At one N.J. college, online courses expand

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
March 28, 2016
Jonathan Lai, Staff Writer

Caylor-Ann Rose-Green has taken 11 online courses as she nears graduation. "It allows me to be a better student because I'm able to give it the attention that it deserves." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

Caylor-Ann Rose-Green has taken 11 online courses as she nears graduation. “It allows me to be a better student because I’m able to give it the attention that it deserves.” (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

For the business student from Germany, taking a biology class online meant being able to focus on the material, not on trying to understand and pronounce new words.

For the student government president juggling work, campus, and family commitments, taking an art class online meant getting to explore the topic at the most convenient times, giving it her full attention and energy.

For the school, Rowan College at Burlington County, online courses are one way to offer more courses, in more formats, to students who may be unable to take a specific class on campus.

“We find that academically, it’s very similar” to in-person courses, said David Spang, the college’s provost and senior vice president. “The same outcomes are met, and our students are enriched by taking the online courses and gaining the benefits, then, of the flexibility.”

Any given semester, about one-third of the community college’s students are taking an online course; in last year’s graduating class, three out of four students had taken at least one class online. The school, formerly Burlington County College, is now seeking to expand its online program even further.

College accessibility and affordability are central themes in the five-year strategic plan that the school adopted this month, and online programs play a key role. The plan includes providing more faculty training for online courses, adding a new online degree or certificate program every two years, growing the transfer agreements for online degrees, and cutting online tuition for out-of-county residents to match what county residents pay.

“We’ve tried to provide the maximum possible opportunities and flexibility for our students,” said Martin Hoffman, who heads the college’s online programs and library system.

Students who have taken classes online said they are similar to on-campus ones in intensity of work and amount of time required to take them. The difference: That time is scheduled by the student, at the student’s convenience.

“It is very much like being in your regular 2-to-4 class; it’s just that you have more flexibility throughout the week to get it done,” said Caylor-Ann Rose-Green, 19, who is graduating in May with her degree in biological sciences.

Rose-Green has taken 11 online courses. The option of taking online courses helped Rose-Green balance work, her role as student government president, and family commitments, she said.

The flexibility also meant that she could properly devote her attention to the courses, rather than be physically present and mentally distracted.

“I can afford to have more creativity, and more of a free range to be able to do my work and not be rushing to do it,” Rose-Green said. “It allows me to be a better student because I’m able to give it the attention that it deserves.”

That freedom also appealed to Marie Totzke, 23, an international student from Germany who is studying business administration and accounting. In some cases, the courses are simply more convenient, such as when Totzke took three online courses while home in Germany for the summer.

Other times, the online course is better for learning, she said. Such as the biology course she took online, which was better than an in-person class “because English is not my native language . . . so I’m not having to go to class and deal with not understanding words.”

“If I’m in class and I can’t pronounce the word, it’s me stressing about not pronouncing the words and not focusing on the material,” Totzke said. “If I’m at home, I can have the material in front of me.”

Of course, the flexibility of online courses also requires discipline. The classes usually include assignments that take place throughout the semester, so professors can track students’ progress.

“For the first time in my life, I have been using an agenda,” Rose-Green said, and white boards throughout her house – the back of her bathroom door, the kitchen, the living room – help her stay on top of assignments.

Totzke said she tries to do some of her readings each night, taking notes, and then spends a day finalizing assignments on the weekends.

Nonacademic skills such as time management and organization become even more important with online courses, said Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“There are a number of things involved in success,” Karp said. “All of those things tend to get magnified in the online learning.”

For colleges, these issues can be addressed by building support systems – academic advising, tutoring – that are designed to meet the needs of online courses. Professors may need to watch for different signs of trouble, Karp said, and make sure students are engaged and not isolated.

Engagement was something Tiffany Ruocco was focused on when she created an online course on the history of graphic design.

“There has to be enough interaction with the students that they feel that they’re not missing anything,” said Ruocco, who teaches graphic design and digital media at the college.

One upside of the online discussion, Ruocco found, was that she also was not constrained by time and could introduce topics without worrying about derailing her plans.

Another instructor, Erica Osmond, has also found that the online courses can sometimes foster more thoughtful discussion than when students are put on the spot.

“People have additional time to think: the reading, the questions, the discussion posts, they’re processing that,” said Osmond, who created an online public speaking course. “They can go and do some research behind it.”

The online courses have gotten better as technology has improved, Osmond said; the rise of smartphones has made it easy for students to film themselves.

Students then upload the footage, and the course management software gives Osmond the ability to comment in text overlays over the video itself.

“It’s the same content, delivered in a digital way,” she said.

Public speaking isn’t an obvious choice for an online course; neither is a graphic design course. Spang, the school’s provost, said he’s being creative in figuring out what other types of courses might be adaptable to online teaching.

Still, online courses won’t ever fully replace face-to-face interaction. Hoffman, the college’s head of online programming, noted that some courses will always require a physical component.

“Would you really want a nurse working on you who’s never worked on a live patient?” he asked. “I watch the Food Network a lot, but that doesn’t make me a Cordon Bleu chef.”

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