Although there are glimmers the recession could be ending, the unemployment rate is expected to stay high for some time to come. College enrollments will probably keep pace, especially at community colleges, where older adults looking to brush up their job skills are joined by traditional students looking to avoid high tuition for a few years.
While a flood of new students is good to have, new classrooms to accommodate them can't be built and opened overnight. But new distance learning sections can be created. "If you offer a class virtually, you save a classroom. There is no question it has an impact on capacity," says Tony Felicetti, associate vice president of Academic Services and Enrollment Management at Monroe Community College (N.Y.).
Felicetti says distance learning has been growing for years, not just the past few months. This growth has allowed him and other leaders to realize that adding a new online section isn't as easy as flipping a switch.
"Community colleges have been at the forefront of online learning for a long time," says Jan Baltzer, senior vice president with SunGard Higher Education, who adds that the technology infrastructure is the easy part.
Indeed, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, 90 percent of community colleges offer distance learning classes, so the infrastructure is in place. Having enough people to teach the classes is the "capacity limiter," says Jim McGlothlin, vice president of Oracle Higher Education.
Knowing your pain point is important when addressing surging enrollment. If physical space is the issue, more online sessions might help. If budget cuts have placed the institution in a yearlong hiring freeze, like at Miami Dade College, offering more courses online might not be possible. "You still need a professor to teach the class," points out Registrar Dulce Beltran.
Once your faculty roster is full, you can't just throw instructors into teaching online, says Felicetti. Faculty at Monroe complete a 15-hour training module to become qualified to teach online.
Faculty are not required to teach online, but when they do, the online class is weighted the same as a face-to-face class in terms of workload. They are aware that distance ed classes require a major commitment of time online in order to interact with students.
In a recent survey by the APLU-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning, 64 percent of faculty at land-grant institutions said it takes "somewhat more" or "a lot more" effort to teach online compared to teaching a face-to-face course.
"The best way to fail is to assume it isn't different," cautions Baltzer. Faculty members teaching online require extra support, because "they aren't used to teaching in this manner, and they didn't learn in this manner," she says.
Online classes are also counted as part of the traditional workload at Ocean County College (N.J.), where training and mentoring programs help prepare faculty for teaching online, explains Colleen Manzetti, assistant dean of Social Science and Human Services. The institution also participates in the Quality Matters (www.qualitymatters.org) peer review process to help validate the structure of the community college's online offerings.
It is important to have a system in place to track which faculty members have been certified to teach online and whether they have refreshed those skills, says McGlothlin.
"[Hybrid classes] won't reduce your costs in providing quality education," says Richard Strada, interim vice president of academic affairs at OCC. Instead, the classes give access to a wider variety of students.
OCC officials have actually added faculty since launching the OnSite/OnLine nursing program in 2005. The program cohort has grown from 20 students the first year to 90 students this year, some of whom are admitted from other community colleges in New Jersey. Highly motivated students and responsive faculty members are important for a successful program.
Faculty and staff outside of the nursing program offered general guidance when the program launched. Administrators also contracted with SunGard for instructional design.
For all online programs, Strada says academic deans recruit faculty to teach online. This allows the school to open additional sections as soon as they fill. "If we weren't adding more sections online we would have run out of space," he says.
Online enrollment at Mid Michigan Community College has expanded to the point where the Distance Education office was able to hire an instructional designer as well as a learning management system administrator, says Director Anthony Freds. As the program has continued to grow, administrators are being more strategic in deciding which classes to put online based on effectiveness, rather than allowing faculty interest to be the main driver.
At Monroe, Felicetti is part of a committee that reviews applications to teach online. Faculty experience as well as course content are considered. "We aren't likely to offer a class online that hasn't been taught in person," he says.
SunGard's Baltzer says it is cost effective to develop one course that multiple teachers can use. A strong curriculum map is essential, as are regular effectiveness reviews and updating of assignments and activities. Schools don't always have a plan in place for refreshing courses in that manner, she notes.
"A high-tech environment isn't very useful without the quality people to support it," says Freds. "Distance ed is a high-tech area, and sometimes we forget it's the people who make it work."
Getting up-to-date information out to students was an early hurdle to program expansion at Mid Michigan. The solution was decentralizing access to the website so staff in various departments could update their own information. "There is no bottleneck waiting for IT to do it," he says.
A new multimedia studio allows faculty to create high quality audio and video recordings. Freds designed the studio himself. Recording equipment from Sony and Canon was selected, while Apple and Adobe software is being used for postproduction. They also implemented SupportSuite, a helpdesk and trouble ticket system by Kayako Infotech (www.kayako.com), which has improved student support.
All the support services students usually access on campus have to be available online as well, in case any students are only taking classes online, points out Karen Willett, senior director of global education and research marketing at Oracle. Students in a hybrid class have the option of getting support when they are on campus.
Students have to be motivated to succeed in online classes, says Manzetti. If a student struggles in an online class, he or she is advised to change to a traditional program, space permitting.
At Mid Michigan, students must complete the READI (http://readi.info) assessment when they enroll in any online class. A report is provided to both the student and the advisor on any identified weaknesses and how to address them. "We hope it will lead to higher retention rates online," says Freds.
Technology can be another hurdle for some students. Navigating through the system isn't challenging for a web-savvy student, says Manzetti of Ocean County College, where WebCT is the preferred platform. But accessing the programs can be. "[Students] need high-speed access," she says. Since some students take online classes because of a scheduling conflict—rather than an inability to get to campus—the school provides computer labs students can use.
Mid Michigan also has computer labs, and administrators there have worked with local libraries on providing internet access.
As high-speed internet access reaches more parts of the country, the growth of distance learning programs is expected to continue. Their flexibility made them popular long before the economy drove people back to school. "As far as addressing expansion," says Freds, "there is no doubt that it is a good way to go—not just financially, but as a way to provide quality instruction."