By Bruce Buchanan
Today’s college students have been described “digital natives”—to their generation, the Internet, e-mail, social networking and other forms of online communication always have existed. To them, firing off a text message or performing a Google search comes just as naturally as picking up the telephone or opening a textbook did for previous generations. Not surprisingly, millions of college students each year are taking online classes – even on-campus students who also take traditional courses. A 2010 report found that 73 percent of colleges and universities were seeing an increase in the demand for online classes.
So to meet the needs of these students, the School of Education, and UNCG in general, are expanding and improving online learning options. Dr. Anthony Chow, Assistant Professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies, is spearheading this effort.
“Online learning is a global phenomenon that is being driven by students,” Dr. Chow said. “I’ve been dealing with online learning since 2000. Even then, students were voting with their dollars and keyboards.” Approximately 20 percent of UNCG’s courses now have some type of online component.
Starting in early 2010, the School of Education began a comprehensive look at how it could improve online offerings. Dr. Chow prepared a report, based on a nationwide survey that drew 1,400 responses.
“We’ve seen a lot of what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “We have a good sense of what quality online learning looks like.”
And what does quality online learning look like? Dr. Chow says a good online program:
- Has to be interactive between faculty, students and the course content. An online program can’t just be a “correspondence course,” Dr. Chow said. “It’s all about interaction and communication.”
- Must have real-time support. “One of the big issues with online learning is that students aren’t getting face-to-face support,” Dr. Chow said. So online programs must have a real-time component – via instant messaging, desktop sharing or online video, for example – where students can ask questions and get immediate answers. Otherwise, technical issues can thwart even the most dedicated students and instructors.
- Needs to have an orientation, where expectations are outlined up front.
- Requires well-prepared faculty who understand how to fully utilize the technology. Dr. Chow says professional development is essential in this regard.
The ideal program, according to Dr. Chow, will offer a real-time learning component, while still allowing students the option of completing course work on their own time, since flexibility is a key selling point of online learning. For example, an instructor may host a course in which some students participate at that time, either in class or remotely. But that same course could be recorded and posted online for other students to view whenever their schedules allow. Dr. Chow himself has taught courses this way and says this arrangement works well.
“The beauty of it is that I only have to give one lecture (for both on-site and online students),” he said.
Faculty buy-in is vital to a successful online learning program. But that also can be one of the biggest challenges.
The School of Education has adopted a strictly voluntary approach to teaching online courses. Faculty members are encouraged to participate, but no one is forced to teach online unless he or she wants to.
Dr. Chow believes universities can use online learning to reach people who might not be able to attend traditional classes. By expanding course offerings to people who otherwise wouldn’t enroll, for example, people who live in rural areas or students who work during normal classroom hours, the School of Education is accommodating the schedule of potential students.
“The thing online learning does really well is increase access to our disciplines,” Dr. Chow said. “There’s something very appealing about reaching out to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue a degree.”
One particular area for growth Dr. Chow and other leaders have identified is in providing classes to people who aren’t interested in enrolling as college students. For example, UNCG faculty can provide professional development courses to teachers, administrators and others interested in the curriculum.
Additionally, he and others are working on include creating an online help desk and conducting an online learning needs assessment for the entire School of Education. All of these steps are a part of making sure the School of Education has the high-quality online learning program that students are increasingly demanding.
“Success and high quality are outcomes of doing things the right way,” Dr. Chow said. And this is the aim of the School of Education.