More colleges, students embrace online learning
By Kara Cogswell
March 16, 2008
Sarah Van Middlesworth recently started her dream job, working as an environmental scientist for a consulting firm in a small town on the central coast of California -- putting her a few thousand miles closer to Oregon State University than when she was a student there.
She graduated from OSU in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in natural resources. At the time she was in Thetford, England, although she started the program in 2000 while living in Hetzerath, Germany.
Like a growing number of students, the 38-year-old mother of two earned her degree without ever setting foot in a traditional classroom.
Van Middlesworth attended classes online via OSU's Extended Campus, studying after her kids went to bed and comparing soil samples from London with her classmates' findings on the West Coast. "My husband and I do a lot of traveling and moving around," she said. "There was no other way I could have done it."
E-learning is on the rise. According to a 2007 survey by the Sloan Consortium, nearly one in five U.S. college students will take a class online. And as technologies improve and demand for online degree programs grows, more Oregon universities and community colleges are expanding their Web-based curriculum -- offering students a flexible route to earning a degree backed by the academic reputation and local resources of a brick-and-mortar institution.
OSU's Ecampus offers undergraduate degrees in general agriculture, environmental sciences, liberal studies and natural resources. At Eastern Oregon University, students can choose from one of eight online majors, including business administration, business economics, English, fire services administration, liberal studies; philosophy, politics & economics; physical activity and health; and psychology.
Southern Oregon University and Western Oregon University offer undergraduate degrees in criminal justice that can be completed online; SOU also has online programs in business administration and early childhood development. Several Oregon community colleges offer associate's degrees that can be completed through online and other distance-education delivery methods. A handful of private universities, including Marylhurst University and Linfield College, also offer online degree programs.
Flexibility for busy lives
Although on-site students often take an occasional class online, and vice-versa, online programs are especially valuable for those who don't fit the profile of the traditional, 18-to-22-year-old college student, said Sue Dobson, regional director for EOU's Portland Center.
"Our population is the adult student, anywhere from 25 to 70, who are already busy with jobs, homes and families," Dobson said. "Being able to satisfy a goal of completing a bachelor's at their own pace, at their own time, makes it much more doable."
A common misperception is that online courses are easier than on-site classes, Dobson said.
"In the online environment, students work every bit as hard, if not harder, to accomplish as much work as they would in a classroom . . . definitely, it is not the easy route," she said.
Dobson urges prospective students to take the self-assessment quiz on the EOU Division of Distance Education's Web site. It's designed to help students decide whether their abilities, learning styles and educational needs are suited to an online program. "Distance education is not for everyone -- it requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline and motivation," she said.
Degree-seeking online students typically must meet the same admissions standards as on-site students, and the components of an online course are similar to a traditional college course: lectures, assigned reading, class discussions, quizzes and exams.
In an online class, however, the instructor posts the video or text of the lecture online for students to peruse at a time convenient for them; coursework might also be delivered via videotape or DVD. Discussion in an online forum is often required, but not in real time -- some students might post comments at 3 p.m., others at 3 a.m.
Rather than limit personal interaction, many students and professors say the online format often improves classroom discussions, because participation is required, and many people are more comfortable expressing themselves through writing.
"Surprisingly, I think there is more interaction between classmates in online classes," said Shelly Koetje, 24, an online student at OSU, in an e-mail interview. "Usually each class requires that students participate in an online discussion a few times each term, or sometimes once a week . . . I think it is easier for people to have discussions online than it is face-to-face sometimes."
Koetje, who lives in Portland and plans to graduate this year with a bachelor's degree, said the diversity of online students also adds to the learning experience. "There are people of all ages, from all different backgrounds. I've had classmates in the same city, as well as classmates in Saudi Arabia, Alaska, North Carolina and Iraq."
Like Van Middlesworth, though, convenience is what Koetje appreciates most about the online program. With a husband in the Army and a full-time job, she likes that she can fit school into her life wherever and whenever is best for her.
"It might be before work, after work, on the weekend," Koetje said. "I can just turn on my computer and everything I need is right there."
E-mail Kara Cogswell at firstname.lastname@example.org
View the original article from The Oregonian Archive.
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