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Sunday, 08 June 2014 22:00

Distance learning offers convenience, but it’s not for everyone

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There is little debate that the Internet has acted as a disruptive force for a broad range of industries, higher education included.

Like many higher education institutions around the country, West Michigan organizations such as Grand Valley State University, Calvin College and Grand Rapids Community College have begun to offer distance learning classes where students don’t need to be in a classroom. Rather, they simply need a computer with an Internet connection.

However, some questions remain about whether this type of learning is really the best for students.

One main reason for the growth in distance learning programs is simply convenience, said James Mazoue, director of the office of online learning programs at Wayne State University in Detroit. A number WSU’s distance learning students are simply supplementing degree programs with online courses, he said.

“They are coming to campus to get their degrees but they are taking online courses because of convenience,” Mazoue said. “That’s the attraction.”

Another aspect of distance learning that Mazoue finds noteworthy is the opportunity the programs present for more non-traditional students, typically those outside of the traditional age for college students.

“Older students are attracted to (distance learning programs) and tend to do better,” Mazoue said. “Younger students tend to need handholding.”

The sentiment of “handholding” and making sure that a student is fully equipped to operate in what’s seen as a hands-off learning environment is shared by current distance learning student Roberta F. King.

King, the vice president of PR and marketing at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, is currently enrolled in the University of California Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Extension Writing Class.

While she earned a bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University and a master’s degree from GVSU, King said she thinks the distance learning classes are great for her second career as a writer.
Earlier this year, King published the memoir, He Plays a Harp.

“This kind of program has been rigorous, but it has kept me writing, which any writer should want to happen,” King told MiBiz, adding that she spends on average between six and 10 hours per week on her assignments. She was unsure how her workload compared to her fellow students’ experiences.

The classes King is taking also offer her a great amount of flexibility. In essence, she can get the work done on her own time. She likes to work on assignments during her daily carpool commute from her home in Muskegon to downtown Grand Rapids, she said.

However, both King and Mazoue acknowledge that distance learning or online courses are certainly not for everyone. The courses require a solid grasp of technology as they largely utilize the ubiquitous Blackboard software for nearly every aspect of the classes. They also require a large amount of self-discipline, King said.

When looking for a distance writing program, King said considered a number of different options, including low-residency Master of Fine Arts degrees. Ultimately, she opted for the UCLA Extension program because she wanted to challenge herself, not just get another degree.

“I didn’t want to go through the rigor of (the) MFA,” King said. “I didn’t feel I needed that much but I wanted something that would make me a better writer.”

Online learning has also become prevalent for students seeking traditional bachelor’s degrees. In fact, one regional university has fared very well in US News and World Report’s rankings. The publication named Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant the number one school in the country for its online bachelor’s program.

Another element of distance learning that’s gaining traction is what is known as the “massive open online course” (MOOCs). Typically geared toward non-degree seeking students, the courses often offer open enrollment and are slowly gaining acceptance by accredited institutions, wrote WSU’s Mazoue in a 2013 article for Educause Review.

Both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University offer MOOCs, but they are for certificate programs rather than degrees.

“What MOOCs lack is constructive guidance,” Mazoue told MiBiz. “MOOCs will evolve but what they need to develop is optimized courseware. … It’s not an optimal learning environment.”

Mazoue cited one program currently being designed that could significantly change MOOCs and how they are perceived. Georgia Tech University is in the process of creating a new cohort that will allow students to earn a master’s degree in computer science in three years for the bargain price of $6,600. The on-campus degree for an out-of-state resident costs $45,000.

“We need to see how (Georgia Tech’s program) works out,” Mazoue said. “If that is a success, then I think we will see an avalanche of programs that are based on it.”

One of the major barometers for success is whether employers will look favorably on an in-demand degree if it is earned without the student ever stepping foot on a campus or in a classroom, Mazoue said.

At the end of the day, Mazoue said he is unsure how MOOCs and other online learning programs will play out. Currently, he said we are experiencing a large rift between two competing mindsets.

“MOOCs have triggered debate. It’s a battleground of agendas,” he said. “Traditionalists are of the opinion that (education) can’t be replicated online. Then you’ve got the progressives: They are of the opinion that this a process of disruptive innovation. We are still very early in the process.”

Read 6497 times Last modified on Sunday, 08 June 2014 22:00

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