Online education will push buttons

Online education will push buttons

By Dave Friedman. When U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas declared that he would run for President of the United States, the announcement took place at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The school, founded by evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell in 1971, is one of the largest colleges in the country. Notably absent from Cruz’s announcement at the Vines Center were most of the students. That’s because the vast majority of over 75,000 people enrolled at Liberty are pursuing their degrees online.

A stigma exists among many who hear about online colleges and automatically flash to for-profit University of Phoenix. They accept all applicants with a high-school diploma or GED, and at one point had enrollment of more than 500,000. While diploma factories do exist, many colleges in North Carolina are seeing internet-based education as a way to serve an ambitious but busy part of the community.

Paula Dibley has worked at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College for the past four years. She serves as the school’s Director of College Relations, Marketing and Communications. While working at RCCC, she is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill online.

“As a busy full-time working mom, I couldn’t get a masters if it weren’t for the online program,” said Dibley. “It allows me to juggle everything and fit them in when time permits.”

Rowan-Cabarrus has seen great interest in its online programs. In fact, while enrollment at community colleges is dropping nationwide, RCCC’s flat numbers are due in large part to their online offerings. Each year the school breaks a new record when it comes to the percentage of classes students are taking online. Of the approximately 6,800 traditional students (those taking courses for credit toward a degree), 46 percent of their classes were online during the 2014-2015 school year, up 9 percent from the previous academic year.

When RCCC began offering online education about 15 years ago, the school recognized that it is not the same as teaching in a classroom. RCCC established a program that required training for all faculty members on methods for effective online curriculum and learning. Now one of just four programs in the country certified by Quality Matters, a non-profit that is dedicated to quality assurance in online education, RCCC instructors put together their syllabi during their semester learning the do’s and don’ts  of online education.

“Online classes aren’t easier than being in the classroom,” said Dibley, “but they are more convenient.”

Since the 1960’s administrators at Appalachian State University have recognized that being isolated in the mountains of Boone, NC, means that they need to be innovative in order to reach a broad audience. For years they have had a successful distance education program that provides classes in communities within 100 miles of campus. Their major center has been in Hickory. However, interest in some full-time, day-time programs have waned. Meanwhile, online curricula are in demand because of their flexibility.

“It’s a different audience,” said ASU Distance Education Executive Director Terry Rawls. “You have your 18-year-old who goes off to college, and goes to ball games, and hangs with friends, and matures, and makes decisions and makes mistakes. There will always be a need for that. It’s another individual that started college and didn’t finish, there are 31 million of those in the U.S., or someone who is working full time during the day. They don’t need to be exposed to literature and fine arts. They need credentials for their next job.”

For over two decades Rawls has worked at schools—small and large—building online programs. He stresses that at most colleges online programs are less about money, and more geared towards access and reach. While he admits some online programs aren’t great, he says there are brick and mortar colleges that aren’t very good either. Interestingly, Rawls thinks internet-based courses are more heavily academic than regular class meetings, and online courses are more and more able to replicate the classroom feel.

“If you want an experience, take a traditional class,” said Rawls. “If you want to study, take a class online. You can’t hide in the back row online. When online classes are done well, they are very powerful. We’re creating a virtual world with an avatar and you can go from group to group within a classroom. As bandwidth goes up, and the cost of computers comes down, we’re getting closer to the real experience all the time.”


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