Online learning grows more popular

Improved technology has made online classes more attractive to more and more students.

By , Columnist

When I helped teach an online class four years ago for Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., I came away with mixed feelings.

Yes, it was cool teaching a class where the students were sprinkled across the United States. But it was difficult not seeing students face to face. And as convenient as it was to teach a course this way, having a discussion via software was not the same as the kind of interaction you get in a room full of students quickly feeding off one another.

Many of my students were older and had jobs during the day. Several of these students did the absolute minimum they needed to do in order to pass the course. And some of the other students told me later that it had been difficult not being able to sit down with the teacher one on one.

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That was then. This is now.

With the spread of broadband technology and improved online teaching tools, students and teachers are finding online classes to be a more fluid and rewarding experience.

The use of Skype, an Internet-based phone service, for example has enhanced the teaching of foreign languages online. Yu-Hsiu Lee, a doctoral student in the Language Education Department of Indiana University, Bloomington, praised Skype for allowing anyone who wants to learn Chinese to have one-on-one instruction with a native speaker. Skype allows students to both see and hear the instructor on their computer screens, he wrote last week in the Skype Journal, a blog devoted to the evolution of Internet phone service. Unlike using a CD to learn a language, he says, Skype allows students to get instant feedback and to ask instructors specific questions.

Along with technological advances, more and more students are taking online classes. The 2007 Sloan Survey of Online Learning found that 1 in 5 higher education students is now taking at least one class online. In the fall of 2005, 3.18 million students were taking online courses; in the fall of 2006 (the last year for which statistics are available), it was 3.5 million. That's more than twice as many (1.6 million) as in 2002. The 9.7 percent annual growth rate for online enrollments from 2005-06 far exceeds the 1.5 percent growth of the overall higher education student population for that period, the survey finds.

Another study released last week reveals that a large percentage of middle and high school students are interested in taking courses online that aren't offered at their schools. This holds true for 47 percent of high school students and 32 percent of students in grades six to eight, according to the study by Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit education organization, for Blackboard, a provider of education software and services.

What do students think about the online experience?

The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology looked at data from nearly 29,000 freshman and senior students at 96 higher education institutions across the US. The study found that students enjoy taking online classes, but they want more face-to-face interaction with an online instructor. (Exactly what my students told me four years ago.)

Many also said their instructors need to know more about the actual tools they are using in order to teach online. Otherwise, the technology gets in the way of the learning; teachers who really know how to use the tools can make classes seem less impersonal.

Which brings us to what Glen Gatin is doing at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada. He's teaching an online class about teaching online for teachers, administrators, and tech-support staffers.

Mr. Gatin uses the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as his model. The Cambridge, Mass., university has put all of its course materials online, but what it sells is access to people who can help you make sense of it all.

Gatin says his graduate-level class is coming along as expected. "The purpose of this course is to explore Web-based tools, not just so we can use them in online learning, but how to use them to develop quality content. That's the key," he says.

Some of his students are familiar with the tools and others aren't. He says it's not hard to learn how to use them, but for a class like this, there is one other important element: having a purpose. "There has to be a point for investing all that time," he says.

Gatin is trying to turn the class into a community where the students help teach each other, he says. He sees his role as the coach, or "concierge" as he jokes. It's a model that runs opposite to most of the experiences of the teachers he's teaching. "They come from the traditional industrial model, where you go into a classroom, and you sit at a desk, and someone lectures to you for an hour or so, and then maybe a few questions," he says. "But the reality is that most kids today are very technology-savvy and multitaskers. And so they actually live in one world, and then we ask them to forget about that digital interactive world and go into a classroom using the industrial model."

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