A nursing student in her mid-30s with four kids, eight years and under, Beth Audet has loved the online classes she has taken at Mercer County Community College. “It allows me to do work when and where I want,” she says. “I can take the kids to the park and read the textbook, and I can upload assignments at 2 a.m. after I’ve put them to bed several times.”

Audet, who expects to receive her associate degrees in both nursing and the humanities in December, has taken five online classes. Right now she is taking one on the history of American women and is even considering extending her commitment at Mercer to add a women’s studies concentration — since her ultimate goal is to work in women’s health.

Audet warns, though, that students who do online work must be very self-directed. “You have to have the discipline to do what you need to do when you need to do it. You can’t start two weeks into the course and think you’ll catch up. And you can’t think it will be easy — it’s the same course material as in a face-to-face class.”

Once she passes her R.N. examination, Audet expects to work while completing her bachelor’s degree in nursing, most of which she expects do complete by taking online courses. Her place of employment will provide the clinical part of the bachelor’s degree.

Mercer Community College is beginning its next semester for online courses on Wednesday, July 19. For details, click Programs and Courses at www.mccc.edu and select “Distance Learning Courses: The Virtual Campus,” or call the program coordinator, Jennie DeLapo, at 609-570-3317.

Over the past decade, long-distance learning has grown tremendously, and as the technology changes and both the faculty and student populations get more tech savvy, the mix of classes has changed. In the 1996 to 1997 school year, the college offered 43 television courses and 7 online courses.

In 1999 the state made a great leap forward in online education with the creation of the New Jersey Virtual Community College Consortium (NJVCCC). The state’s 19 community colleges would offer courses to each other, and they all agreed to honor the credits from the virtual classes and not to require a separate application procedure for each college. The state’s Commission on Higher Education provided training in course development, and the participating institutions all agreed to use WebCt (www.webct.com), an E-learning company based in Lynnfield, Massachussets, for their course management systems.

Five years later Mercer added a new breed of courses to the mix — hybrids, which combine classroom and online learning.

The distance learning statistics for this year at Mercer illustrate how distance learning has exploded in such a short time. This year Mercer offered 31 television courses and 144 online courses, 23 of which came to Mercer students through the consortium, and 19 of which Mercer provided for students at other community colleges, plus 14 hybrid courses. The cost of consortium courses is now $96 per credit.

MCCC started with English classes, then added social science and business. “We started by finding faculty who were interested in pioneering a new learning mode,” says Diane Campbell, dean for enrollment and student services and director of the Virtual Community at MCCC, who is particularly interested in educational innovation. A native of Trenton, she received a bachelor’s degree in education from Morgan State University in Baltimore, and a master’s in student personnel services from the College of New Jersey.

Her first job at Mercer was as a job placement coordinator, working with students and employers. “I expanded that into a cooperative education program where students were getting credit for work experience,” she says. “I have always had a knack for working with learning in creative ways not directly related to the classroom.”

After several years she went back to school at Rutgers University, where she completed an Ed. D. degree in education theory.

She was enthusiastic about embracing a rapidly changing area of education like distance learning. Distance learning is distinguished from face-to-face learning by being asynchronous, meaning that the student can “go to class” at any time or place.

The decision about whether to do a course online, says Campbell, depends on both the course content and willingness of faculty members.

Whereas some courses are a cinch for an online format, in other areas only the most venturesome faculty are trying to find ways to make it work. “It is the creativity of the faculty member, along with the course content, that allows online to push forward,” says Campbell.

At Mercer, for example, the faculty has not put biology or chemistry classes online because they believe students need hands-on experience in the lab. However, says Campbell, “statewide we see some people who are venturing out.” They have created ways to have students do lab work at home or to simulate labs online. Similarly with foreign languages, Mercer has traditionally taught these face to face, but increasing audio accessibility, partly as a result of wide adoption of high bandwidth Internet connections, may mean that languages, too, will soon be available online.

“Social science and business courses have been the most successful at Mercer,” says Campbell, “and the faculty, especially in business, have embraced online learning and pushed it ahead. If a student wanted to take a business management degree, most of the courses he would need are available in a distance format, either on TV or online.”

“History works well,” says Campbell, “because there are so many materials available in cyberspace to give the students an interesting experience.”

Creating online classes falls to the faculty, which at Mercer has the support of instructional technologist Debbie Kell, and it often takes a couple of cycles for a course to really work well. Kell creates the course area for the professor, who then adds course-specific information.

Each course has an “assignment drop box” where the student can upload assignments. The course software, which shows the professor each time a student accesses a document, posts to a forum, or turns in an assignment, allows the teacher to see if a student is falling behind. “If I see someone not posting or accessing,” says Campbell, “I will call and say I am concerned.”

Online classes, which are limited to 22 students, are presented differently depending on the nature of the course and its content.

The popular “Moral Choices” class, which has sometimes had up to four concurrent sections, was one of first developed online at Mercer. That course is discussion driven: Students read authors who may have opposite perspectives on an issue like just and unjust war, euthanasia, affirmative action, or abortion. Then in the class’s online “forum,” students must take a position and argue in its favor as other students continually challenge them. “It’s going on all the time,” says Campbell, and she means that literally. She adds that the online format works better than face to face for some students: “People who are quiet in person are sometimes very involved in online discussions.”

Campbell organizes the psychology course she teaches around the calendar. “The students will know where we are and what they have to read,” she says, “and within the calendar, I give links to articles and supplemental information.” The links she provides helps them answer the questions she puts in the online discussion forums, and they often bring in current issues, like cloning and genetics, which are not in the students’ books. Campbell also includes practice quizzes, outlines, and tests online.

The college’s Java programming course is driven by projects rather than discussion. The professor presents necessary information and students complete projects and return them online.

An English course, on the other hand, will require students to write essays, and perhaps research papers. A professor might use Microsoft Word’s “track changes” or highlighting plus marginal comments to make corrections and comments.

Early on the college did a lot of assessment to determine the effectiveness of the online classes. “Most of the students said they would recommend online classes to others,” says Campbell, “although some students say they value the human content and prefer being in class at a certain time, in a certain space.”

Students who get the most value from online courses, she says, are those who are busy — parents or people traveling with their jobs or in the military. Campbell shared one example: “I had a student last year who became ill and returned home to Israel and stayed connected,” she says. But she is quick to add, “More traditional students prefer and need to be in classrooms. You have to have very high motivation to keep up and go to class when there is not a time that you have to be there.”

Campbell replaces office hours with online chats at a particular time. “When they come into the chat room, they will have questions,” she says. “`Have you graded my paper yet? Does the next paper have to be 15 pages?’”

She also holds online discussions. In a recent child development class on obesity in children, a student working in a daycare center talked about what she was seeing and how she was thinking about educating families about nutrition. “We were able to bring in theory about nature versus nurture and talk about how sometimes foods are richer in some cultures,” says Campbell.

Online classes can also provide a leg up for students with learning disabilities, because the information is always there, available for review. Even though they may use tape recorders in traditional classes, reviewing materials online often improves their retention. “The students can go back and constantly see visuals,” says Campbell. “They can take their time and slow it down.”

Another plus for online classes, which may take a bit of extra student time because of the writing involved, is that all of the online discussion improves students’ writing.

“How we evaluate students is a constant discussion,” says Campbell. An ongoing concern is cheating. She points out, though, that even online students are not anonymous. “After a while, when you are talking to students online, they develop a voice, and you know them by a voice,” she says. “If the voice changes, you can be concerned about cheating.” For some courses, English, for example, the professors have solved the issue of identity by requiring the students to take tests in person.

Looking to the future, Campbell says that new technology is the driving force. New products, for example, make it possible for professors and students to “see” each other with web cams while at the same time sharing documents interactively. Podcasting is another venue online educators at Mercer are exploring.

Community colleges have to serve both young and old — the digital natives and the digital immigrants. Their online offerings probably work best for the millennial generation, also dubbed “screenagers,” who are used to getting information over screens and technology. “If we are going to keep them interested,” says Campbell, “information needs to be in the mode they are accustomed to. One of the challenges in education is to make sure we are adapting what we are teaching to this group and are also giving access to the digital immigrants.”

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