themselves.

“Students who ordinarily would be silent… it turns out they have lots to say,” Schacht said.

The result may be higher quality comments all around, Fredericksen said.

Professors sometimes get to know their students better when they interact online, Schacht said.

“It’s devilishly easy in a classroom to believe the whole class is engaged in a classroom discussion, when really seven out of 30 keep raising their hands” Schacht said. “Online, everybody is writing something and you’re getting a much better sample as an instructor.”

One reason online learning is expanding is because the group of students who are the traditional age for college is shrinking.

“Until five years ago, the focus (of online classes) was on access and providing new sections,” Keys said. Then MCC shifted to providing entire degree and certificate programs online so it could reach students it never had before.

Hannigan notes that the audience RIT is reaching through the edX platform has an average age of 32 — at least 10 years older than the traditional undergraduate.

At Geneseo, the student population has been largely undergraduates of traditional age.

“We are interested in going forward in designing courses and even potential certificate programs for students who are not in the 18-to-22-year-old bracket,” Schacht said. “One reason we’ve been a little bit behind other institutions in embracing online learning opportunities is we want to make sure we don’t lose what we have face-to-face. We’re at a point now where we understand better than we might have in the past what can be done to create an online experience that is every bit as engaging as the face-to-face experience.”

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