Arizona universities, colleges looking to expand online classes

TUCSON Ariz.

The digital era is helping remove the need for college students to show up on campus.

It’s become more common for students to log on to the Web to apply for college, register, pay tuition, get tutorials and chat with faculty and advisers.

And more students complete entire programs online.

“There is a lot more interaction going on online,” said Pima Community College Chancellor Roy Flores.

Just think: No more long lines, scheduling around family and work, prowling for on-campus parking or sweat-breaking attempts to get to class on time.

Pima College, like the University of Arizona, is not only adding online classes, but is also increasing the number of programs entirely on the Web.

“People communicate online now as comfortably as we used to communicate face to face,” Flores said. “We’re obviously gearing up for online, but we’re not making superhuman efforts to increase those enrollments. People just want them.”

During fall 2001, Pima College had 589 students taking online courses. That number hit 3,739 last fall, the college reported. Online-only enrollment jumped from 132 to 1,481 during that same period.

Jose Snook is one of those who rarely step on campus.

The Flowing Wells Junior High choir director, theater director and drama teacher usually gets to work by 6:45 a.m. and typically leaves for home at 4:30 p.m.

By the time Snook gets home, his wife, Jodi Darling, often needs help with the children: Julia, 3, and Gabriel, who was born July 4.

“He takes his classes very seriously,” said Darling, 33, who teaches part time in the Tanque Verde School District. “When he has a free moment, he’s always on the computer.”

But it helps that Snook isn’t tied up in a class, she said.

Snook, 32, is pursuing his teaching certificate almost entirely online, so he can avoid sacrificing much of his family life.

“It’s priceless,” Darling said. “A lot of times, it’s just about having an extra pair of hands having him here, physically, to hold the baby or turn on the movie for the kids so we can cook dinner. If he had to leave for school, I don’t think we would ever see him.”

Instead, Snook is able to spend about an hour each night reading and writing in his home office and devote extra time during the weekend. Plus, Darling is able to help with his studies.

“It would be a nightmare to have to go to night school and teach, or even go to school during the week,” Snook said.

The virtual or “borderless” campus is not new. Early online course delivery evolved from video-based teaching and has taken off over the past two decades.

But in recent years, campus capacity concerns, shifting funding structures in higher education, increased work force demands and an emphasis on the nontraditional student have pushed administrators to offer more courses on the Web.

These issues are especially pressing in Arizona, which is working to increase the number of degree-carrying residents while boosting its work force, education and industry officials have said.

“There are so many adults in society today who need to upgrade their skills or move into a new career,” said Fred Hurst, Northern Arizona University’s vice president of extended programs. “The number of students out there is really incredible.”

NAU had nearly 2,300 students including those in Tucson in online programs during the past school year. That’s up from 772 in 2004, he said.

The same happened at UA, which had 3,477 enrollments during the 2002-03 school year and 5,384 during the 2006-07 year, said Robin Allen, UA’s interim associate executive director for continuing education and academic outreach.

And programs are expanding.

Also, Pima College campuses get a perk for offering online courses, Flores said.

Instead of crediting online enrollments to the Community Campus, enrollments stay with their respective campuses. This proves to be an “incentive” for faculty because “they get more money,” he said.

Similar things are happening in the state university system.

NAU years ago decided to become the distance-learning arm of the public university system.

UA recently introduced a Web-based digital information management certificate and a certificate in gerontology. And in recent years, UA has put programs such as the doctorate in nursing, its nursing practice degree and a master’s in optical science online.

Some instructors teaching online favor papers over exams, while others offer onsite exams to prevent cheating.

Also, certain lab requirements can be offered online with interactive tools.

But some are skeptical of online-only. Online doesn’t always equate to more capacity, less work for faculty or more effective learning, some said. Sometimes it costs more.

Course fees can cost the state’s university students up to $402 per credit, UA’s Allen said. That amounts to more than $1,200 on top of tuition for the typical three-credit course.

“Sometimes it takes longer to develop a course online. Sometimes you need to get graphics done, a studio or cameras,” Allen said. “It’s the investment in technology. “

Then there’s the perspective of some faculty.

Pima College biology instructor Mike Tveten has taught the gamut: in class, via video, online courses and a hybrid mixture of in-class and technology-enhanced formats.

It turns out he found hybrid courses to be more effective.

“It gives the best possibilities of everything, and you’ve still got the traditional class meeting,” he said.

And online-only can’t always offer an extensive lab experience or manual training certain programs such as those in science need, he said.

“But there are so many different types of learning styles out there (so) that offering the widest range will lead to the greatest success,” Tveten said. “But the tricky part is linking students with what works best for them.”

Another benefit to online exists, said Hurst, also NAU’s distance-learning dean.

“Part of the expectation of Arizona’s public institutions is to address the needs of employers and students. One of the most effective ways of serving them is by offering online programs.”

Information from: Tucson Citizen, http://www.tucsoncitizen.com

– Associated Press



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