- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

University of Maryland University College has gone the distance in its approach to distance learning.

With a worldwide student body of 87,197, it is the largest public university in the country offering online classes, with 650 courses available in 91 undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs and typically 22 to 25 students in a class. Enrollment figures for the fall 2003 semester — the latest available — include about 57,500 U.S. military members and their dependents.

The next-largest enrollment — 16,485 — is of Maryland residents.

UMUC, one of 11 schools in the state university system, is expected to account for one-third of all students in the state system by 2011.

The term “distance learning” encompasses every kind of educational program, including correspondence courses, in which a student does not meet face to face with an instructor. More frequently these days, it refers to online computer-facilitated programs that link a teacher and student electronically.

Northern Virginia Community College, which has offered extensive online courses for seven years, enrolls 7,000 online students each semester out of a total of about 60,000 students.

General-studies degrees are the most popular for online students because they prepare students for transfer to a four-year college, but also popular are two-year certificate degrees, which include technical and business subjects.

Students’ median age, says Monica Sasscer, the community college’s associate vice president for instructional technology, is 26 or 27 and dropping. One-third of the faculty has been specially trained in online teaching techniques.

“Different disciplines have different needs,” she points out, “but in general, even lab courses can be held online.”

Beyond the online courses, Nova, as the college is widely known, has been in distance learning for a long time, promoting tele-course education through public television, says John Sener, an online consultant formerly at Nova, which has been involved in adult education for 30 years.

The Adelphi-based UMUC also offers classes in-house at 20 locations in the Washington area and requires all students to be proctored on site for exams, with special arrangements made for students living overseas.

According to the New York-based nonprofit Sloan Consortium, which aids learning organizations, more than 1.6 million students in the United States took at least one online course in 2002, and more than one-third of those students took all of their courses online. Also, says Sloan, 81 percent of institutions of higher learning offer at least one fully online or blended course — an online component combined with the traditional classroom setting.

Frank Mayadas, director of the consortium’s grant program for online education, estimates that the national figure for students taking online courses is 2 million. Dropout rates mirror those in traditional classroom settings, he notes, and reflect the different populations being served.

“The biggest drawback now is seeing that this is a legitimate form of education, an idea that is not widely accepted.”

Accreditation is done regionally, with peer-review authorities holding online educational institutions to the same standards to which they hold any other, according to Gerald Heeger, UMUC president.

“Students are expected to have the same level of services and attention.” One difficulty, he has found, is that in offering such courses, “you need a whole lot of support… learning that it is not [just] a technological change but a whole institutional change.”

Mr. Mayadas says studies show that if a course is well thought out and a serious instructor is behind it, results are the same, in terms of customer satisfaction, as those in a regular classroom environment.

“Most faculty we have involved in our surveys say they work harder this way…. The ones that fail don’t understand how to do it right. In a classroom, if an instructor does a bad job, there is grumbling, and he will [eventually] get a bad rating. With an online instructor who doesn’t log on, the feedback is instantaneous: ‘This is terrible.’”

The distance-learning trend is growing because of a number of factors, not the least of which, participants say, are the convenience and flexibility in arranging class time. In most cases, teachers can deliver and students can receive lectures whenever it suits their schedules. Several students and teachers interviewed agreed that they spent no less time in study and preparation as a result, and often spent more.

“Contrary to what you might think, you almost get to know students better, intellectually,” says Nova philosophy professor Don Gregory of Chantilly. He has been involved in distance learning for 20 years.

“In discussions back and forth, you tend to get more thoughtful comments than in a classroom, where someone raises a hand and speaks on the spur of the moment,” he says.

He teaches 150 to 200 students each semester and currently handles three courses, with a maximum 65 students in a course, which all have different assignments and exams at different times.

Distance-learning students don’t get the benefits of sharing a community campus life, but they often are connected through online newsletters and take part in group discussion through conference calls. Ideally, of course, they must own a computer with the capability of interacting with the software system chosen by the educational institution.

Likewise, faculty can live at some distance from students, but that doesn’t necessarily lessen demands. Nova asks its faculty to respond to students within 48 hours. When Mr. Gregory and his wife — also a Nova teacher — take overnight trips, the laptop goes with them.

Patricia Daron, a teacher of anatomy and physiology at Nova’s Extended Learning Institute (the official name of the online department) admits that it took her almost three years to adjust to teaching online, but she is considering taking a few online courses herself. For lab courses requiring dissection, students get screen graphics that identify organs and organ parts.

“It disturbs me a bit they don’t get their hands dirty,” she says.

Diane Tepfer, who teaches art history at UMUC from a Dupont Circle apartment, requires students to visit a museum or art site within two hours of their home. (Temporary absolution is given to military personnel stationed on an aircraft carrier, in which case she requests planning such a visit ahead of time.)

“When I first heard about online courses, I was very critical, thinking they wouldn’t be as demanding,” says Nova student Laura Jaworski, 21, who goes back and forth between Alexandria and Poland. She quickly became a convert.

“You have to be very dedicated and do it consistently. It’s harder because you don’t have a one-on-one relationship. You have to put yourself through the course.”

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