Virtual enrollment growing

Joe Lord

English professor Charmaine Mosby often grades assignments at home. But as she adds comments to her student’s essays from an introduction to literature class, she never reaches for a red ink pen.

Mosby just uses a keyboard.

The Internet has made this class and many others paperless.

Enrollment in online classes at Western has doubled since last year.

The number of courses available on the Web has also doubled, while the number of full-time students taking at least one online class has tripled since last year.

There’s no sign of it slowing down anytime soon.

When Western offered its first online course in 1998, there were only 15 students enrolled, said Beth Laves, assistant director of distributed learning.

This semester alone there are about 2,300 students enrolled in online courses through Western.

That’s compared to a 2,200 total student enrollment for all of last academic year.

“I think that the growth is mainly due to the changing demographic of the student population,” said Laves.

It’s about accessibility.

Classes without designated days or times create options for students with jobs or families, Provost Barbara Burch said. To those students, online classes can help ease busy schedules.

But online courses aren’t necessarily for everybody, said Sally Kuhlenschmidt, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Western.

She said students who can juggle busy schedules often enjoy online classes because there is more independence.

But procrastinators, beware.

“This is not the type of class for the student who likes to put everything off to the last week,” Mosby said. “You’re going to be putting in the same amount of hours that you do in a face-to-face class.”

The content of the courses are the same, but the concept is completely different. There are no chalkboards, desks or spiral notebooks in these digital classrooms.

Students in online classes find assignments on Western’s Blackboard course site, Laves said. Instructors use such services as bulletin boards, chat rooms and discussion groups to teach their material.

Mosby said she posts reading assignments on the board and students must reply to discussion questions.

Students are expected to post a reply three times during the semester. Their reading assignments are the same as in other introduction to literature classes, she said.

Kentucky Virtual University’s surveys have shown its students and faculty communicate more than in face-to-face classrooms, said Sue Patrick, marketing director for KYVU.

“It might be that 10 or 20 percent of your grade is just posting a reply to a teacher’s questions,” Patrick said.

Laves said students who normally do not speak in class are more comfortable posting responses on a discussion board or chatting online about assignments.

But online courses aren’t flawless. There are always problems with technology.

Chicago junior Courtney Smith was enrolled in basic computer literacy last semester. A lab computer froze while she was taking a test, but the instructor didn’t count the malfunction against her.

Mosby said her introduction to literature class this semester was also marred by technology problems at the beginning of the semester.

“You expect that with technology,” Mosby said.

And there are criticisms on content.

Journalism associate professor Linda Lumsden will teach media and society, a survey class, online this summer.

Lumsden said the online class is effective for students but isn’t time efficient. The Web course has 50 fewer students but takes the same amount of time to teach as the face-to-face class.

Lumsden taught American press history online last year but was not satisfied with the results.

“I’ll never do that again,” she said.

The online students struggled more with a research paper than students in her lecture class, she said. The online class also had weaker discussions.

“I found it, frankly, deathly dull,” she said. “It just can’t replace the face-to-face.”

She still finds some online elements useful. She regularly uses Blackboard for all of her classes.

But online classes have worked for others.

Smith said she enrolled in an online course because she needed free time for forensics team practice. Smith studied two hours and would take an hour-long test in a computer lab each week.

Smith saw the instructor four times during the semester, she said. When she had a question, she would send it via e-mail and would have a response within two hours.

The class played well into her schedule, Smith said.

“I’m the kind of person who, if I can’t fall asleep at 11:30 at night, I’ll do homework,” she said.

Mosby doesn’t have to worry about paper cuts when grading work for her online class.

Her students electronically hand in their work, she said. As she grades, Mosby types comments or questions in brackets instead of writing down the sides of a paper.

She said such grading gives her more space to communicate with her online students.

“If you’re writing something in the margin, you have to write all the way down the margin to say something,” she said.

Mosby said she also offers extra credit for attending events, such as poetry readings.

“People do that all the time in regular classes,” she said. “I try to make it as close to that experience as possible.”

Reach Joseph Lord at [email protected]