Have you ever thought of commuting to school via the stairs to your den rather than I-95 or Route 1? If so, you are a part of a growing number of students who are pursuing degrees, certificates, and professional development classes online.

“Right now only about five percent of our students elect to take the distance education classes, but that number actually gets bigger every year,” says Janet Perantoni, dean of corporate and continuing education at Raritan Valley Community College. “So far we haven’t seen too many senior citizens taking our online courses. I think that’s just because they haven’t grown up with it,” she says. “But there will almost certainly be a huge growth in this area of education as the younger generation moves through. Their lives have largely been built around computers from day one.”

Sourri Baetjer, the associate dean for the allied health program at the school, says the simple fact of convenience is a big reason for the growth in online courses. “We have a lot of students from out of state who are taking our courses,” she says. “This includes students who live long distances away such as Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio. These courses are perfect for people with availability issues or who simply don’t want to travel.”

A number of online courses at Raritan Valley Community College — academic, professional development, and allied health — begin during the first week of September, with others following suit throughout the fall. The kickoff date for the professional development courses is Friday, September 1. They include accounting, GRE test preparation, web design, basic computer literacy, and personal finance.

Registration can be done either in-person or online. For more information call 908-218-8871 or visit www.raritanval.edu/cce. Once students register they receive an E-mail from RVCC with the date and name of the courses they are taking. They are then directed to go to a particular website for the start of their studies.

According to Baetjer, online courses in the medical field are particularly popular. “We do the career certificate program and the career development program for people who are working, or want to work, in healthcare including LPNs, nurses, and other healthcare professionals,” she says. “We also have a series of courses in things like medical transcription, as well as medical coding and billing. Quite a few people are interested in them.”

The courses are conducted in much the way that traditional courses are. Students are given a series of exercises to work through and there is always a faculty member ready to offer feedback. “Students have tests, quizzes, and they have final tests,” says Baetjer. “For this particular series they have 11 weeks to complete the courses. The instructor then E-mails me the final grade. If they pass we issue them the certificate of completion.” The program primarily uses the Ed2Go software provider.

There are three types of online courses available through RVCC. The standard online courses offer classes through the Internet with student access provided through a web browser. There are also hybrid courses that combine a blend of traditional in-class instructional time with online instruction and activities. The third type of distance learning is telecourses, which allow students to do independent study via cable broadcasts or videotapes. The online academic courses at RVCC often use various combinations of all three types while the allied health and professional development courses use only the Internet.

While professors in academic programs build their online courses from scratch, RVCC’s non-credit courses are purchased by the college from an online learning company.

“The cost is too prohibitive to be paying faculty members to do this, especially when they already exist out there,” says Perantoni. “It makes sense for us to tap into that resource.”

On the academic side, however, the challenge is to translate the traditional class into an online format. “The biggest difference is spending a lot of time on the computer,” says Perantoni. “Having open discussions with the students, giving feedback to them is something that must be worked out. We discovered rather anecdotally that a large majority of these students are busy at their coursework at 2 a.m. I think that is part of the appeal of them.”

While cheating seems like it would be a potential problem, both Perantoni and Baetjer say that it hasn’t been an issue so far. “The faculty has certain methods of control that allows them to identify who is online,” says Baetjer. “Also many courses require students to take the final exams in person on campus.”

Perantoni believes that cheaters will be identified soon enough. “If someone takes a transcriptionist course and cheats, they simply are not going to be hired as a transcriptionist,” she says. “But there also has got to be a certain level of trust. In the non-credit courses students are taking the courses because they have a need for a career change. If they don’t learn it they won’t be able to apply it.”

Both Perantoni and Baetjer have been working at RVCC for over 20 years and both received their education the old traditional way. Perantoni, originally from Nebraska, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska and her master’s from Rutgers. Baetjer, who grew up in the Middle East, has lived in the United States for the past 37 years. She earned her Ph.D. in public health from Indiana University.

While online courses are a growing trend in education, pajama learning is not for everybody. “I think it has a lot to do with the culture,” says Perantoni.

“People are more readily looking for a new method of taking classes. They must be self-motivated. It’s a fact that many people who come on campus do so partly for the social aspect. The people taking online courses are comfortable working independently.”

Baetjer adds that online students are often particularly ambitious. “They are very computer savvy and know how to access information on a computer,” she says.

“Many have worked in the healthcare system before, perhaps at a doctor’s office or a medical center and they want a change. They are usually educated, with one or two degrees, and they want to make a change in their career situation in some intrinsic way. This sort of method of learning suits them just fine.”

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