The flexibility, ease and accessibility of online distance learning courses can be attractive selling points to students faced with hectic schedules.
The fact that those classes require the same amount of work as traditional classes, though, is not.
Online distance education courses at the University of Alaska are in high demand each semester, but they come with a high drop rate as well. Although the courses have a high attrition rate, Shane Southwick, operations manager for UAA’s distance education service, said it is still better than the national average.
Part of the reason for the high instance of drops, he believes, is that students are laboring under false assumptions.
“Some factors that I believe lead to attrition in distance education are that students perceive (the courses) to be easy when in fact distance courses generally take more time and more work than do traditional face-to-face courses,” Southwick said.
The popularity of online courses nationwide is booming, and it is becoming the norm for students to take online courses in addition to their traditional courses.
According to a report by the Sloan Consortium, which is an Internet education group, 2.3 million people took some form of online classes in 2004 _” an 18.2 percent increase from 2003. That rate is far greater than the modest 10-percent growth rate predicted by some education groups.
The report also says that two-thirds of colleges that provide “face-to-face” courses offer online courses as well.
UAA is offering 118 distance education courses for the spring 2006 semester, which range from general education requirement courses to upper division electives.
The majority of classes are Web-based, but there are also telecourses, audio conference, and media at home courses, which are classes taught entirely by DVD. The classes are a service of Educational Media Services at UAA.
The quantity and quality of the courses are dependent upon the departments and instructors that produce them.
“It takes time and money to put a quality online course together,” Southwick said.
His office and staff work to assist faculty and students in completing the courses.
Lara Middaugh works as a receptionist in the distance education office, and watches the same snags occur each semester, beginning with registration and orientation. She wants to help the students, but sometimes can’t.
“If I have an old address and phone number and students don’t access their UAA Web-mail account, I really have no way of giving them the start up information they need,” Lara Middaugh said.
Problems like those are being worked out, and the distance education staff pictures the future of online education as playing a vital part in UAA’s curriculum.
“I really believe that distance education is going to play a major role in shaping UAA over the next five to 10 years,” Southwick said. “The demand for distance courses is at an all-time high.”
Once they sign up and have their textbooks, the students follow the same path as in traditional classes, with midterm and final exams scheduled a week earlier than their campus counterparts.
Because the courses are offered on Blackboard, students are able to participate in class discussions, take quizzes, and e-mail the instructor as needed.
Sharon Agcaoili, a freshman nursing major, is taking nine courses this semester, some of which are online.
She admits taking online courses is not easy, because no one makes students attend class or complete assignments. She says it is up to the student to make the class experience a rewarding one.
“If you don’t keep yourself focused, it’s easy to fail – you have to give yourself a weekly goal to achieve,” Agcaoili said.
As in a physical classroom, she said, the classes offer a diverse mix of students, and a breadth of experience.
Agcaoili says that she would recommend the classes to other students, and that the positive aspects of online courses outweigh the negative ones because they are very accommodating.
“If you have a really busy life, and it’s hard for you to do things like get a reliable babysitter if you have children, it’s very helpful,” Agcaoili said. “You have to prioritize your scheduling, but it is worth it.”