Technological advancements increase human interaction in online classes

Thursday, August 6, 2009 | 12:16 p.m. CDT; updated 9:01 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 7, 2009
Peggy Wright, a biology professor at Columbia College, talks with Terry Smith, the college's dean of academic affairs, about a new online course in human biology. The class, which is slated to start this fall, will allow students to perform lab assignments at home.

COLUMBIA — Students in Peggy Wright's human biology class this fall will find themselves cutting up sheep hearts and using microscopes in a different kind of laboratory: their own homes.

Wright, a biology professor at Columbia College, is offering an online course that allows students to do experiments at home with a $175 lab kit by LabPaq.


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The 13 assignments range from simple questions on friends' phenotypes to dissection of a sheep heart. Students are expected to read each lab, take a quiz, complete the lab, do a report and participate in online discussion.

Through advancements in technology, online classes offered in Columbia have been able to provide direct interaction and communication using new audio and video programs that create an environment similar to on-campus courses.

Since 2005, Columbia College, Stephens College and MU have seen a combined growth of more than 50 percent in online enrollment. In 2005, total online enrollment at the three schools was about 46,000, compared to more than 71,000 this year.

Columbia College has a nationally known online program, which had an enrollment of 60,000 for the 2008-2009 school year, said Gary Massey, associate dean for adult higher education and online campus for Columbia College.

Massey said the growing popularity in online courses often comes from personal experience.

"As people become more comfortable with the online format, they're like, 'Wow, I wish I would have known about this before,'" he said. "It's just growing in leaps and bounds."

Wright's eight-week, two-credit online biology course starts Aug. 10. For the first day's discussion question, Wright will ask her 20 students to describe their "lab" to ensure they pick the most appropriate place possible, emphasizing that the safety she enforces in the classroom is just as important in her students' own homes.

She set up her lab in her pantry, where she also videotaped and photographed herself performing every experiment to provide visual examples for her students. Wright, who has prepared for her fall courses since January, hopes her hard work pays off.

"That's the challenge for a lab in this format. In a normal lab, I'm right there to answer questions and oversee them," she said. "I hope that the way I built it will provide enough of that."

Meanwhile, this summer, Stephens College has developed its newest online program, Residential Online Summer School, which has "quadrupled beyond expectations" with 79 enrollments, said Amy Gipson, vice president for marketing and public relations.

Before, mainly adult and professional students took online courses, but this summer, the online program offers this same opportunity for traditional, on-campus students, said Zak Birchmeier, coordinator of instructional support at Stephens. 

Tara Giblin, a natural sciences professor at Stephens, started teaching an eight-week online version of her Crime Scene Analysis class this summer. The course involves watching videos, discussing crime evaluation in smaller online, interactive groups and participating in go-to meetings, which are live "conference" calls during which Giblin is available for voice chat and discussion.

Stephens freshman Heather Maddock liked the discussion groups.

"I think that they provide a nice way to interact and share opinions," she said. "By doing this, we have been able to work together to write summaries and solve cases."

Senior Tawna Kerr enjoyed the meetings.

"The conference call sessions have been hugely helpful," she said. "Hearing her explain the topic and being able to ask questions at the same time while I'm watching her presentation is incredible. It is just like being in the classroom."

This summer, Stephens expanded its leadership program from a master's program in business administration to an 18-month master's degree in strategic leadership that will be almost completely online, with the exception of a few in-person meetings each semester.

Susan Bartel, department chairwoman of graduate business programs, finds students often benefit from doing coursework on their own schedule. She looks forward to further-evolving technologies.

"The gap between on-campus courses and online courses is getting smaller and smaller," Bartel said.

In its graduate program, Stephens had 347 online-only enrollments and 30 hybrid, or online and on-campus, enrollments this summer, Gipson said.

At MU, eight schools offer online programs in 40 degrees, said Dolores Shearon, marketing director for MU Extension, which administers the online programs. About 5,000 MU students take online courses each year. Most individual classes are taken by undergraduate students, while most online degrees are completed by graduate students, she said.

Linda Esser, an MU library science professor, uses a program called Wimba, which provides online voice conferencing for her children's and teen literature courses.

In each course, students must choose to interact weekly in one of three 90-minute sessions or attend the one session offered on campus. Esser has found each group has its own personality because "no two groups have the same discussion."

Esser said this type of interaction has advantages.

"It's easier to evaluate their progress. It renewed my faith in teaching, honestly," said Esser, an MU professor for 10 years who has gradually begun to work more with online-only classes. "I've really enjoyed it. I'd forgotten how much I missed interacting with students."

Kay Libbus, an MU professor of nursing and women's studies, plans to use live video conferencing through a program called Adobe Connect beginning next summer. Nursing doctoral students, whose average age is 45, will be better accommodated through the online program, she said.

"We're a bit nervous, but we're also very optimistic," Libbus said.

Online classes have advanced not only at the college level. Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher hopes to develop plans for responsible high school upperclassmen to take both online and on-campus classes next spring.

Eventually, high school students will be able to complete coursework for roughly two to three courses a semester at home, but major exams will be taken on campus, Belcher said. He hopes this approach will prepare students for online courses in the future.

"This is a prime opportunity to change the structure of high schools," he said.

The recent passage of Senate Bill 291 for virtual classroom development offers an opportunity for school districts to receive state aid payments for students taking online classes at the primary and secondary level, said Curt Fuchs, coordinator of education support services for Missouri's Virtual Instructional Program. 

Fuchs said the original legislation was passed in 2006 and online classes were offered in Missouri in fall 2007. Missouri is the 24th state to institute a statewide program for online education. Since it began, Missouri's online enrollment has risen 30 percent.

Fuchs said online education will also benefit home-schooled students and smaller school districts that may not be able to offer certain classes.

"I think you're going to see a rapid growth in online education," Fuchs said.

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James Adams August 7, 2009 | 4:03 p.m.

I hope this works out for them! Great article.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro August 7, 2009 | 5:30 p.m.

Something else to try at home:

(Report Comment)

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