Enrollment in online courses grows, but digital learning is not for everyone

Monday, March 10, 2008 | 7:34 p.m. CDT; updated 11:17 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — The number of students enrolled in online classes at MU and Columbia College continues to grow. The classes are a convenient way to continue or complete an education. Online courses provide flexibility and eliminate traditional barriers to education, but a MU researcher has found they’re not for everyone.

Shawana L. Strickland, clinical assistant professor in the MU School of Health Professions, found that different personality types might affect success in distance learning, such as online courses.

Her study, “Understanding Successful Characteristics of Adult Learners,” examined the demographics and personality types of distance learners. It was published in the fall 2007 edition of Respiratory Care Education Annual.

Strickland, who teaches online courses in respiratory care, focused predominately on adults as returning students.

She found students with an internal locus of control do better than students with an external locus of control, Strickland said.

People with an internal locus of control believe their actions are responsible for outcomes, whereas people with an external locus of control believe outside actions are more responsible for outcomes.

Students with an external locus need interaction and feedback from classmates and teachers during the learning process, but students with an internal locus do not, which is why they do better in online courses.

Her research also found students who don’t like the traditional classroom benefiting from online courses.

“People who are shy and introverted like distance learning because of the anonymity,” Strickland said. “They feel more comfortable.”

Online courses also help people who have full-time jobs, families or live far from a college campus, she said.

“There are a lot of people who can’t spend three or four hours at a time in a classroom,” Strickland said. “Online courses provide flexibility.”

Dolores Shearon, a spokesperson for online education at MU, said most students taking MU’s online courses are adults continuing their education but younger students take online courses as well. Many traditional students take online courses to catch up on course work or get ahead, Shearon said.

Kyle Pusateri, a senior strategic communication major, decided to take Marketing 3000 through an online course because he didn’t want to take 18 credit hours in the classroom.

“I don’t have to physically go to class,” he said. “I can do it on my own time.”

He said there are disadvantages to an online course though, mainly procrastination.

Growth in online course enrollment at MU has been about 25 percent over the past five years, Shearon said.

MU offers 40 degree options through online courses, most of which are graduate degrees. The largest degree programs are in education and nursing. There are about 3,300 students taking classes online at MU.

Some of the newest programs offered include master’s degrees in teaching English to speakers of other languages, business and personal financial planning.

Columbia College also has a growing online program.

Gary Massy, the associate dean of Adult Higher Education and Online Campus, said Columbia College’s online program has been steadily increasing since it began.

“When we started seven and a half years ago, we had 10 courses and enrollment was 180,” he said. “Now we have almost 600 courses, and enrollment is about 12,000.”

Columbia College offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs online. There are 15 undergraduate degree programs and three graduate degree programs including master’s in business, criminal justice and, starting in June, teaching.

Columbia College’s Web site offers a self-assessment quiz to help prospective students decide if an online course or degree program is for them.

Strickland became interested in research on distance learners because she was once a distance learner. She completed her master’s work through online courses at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

“Honestly I took online courses because I was afraid to go back to the classroom after being away for some time,” Strickland said.

When asked if she would continue her research on the subject she replied, simply, “Oh, yeah.”

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