The Digital Classroom

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For decades, the intersection of achieving a college education and taking care of other priorities was murky at best. Young undergraduates who attended college full-time were expected to devote the majority of their waking hours to pursuing their degrees and were lucky to find part-time work that also would fit schedules for lectures and accompanying classwork. For working adults, pursuing a college degree was often the stuff of dreams, with precious few classes available that would not interfere with the responsibilities of full-time careers and family life.

The recent revolution in online learning has changed that for aspiring students. From liberal arts to nursing, criminal justice to freshman history and political science, the scope and flexibility of online education has expanded quickly with the technological sea change, and Oklahoma’s students are reaping the rewards.

A Growing Trend

Recent studies show that over the past 10 years, online course enrollment has outpaced overall higher education enrollment by nearly 20-fold – a trend closely reflected in Oklahoma’s institutions of higher education. The flexibility and accessibility of a quality online education have opened new avenues of opportunity for traditional and non-traditional students alike, and changing the way Oklahoma’s colleges and universities approach their methods of academic delivery.

“At MACU, we have experienced unprecedented growth in our online learning programs – a 295 percent growth in just the last six years alone,” says Kathaleen Reid-Martinez, university provost for Mid-America Christian University in Oklahoma City. “We anticipate continued growth of student enrollment and expansion of the degree programs people need to keep moving ahead personally and professionally.”

Larry Rice, president of Rogers State University in Claremore, says his institution was the first in the state, and one of the earliest in the nation, to offer online bachelor’s and associate’s degrees. RSU’s online bachelor’s degree programs were ranked No. 1 by U.S. News and World Report and have earned other national accolades for digital education initiatives.

“Over the years, we’ve seen online classes grow to become an integral part of our academic offerings,” Rice says. “Today, about 30 percent of all RSU students are enrolled at any one time in an online class as part of their studies, whether they are exclusively online or are using online courses to supplement traditional ‘on-ground’ classes to complete their degree program. Approximately one-in-five RSU courses last year were offered online.”

Other Oklahoma colleges and universities – including Tulsa Community College, Northeastern State University and Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City – now offer as many as 25 percent of their courses online, and the numbers continue to increase.

The Online Learner

Initially, many of the online course offerings at Oklahoma’s colleges and universities were developed with the non-traditional learner in mind. When MACU first began providing online classes in 2000, Reid-Martinez says the university’s courses were developed specifically for working adults in the Oklahoma City area who were looking for two crucial factors in their education: flexible scheduling and point of access.

With an eye toward helping this demographic, MACU developed a program that now serves not only non-traditional students in the Oklahoma City area, but also across the nation as well. The secret to success? Every single class in the MACU College of Adult and Graduate Studies is offered online.

“One can easily imagine the challenges a single mother or father would face when attempting a return to traditional classes two or three times a week for a few years,” Reid-Martinez says. “Online education changes everything. An advanced degree that can be pursued anywhere, anytime truly opens the door of possibilities to these moms and dads, as well as to others who have equally challenging demands on their time.”

Ric N. Baser, vice president and chief academic officer at Tulsa Community College, agrees about the benefits of a digital education. “Flexibility and access are the two key components of online classes over traditional classes,” he says.

“The biggest benefit of online courses is the flexibility of being able to fit the course work into your schedule,” says Susan Tolbart, director of recruitment and student development for OSU-Tulsa. You can work on it early in the morning, during your lunch hour, or after you put the kids to bed. Additionally, you save travel cost and time. With the use of technology and networking tools, students are better able to connect with classmates or be more interactive with their instructors.”

While the impetus for many of Oklahoma’s online education programs might have been prompted by the needs of non-traditional learners, it’s not just the strapped-for-time who are taking advantage of digital academics.

“We see a variety of students on our campus involved in online learning,” Tolbart says. “Younger and older students as well as undergraduate and graduate students participate in online classes. Some students enjoy that particular learning format, so they may choose online over a campus-based course.”

“Today, both blended and online courses are taken by students of all types, including traditional-aged students, working adults, those who are place-bound and unable to reach campus, as well as those who live on campus in dorms,” says Pamela Fly, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. “There is no typical age or major or demographic group that characterizes online learners – only the desire to achieve and progress toward a degree.”

In addition, online classes can offer a more comfortable experience for some students – an experience not always available in traditional lectures.

“Online learning provides for a more personalized learning experience for students,” says Fly. “Some students might hesitate to participate in class discussions or other activities because they are shy and do not want to call attention to themselves. In an online environment, students are on a level playing field and more likely to participate fully in discussions and offer differing points of view. A well-designed course in an online environment requires that students participate and engage with the instructor and one another since they cannot rely on a vocal classmate to monopolize or direct the discussion. Faculty can monitor that participation through discussion threads and wiki tools.”

Digital Divides

For some potential students, online learning can initially be intimidating, especially for older students with limited technical capabilities. For these individuals, the amount of tech know-how needed to succeed in today’s digital education environment can be daunting. In addition, students who come from lower-income or rural households may not have access to computer equipment, software or internet access at home.

To mitigate these issues, Oklahoma’s colleges and universities all provide on-campus computer labs with extended hours for students who are unable to connect at home, as well as resources for locating places in students’ communities where they can access equipment and the internet. But Bill Pink, vice president of academic affairs at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City, says the roadblocks to online education can include more than simple issues of connectivity.

“Online learning isn’t for everyone,” Pink says. “Some students need, and desire, the face-to-face contact that traditional classrooms provide … Again, students who decide to enroll in online courses must be aware that a high level of self-discipline is a must. Without it, online courses can be much tougher than traditional courses.”

According to Pink, OSU-OKC has taken steps to assist online students in assessing and fine-tuning their digital educational abilities. “This is still a developing process that I hope will prove helpful to our students and our faculty who teach online courses,” Pink says.

MACU also is providing hands-on guidance for online students who might feel lost in the rapidly changing digital education environment. “While many students benefit from the flexibility of online learning, they may not have the natural ability of being autonomous learners,” says Reid-Martinez. For those who are motivated to learn, MACU becomes an educational partner and provides a strategic network of support to help keep the adult learner moving toward his or her goals. Each adult student is assigned a Student Success Coach who helps them navigate the college experience and to grow more familiar with the digital learning environment.”

Baser feels that with the rapid advances in connectivity and the ubiquity of mobile technology, digital divides in education will shortly be neutralized. “The divide is narrowing considerably due to the plethora of internet-enabled smart phones, tablets and low cost PCs,” he says. “Many younger students now have tablets and smart phones before owning their first computer. Mobile access to online classes is becoming more and more popular and the software and technology are beginning to mature to meet those needs.”

A Future for Face-to-Face?

With the dizzying growth in online enrollment and avenues of technological access, some have claimed that the traditional on-campus lecture will go the way of the landline. Officials at Oklahoma’s colleges and universities, however, disagree.

Pink believes that the growth of one form of education does not mandate the extinction of the other. “I firmly believe that for the immediate future, face-to-face courses will be needed by many students who do not feel comfortable with online learning,” he says. “If common education (K-12) continues to be mostly delivered in a face-to-face format, many of those students will want to continue with that form of delivery. We’re seeing more and more online high schools popping up, and if that continues to be the trend, we may see a shift across the board, but for now, there is room for multiple modes of delivering high quality education to our students.”

“Face-to-face courses will continue to play an important role on our campus. Not everyone experiences success in online learning,” says Tolbart of OSU-Tulsa’s curriculum. “Some students find the structure and regularity of campus-based courses beneficial to their success as a student. Plus, the social interaction and spontaneity that is a part of a dynamic learning environment is more difficult to achieve in an online environment. For most of the public universities in Oklahoma, students will still find more programs offered through on-site or a combination of on-site and online.”

Baser also believes that more and more classes will be offered in a combination of digital and on-campus modes. “Many [face-to-face courses] will use online course technologies to expand their flexibility and strengthen content delivery,” he says. “We currently call these ‘blended courses’ since they are blending a significant portion of the class online but still require on-campus lectures and discussions. While there are many technologies that permit engaging discussions online, live face-to-face discussions are still an engaging part of academia and one which should be experienced by all college level students.”

On the Horizon

While administrators agree that in-person lectures will remain a touchstone of the higher education experience, the growth in online education shows no sign of slowing down and plenty more changes will likely take place in the near future.

“I think it has matured to a point where the student consumer is becoming more savvy with the learning modality of online classes,” says Baser. “They are beginning to demand better instructional design, interactivity and quality learning components that address each individual’s learning style, such as video/audio/animation and not just text-only-based classes.”

Pink says that regardless of the current changes, it’s important not to get hung up on the method, and instead focus on the needs of Oklahoma’s students.

“Those of us in higher education must never get comfortable with how we service our students,” he says. “We must be constantly examining the needs of our state, which includes students as well as business and industry. If we get stuck in doing the same old thing without keeping an eye on the changing needs of the state, including alternate forms of delivering education and training, we will find ourselves irrelevant to arguably the most important function of state government – educating our population.” 

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