With programs like the University of Phoenix, which offers complete degrees online, online classes are becoming a growing medium for education in the United States.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania is no different when it comes to the trend of virtual classrooms.
When online education began at IUP approximately 10 years ago, there were only about seven professors who taught those classes, according to communications media professor Jay Start, who was the first professor to teach an online class in the College of Education and Educational Technology.
Today, there are 75 professors who will teach at least one online class next semester.
With graduate and undergraduate courses in 33 different academic areas, adult, part-time, full-time and transfer students can take online classes alongside those who just wish to gain extra experience for the workforce, according to the Office of Adult and Continuing Education website.
Students can even choose between eight different degree programs they can complete totally online, the website said.
Online classes cost about $365 per credit, according to the Office of the Bursar’s website. That’s about $1,093 per class for part-time students. For an on-campus, three-credit class, on the other hand, students can expect to pay about $1,220.
During the semester, virtual classrooms at IUP have an even mix of students who are currently on campus and those who are distance learning, Start said.
Some courses are set up very similarly to that of a traditional classroom.
In an online class, students receive course materials, take quizzes and communicate with professors, classmates and their adviser.
For the most part, the major difference in the structure of online classes is that students must read course content instead of hear it, Start said.
However, one component that must be addressed in an online class that may not be in a traditional classroom is that of computer literacy.
“A computer is a tool and the conditioning element in the learning environment,” English professor Dr. Daniel Weinstein said. “Part of the notion of literacy today includes an awareness of the machine and its influence on the organization of and regulation of the flow of information over the web.”
One of the arguments against online classes is that the environment is not beneficial to students and that the structure sets students up to fail.
Some IUP professors who currently teach both online and traditional classes disagree and see benefits of online classes.
Flexibility is one of those benefits.
“Online classes allow students to complete course materials when it is convenient for them,” child development and family relations professor Sarah Brown said. “Students have many less time constraints in an online course than they do in the classroom.”
Professors are also able to respond to a student’s issue more quickly than in a traditional classroom setting because there is no need to wait for the next class period.
“There’s never a time that I’m not available for students,” Start said. “That bothers some people, but I don’t care. Students are fun.”
Another benefit is the ability for the professor to tailor the way he teaches a student depending on the feedback from chatting online.
“That makes the interactions if not more personalized, then more useful because while chatting, I now have a record of the chat that I can reflect on to find patterns of attention and may discover some needs I didn’t realize were there when I first had the exchange,” Weinstein said.
However, professors agreed that grades did not seem to differ between online and traditional classrooms.
“In both traditional and online classes, I have students earning grades at all points on the spectrum,” Brown said.
The amount of effort the student puts into the class seems to be the greatest determinant of their grade.
With an online class, more responsibility is placed on each student to take initiative to do what’s required of them.
“Students that are self-motivated, independent learners who could benefit from the guidance of a more experienced practitioner profit greatly from these types of courses,” Weinstein said. “I try to infuse the experience with as much energy as I can to keep the fire going so whatever [fire] they come in with can continue.”
And even those students who are not highly motivated can surprise themselves and succeed in online classes.
“By breaking things down, students are like, ‘I climbed that mountain,’” Weinstein said. “When you’re climbing that mountain, it’s one foot in front of the other, and occasionally maybe you hang onto a root (and that would be me). But students surprise themselves in the end.”