No crowded parking lots. No rushing to class. No noisy classrooms. It’s just you and your computer.
For some, the idea of online learning can be daunting, but as online courses become more and more common, the convenience and freedom they provide to those who otherwise couldn’t pursue a degree due to location or scheduling is becoming increasingly more beneficial.
Locally, there are an abundance of online courses available at the University of West Florida and Pensacola State College. UWF offered a total of 461 fully-online course sections during the spring 2012 semester, while PSC offered 235.
Bill Waters, eLearning director at Pensacola State College, said that the PSC eLearning department supports three course types.
“First, there are distance learning classes,” Waters said. “These students are never required to come to campus. Then, there are hybrid classes. At some point these students will have to come to campus. Lastly, there are traditional classes that are supplemented with companion websites, online activities or readings.”
Growth at UWF and PSC
Waters said that in the spring 2012 semester, there were about 6,055 distant learning course enrollments, almost 1,000 more than the previous fall semester. In 2007, the number of course enrollments at PSC was only 2,700.
According to statistics from the UWF online campus website, there were 10,340 enrollments during the spring 2012 semester, compared to 9,830 the previous fall semester. In the spring 2007 semester there were 6,400 enrollments. These statistics were the number of courses that were enrolled in, not the number of students.
Waters said that at PSC, pretty much every course is offered both traditionally and online. “I can’t think of any classes that don’t have a traditional counterpart,” he said.
Disadvantages to Distance Learning
One issue for college admission offices with online learning, at least at UWF and PSC, is withdrawal rates.
“The drop-out rate is a little higher in distance learning courses, but academically, students probably do about the same as in traditional courses, maybe a little better,” Waters said. “In the spring 2012 semester, 72 percent of students enrolled in a distance learning course at PSC completed the course, and of those that completed, 81 percent completed with a “C” or better.
At UWF, the online course completion rate for spring 2012 was 91.8 percent, which was about 2 percent less than traditional course completion rate for that semester. Since 2006, the online course completion rate for UWF has always been slightly lower, but never by any less than five percent.
Difficulty concentrating without a standard classroom lecturing style is also a problem for some students at UWF and PSC. UWF student Kayla Clark said that she has difficulty learning the material without immediate feedback.
“I normally take all face-to-face classes because I like being able to sit in a classroom and have a professor teach me the material,” the senior elementary education major said.
“However, I had to take three online classes this semester because of scheduling conflicts with work,” said Clark. “When I started the classes, it took me almost two full days just reading all of the introductions and syllabi for each of the classes. I felt completely lost, and I hate that I can’t just raise my hand and ask the professor my questions.”
Clark said that she does a lot more work in an online class and yet her grades tend to be lower.
“Tests are harder, work is harder,” she said. “I also feel like my program is pushing to mostly online classes. Colleges really need to take in consideration of how people learn before they cut any more face-to-face classes out of their programs.”
“Self-motivation” is what Waters said is the most important thing when considering taking a distance-learning course.
“We try to make sure our advisors let students know they have to be self-motivated,” Waters said. “It’s a two-way street. It’s up to the institution to provide the resources, but it is the student’s responsibility to know what will be required of them before registration.”
Brittany Still, nursing and English major at PSC, said that she had to withdraw from online classes in 2010 and continue her classes in a traditional setting instead.
“I didn’t have the self-discipline to do it,” Still said. “I would get on the Internet to do my classes, but would mess around instead of doing my school work. At first I thought it would be easy because you have a whole week to do an assignment, but a week later I would find I procrastinated or forgot to do the assignment. I benefit more from listening to a lecture than reading material from a computer.”
Women Make Two-thirds of Students
Although online learning may not be for the procrastinator or the easily-distracted, it does have its advantages.
Allie Norse, who received a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2011 from UWF, said that she had a very positive experience with online classes.
“I took mostly in-class courses, with a few online courses,” Norse said. “I didn’t have any problem with online courses and found that my grades were not any lower than in a normal course. I think it really depends on the subject, some are definitely more suitable for online instruction than others and schools should take that into consideration.”
Since fall of 2007, online enrollment has accounted for 25 percent of total enrollment at UWF, excluding summer semesters. Women account for about two-thirds of that enrollment. Online enrollment is significantly higher during the summer semesters, making up about 50 percent of full-time enrollment. Online-only enrollment has been about 20 percent for fall and spring semesters since 2007.
“We like to think of distance learning as an option,” Waters said. “A lot of students take distance learning and it has little to do with distance and more to do with scheduling. It helps students add a little bit of flexibility to their lives.”