Virtual classrooms expanding, but educators continue to debate benefits

Friday, September 9, 2011 | 2:25 p.m. CDT
Students attending local colleges, such as Missouri Western State University, shown here in this May 5 St. Joseph News-Press, St. Joseph, Mo., file photo have many more choices as far as taking online classes than just a few year ago.

ST. JOSEPH — Local college campuses add new buildings every few years, expanding their bricks and mortar. But virtual offerings are spreading at a much more rapid rate.

A student looking for online classes through Missouri Western State University would have found 33 of them a few years ago. That student now has 170 options. Some general education courses, such as science laboratory classes, aren't available yet, but if they were, a student could earn a diploma without ever stepping foot on the campus.

Northwest Missouri State University started its online program in 1999, with 44 students enrolled in eight courses. The university now has 137 online courses, and a geographic information systems degree that is 100 percent online. And the demand is increasing.

"Surprisingly, it keeps on growing," said Roger Von Holzen, who oversees distance learning at Northwest. "We think we're going to top off, but every year we keep on growing."

Northwest's enrollment for online courses peaks during the summer semester, and it hit more than 2,400 recently. Western's online enrollment is slightly less than 2,500 this semester.

The key is convenience, not price. Online courses actually cost more than their on-campus counterparts, if one judges by tuition alone. Western charges an extra $20 per credit hour — a fee used to pay for the infrastructure of the program, which includes extra bandwidth and stipends to faculty who have more than 25 students in a section.

Gordon Mapely, dean of the Western Institute, said the faculty's workload in online courses can sometimes exceed that of a traditional classroom. For example, without face-to-face communication, faculty spend more time answering emailed questions. He hasn't heard students complain about the fee because online courses allow students to have more flexibility in their schedules than traditional classes, which meet at set times each week and might not fit into a student's work schedule or that of a student's children or spouse. In some cases, online classes may allow students to graduate faster than they would taking traditional classes. College could cost students less if they're able to schedule more work hours.

The Northwest student body, Von Holzen said, is comprised of a large group of students who work their way through college.

Some of them go to their hometowns to work over the summer and enroll in online classes, which explains the spike in enrollment during that semester. Before Web classes were available, those students would often take courses at a university or community college close to their hometowns and transfer the credits to Northwest. Now, the university is capturing those credits at the front end, helping to boost revenue.

But there are those who argue that online learning doesn't match what one can ascertain in a traditional classroom. Von Holzen counters that just like in a physical classroom, much depends on the instructor. Faculty can't teach a Web class like they would face-to-face, but there is technology to help facilitate that process.

"An online course can be very effective," he said. "If it's not a heavily involved faculty member in the class, then it won't be as effective."

He said Northwest addresses the quality issue by having outside sources — including faculty from other campuses — conduct reviews.

The goal is to achieve more consistent quality, which has proven to be "quite effective," Von Holzen said.

Despite the conveniences of a virtual classroom, the traditional college campus shouldn't crumble for lack of use. For many, the college experience is about more than just academics.

"People like being in a face-to-face environment, especially traditional-aged students" Von Holzen said.

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