Fifty-year-old Melissa Grill is a prime example of today's distance learner. While working in the computer lab of a North Carolina community college, she earned a master's degree in information and telecommunications systems management from Capitol College, based in Laurel, Md.
Nowadays, many IHEs offer degrees online, but what attracted Grill to Capitol was the interactivity of its program. By using Centra One software, the school's distance learners are able to participate in real time with students sitting in a classroom. By clicking a button, a distance learner can "raise a hand" to ask a question or make a comment, and students in the classroom and the instructor can respond.
All of this makes the distance learning experience beneficial to students. But the numbers prove that there's value in offering these programs, too.
Online education is a $6 billion business, according to Eduventures, an independent research firm. Enrollment is expected to exceed one million students this year.
Whether it is at a career-oriented school like Capitol, or a traditional four-year university, distance learning is a lucrative opportunity. Institutions of higher ed are jumping on it, and utilizing the latest technology in the process. Besides exponential enrollment increases brought on by distance education offerings, schools are seeing greater student satisfaction, the betterment of the surrounding communities, and more name recognition as international students enroll.
"The first time you hear it, it sounds like the voice of God," quips Phil Knutel, speaking of the Centra Symposium system at work in several "hybrid" classrooms at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. These special classrooms are equipped with technology to allow communication between an instructor, in-class students, and distance learners. With speakers in the ceiling and microphones at their desks, Bentley students in the master of science programs can discuss ideas with distance learners.
Before 1999, Bentley used videoconferencing to administer its distance education courses. But, as Ruth Horwitz, manager of online programs at Bentley, says, they had to find sites and partners and companies who were willing to let students use their facilities.
The question of distance ed had come up before, but, Horwitz says, the administration was not interested in asynchronous means of teaching like online chat, message boards, or PowerPoint presentations. "They felt they couldn't control quality, and the only way to control quality was for the student to be in absolute, direct contact with the faculty member in real time."
Knutel, director of Academic Technology, Library, and Research Services, had just come on board and decided to use a pilot version of Symposium. And it has turned out to be the only software they've used since 1999. Since making the investment six years ago, Horwitz says the school has been profiting substantially from the distance learning offerings, and in more than one way.
First, the effort expanded Bentley's universe of students, by reaching people throughout the country and the world. "Before it was just people from Boston who didn't want to drive, but now we have students from everywhere," Horwitz says. "We've really expanded, and that is a benefit because we're bringing in a new target market."
Convenience plays a role in bringing new students in, she says. "Students will not take a [traditional] class during tax season, or if they've just had a baby."
Knutel and Horwitz note that the Centra server has never failed them. "When you've got students who are paying $2,700 per class, and you're telling them they are going to be in every class, and they're going to have equal access to the materials and to the teachers as the students in class," Horwitz says, it's crucial to use reliable technology.
Leaders at Capitol College, which has seen its enrollment double as a result of its online offerings, are quick to tout the benefits of online learning programs, too. "It's really expanded our outreach to and access from different segments of the community. We can get out to more people, more regions, more countries, become more well known. And as a consequence of that, we get a lot more diversity in our programs, which I think is good for the student population," says Mike Wood, the school's president and CEO.
In the case of Boston University, however, going online was mainly a way of offering continuing education and graduate degree programs to its alumni. "We have a huge national and international group," says Susan Kryczka, director of the Office of Distance Education.
By using an asynchronous platform like WebCT Vista to administer their programs, students don't have to be at their computers at a particular time. "Increasingly, between home, family, and work obligations, students just can't do that. We only use live audio conferencing when the faculty member wants to have a live conference with the students, but, generally, we don't, because that's part of the appeal of the programs that we offer," Kryczka says.
Although he has no documented proof, Wood believes there is another phenomenon occurring within Capitol's online program: Distance learners tend to be more disciplined; hence, they stay in their programs and ultimately graduate.
"In one respect, they have to be at least as good as, if not better than, the classroom student, because online learning, especially the first few times around, requires a little dedication, diligence, and self-discipline."
Wood says that Capitol has been getting motivated distance learning students enrolling, which has helped result in strong retention and success rates.
The size of Alaska is sometimes the state's very weakness. Combined with frigid temperatures for much of the year, access to good health care and medicine can be a challenge. Until recently, having a scarcity of pharmacists in rural parts of the state meant uneducated pharmacy technicians often doled out medications only using skills learned on the job.
The state realized more pharmacists were needed in the region, meaning an academic program for pharmacists was desperately needed, says Kathi Baldwin, Pharmacy Technology program director at the University of Alaska. In some cases, pharmacy technicians were practicing by themselves in pharmacies in rural parts of the state. Rather than trying to attract pharmacists to practice there, or setting up an educational program for prospective pharmacists, the state university set up the pharmacy technology program to educate those technicians who had already been working.
A face-to-face program was set up at the university three years ago, but the school knew it was not going to meet the needs of rural Alaska, she says. Without the help of an online program, "we couldn't have helped at all. We couldn't be meeting the needs of the state without some type of course management delivery product. People aren't going to fly in from bush communities to take courses."
Feedback from the 100 or so students this school year has been "tremendous," Baldwin reports. Prior to starting the online program, classes never filled up. And since starting the online version of the program in fall 2004, the university still had not had a fully enrolled class. But this year, Baldwin says the program has gotten a "very enthusiastic reception." The introductory class was filled by August 20, at which point the university had to close registration.
The popularity of the program stems from pharmacy technicians' desire to get a solid understanding of the field. "Their on-the-job training is good, but now they're starting to understand why they're doing something, the ramifications of an error, and when to alert a pharmacist if they see something [wrong]," Baldwin says.
Using video and audio clips of instructors and many photographs, the program tries to make the learning experiences as interactive as possible. The university has even expanded its reach by including students from the South Pacific who want to obtain pharmacy technology certification as well.
Other states have begun initiatives in order to educate their residents and make their states places companies would want to set up shop. For instance, the online programs at Capitol help further a state agenda, Wood says. Maryland's Governor's Workforce Investment Board is focused on replenishing, sustaining, and increasing the capabilities of the workforce. "By doing things with people at work, or while they're studying while working full time, it achieves benefits for the state, for society, as well as for the college," he adds.
There are other intangible benefits to offering distance education programs, notes Horwitz of Bentley. She says it's important that institutions use this type of technology to help prepare their students with the skills that are increasingly valued in the corporate world. "These are 21st-century skills, and a lot of [companies] use them. When our students go into the marketplace, and they can display that kind of communication skill, that reflects well on Bentley," Horwitz says.
Dianne Veenstra, vice president for Information and Outcomes Assessment for Capitol College, also says that since expanding its online programs, Capitol has been able to recruit nationally recognized faculty.
Capitol aims to be regarded as a worldwide leader in the creative use of technology for education. Wood says they are now better able to align themselves with the students' digital world. Online study, he asserts, is actually a much more natural experience for today's student than taking a traditional class. "That's the world they live in."