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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

6 of 7 Stories

Distance Learning
Online education has become “part of the landscape”

By Kay Mills
Pullman, Washington

While preparing to go online with History 468, “Hitler and Nazi Germany,” Washington State University associate professor Raymond Sun recalls clinging to his classroom methods and letting go only “one finger at a time.” Now Sun, who had already taught the course for several years on campus, is sufficiently converted that he is encouraging the graduate students with whom he works to become knowledgeable about online education as soon as possible.

“It’s becoming part of the landscape,” he said, adding that expertise in that area can even help them get jobs.

At Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Danny Mielke, professor of physical education and health, remembers the days when doing distance education meant one would “hop in a car and drive somewhere.” Now Mielke, like 75 percent of Eastern Oregon’s faculty, offers some of his courses in one of six bachelor’s degree programs available entirely through the university’s Division of Distance Education. Students enrolled in these programs need never come to campus.

 
  Douglas Baker, vice provost for academic affairs at Washington State University, believes preparing a distance education course improves a professor’s teaching skills.
Pullman, which is south of Spokane in eastern Washington State, is in wheatgrowing country, and La Grande, located between the Blue Mountains and the Wallowa Mountains in eastern Oregon, sits in the 2,700-foot-high Grande Ronde Valley. Traveling the 140 miles between the two universities drives home one of the reasons that these schools have turned to distance education: Eastern Washington and eastern Oregon are sparsely populated, with people living miles from any four-year stitutions. In the winter, when snow closes roads and passes, those miles can loom even longer.

The flexibility of distance education is the other major reason people enroll. Dan O’Grady, a firefighter near Portland, wanted to advance in his career and sought a bachelor’s degree but couldn’t schedule both work and classes conveniently. He signed up for an Eastern Oregon distance education program in fire services management, which includes some general education requirements such as humanities and social sciences, and received his bachelor’s degree in 1999. Debbie Fredson, a single mom with three children who works as a waitress, couldn’t readily leave Port Angeles in western Washington. She received a bachelor’s degree in social sciences through Washington State’s distance education program last May.

Every week seems to bring more universities into online education. Last year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that it would put virtually all its course material online over the next ten years, free to anyone, but will not offer its degrees online. The Arizona Board of Regents voted to create the first academic program—a master’s degree in engineering —for Arizona Regents University, which combines courses from the state’s three universities. Colorado’s public colleges and universities announced plans to develop a joint catalog of online courses, which students at any of the state’s 28 public institutions will be able to take for credit transferable to their own schools. The list goes on and on.

Although there are much larger programs than those at Washington State and Eastern Oregon, which enroll 3,000 and almost 1,500 distance education students respectively, they offer a useful example of how these programs fit into the mission of state universities, how their courses are designed, who teaches them, who takes them and why.

Distance education courses face the same departmental review as on-campus classes, administrators at both WSU and EOU said. But is distance education really as good as inclassroom education?

“It’s not the fact that it’s distance education that makes it good or bad, but whether or not it’s developed with good design that is based on the needs of students,” said Muriel K. Oaks, dean of WSU’s extended university services. “We’ve made an institutional commitment that our distance programs will be of the same quality as those delivered on campus.” WSU spends a great deal of time on assessment, and “those assessments indicate that the learning in distance programs is at least as good as on campus.”

 
An effective distance education program requires a “strong, warm advising system,” says Thomas Hofheinz (left), an adviser at Eastern Oregon University, shown with Joe Hart, director of the university’s distance learning program.  
Offering courses to people who might otherwise not be able to take classes also helps fulfill the mission of a land-grant university like Washington State.WSU has a “triple mission—teaching, research and outreach,” Douglas Baker, vice provost for academic affairs, said. “Distance education brings all three together. We do the research, reach out and teach people in the state.”

Other universities, especially those in the “sun belt,” believe that distance education will help them accommodate surging enrollments. For Washington State, though, it’s a way to reach new audiences and serve parts of the state previously unserved by four-year institutions, Oaks said.

Washington State offers five bachelor’s degrees entirely through distance education —social sciences, criminal justice, human development, business and agriculture. The degrees are geared for people who have completed a community college program or its equivalent, so that WSU doesn’t duplicate courses offered elsewhere. There is a master of science degree in agriculture and one professional program, a bachelor of science in nursing for registered nurses. WSU is considering an online master’s degree in liberal arts.

About one fourth of Washington State’s distance education enrollment comes from out of state.Within the state, “students like to get a WSU degree,” Oaks said. “We’re known.We have football and basketball teams.They like that connection.They like to get a degree from an institution that they know and trust.” Distance education graduates’ diplomas and transcripts are no different than those of students who took their classes on campus. Tuition is also the same as that paid by students on campus, currently $195 per semester credit hour, or $1,949 for fulltime enrollment for Washington state residents. Out of state distance education students pay one-and-one-half times the in-state rate.

 
  Students take distance education classes out of necessity, “not because they want to sit home on the sofa and get a degree,” says Michael Jaeger, dean of Eastern Oregon University’s school of education and business.
Asked whether distance education students aren’t missing the campus experience, Oaks replied:“These are not 18-yearolds. These are 36-year-olds, on average. It’s really different.” The college world has changed anyway, she added. “Many campuses are commuter campuses where people come and take their classes and go home or go to work,” so they don’t have the residential college experience that many people remember.

For its part, Eastern Oregon has been designated as a regional university. Its network of centers in areas of the state with low population (many of those close to the route of the old Oregon Trail) plus several in heavily populated areas such as Portland —as well as its distance education courses—allow it to reach more students who want college-level work.

EOU does not charge out-of-state tuition, which has proved especially helpful in attracting students from neighboring Washington and Idaho, said Joe Hart, distance education director.

With regard to the quality of the teaching, WSU’s Baker and others said that preparing to offer a course at a distance helps professors do a better job. “Technology is an excuse to think about teaching,” Baker said. “In the process of developing a course, you hold a mirror up and ask,‘Why am I doing what I’m doing?’”

Helping WSU faculty think about what they are trying to achieve through their courses is part of the task of instructional designers like Theron DesRosier and Joanne Sellen. “People start out with the assumption they can do the same thing that they do in the classroom,” DesRosier said. “Experience shows that that’s a backwards way to do it.We have to know the goals of the department and the goals of the course. What skills does the department have in mind that it wants for its graduates?

“Time spent with design up front saves time and money in the long run,” he added.

“You can’t go in and put your lecture notes online and expect students to get much out of it.” Sellen said. They have to work on collaborative projects that they can do online. WSU’s online courses use home-grown software called Speakeasy, which, in keeping with the metaphor, has a Playbill giving the schedules for the courses. There are Events, which are basically the lessons, then Tables, or forums at which students exchange ideas.

Often the course designers and the professors work on open-ended questions for students to answer in the online forum that provides the equivalent of a class discussion.“ If you just ask the class to summarize material, the first posting will take care of that and then the rest of the people have nothing to add,” DesRosier said.

Raymond Sun said that when a course is taught online, the technology “brings out the quiet people who have good insights— they feel safe and can share ideas. But there are still some people who, either because of their life situations, personality or because they just aren’t interested, don’t participate that much.” He wants to figure out how to engage them “without making them feel like the hammer is coming down.”

Like many who have offered courses online, Edward Weber in the WSU political science department said that the experience “made me dissect my class all over again, even though I have taught it for six years…It clarified in my own mind just what was the most important thing for them to learn. If you are doing 40 hours of lectures, you feel you have more time and can cover more material. Online has to be more focused.”

Weber, who teamed with instructional designers Theron DesRosier and Sharon Roy to create an online introductory public administration course, described his own experience as “pretty darn positive.” But he’s not sure other professors will have as open an attitude. “One of the concerns of the professorate,” he said, “is that they don’t have a great deal of respect for the course designers.We have the Ph.D.s and we think we know it all. I think that there is a real arrogance on the part of some faculty. They are unwilling to stand back and think of different ways to educate people.” Everybody has a certain comfort level, Weber added. “We like to do what we’ve always done.”

When Rosemary Powers started teaching sociology at Eastern Oregon in the fall of 1998, new faculty were asked to offer one course for the distance education division. “I was quite resistant,” she said. After a career as an organizer around antinuclear issues and other social concerns, she said that “one of the reasons I had gotten a Ph.D. and wanted to teach at a university was the delight at being in a community of scholars.” Distance education seemed to deny that sense of community, she thought. She also viewed it as a business model of education, “the McDonaldizing” of higher education. “I was being quite grumpy about it,” she said. “But I gamely went ahead and designed a course.”

Only one student signed up, so Powers got to practice. She found it “much more labor intensive, which made me a little nervous about what it would be like if there were more students.” Since then, she has helped to develop and teach three gender studies courses online, and her reservations about distance education are not as strong as they were. “I see more of what people get in far-flung places. I just wish I could meet them,” she said.

Powers still is not willing to offer a sociology major through distance education. “I may change. I may have to change. But there’s something about people being on campus with me. I guess I’m not convinced we can have the same kind of academic community and synergy.”

Both Washington State and Eastern Oregon use some part-time faculty as well as their own professors to develop and teach distance education courses. In all cases, those faculty members and their courses must be approved by the appropriate academic departments.

At Eastern Oregon, for example, Linda Kobler, who taught for seven years at the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York and now lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, teaches Music 201, “Famous Composers and Their Work.” When she started developing the course, which now is offered by other colleges as well as Eastern Oregon, she confessed to being cowed by the process.“How am I going to get people to hear what I hear?” she said. Her course includes audio samples in which Kobler can talk over the music to help students hear what she hears.

Students who register for Kobler’s course receive her e-mail address. When they contact her, she sends them an orientation letter that includes a guide to the course, the website address and necessary passwords.

 
  Eastern Oregon University, in a remote, lightly populated part of the state, offers distance learning classes to 1,500 students.
They need to download RealPlayer software so that they can see and hear the video and audio portions of the course. Materials for the class include a textbook, “Music: An Appreciation,” by Roger Kamien; a study guide; and a compact disc set that features everything from Gregorian chants to music from the 20th century.

Kobler’s Eastern Oregon University course is set up so that students start and finish at the same time within the school’s quarter system. Students take the course’s four exams online. The exams are timed, multiple-choice tests—and the computer software cuts a student offline if he or she runs over the limit.

Kobler said she often is asked whether students look at their books when they are taking unproctored tests. Technically, they can, she says, but she believes that having the tests timed circumvents that. They don’t have time to flip book pages but need to have command of the material, she said, adding that once they submit their answers, they get an instant read-out on how they did. And the program logs the scores for Kobler.

During the term, Kobler communicates with her students by e-mail. She also has a weekly hour-long online chat session with them.Typically, she said, she has about ten students in her EOU classes and 150 overall from the various schools for which she teaches online courses. Last summer Eastern Oregon started offering her course— with some changes—to its music majors and minors because they had so many students enrolling on campus.

Distance learning administrators believe that the success or failure of their efforts depends heavily on support services. “A strong, warm, advising system— that’s our greatest strength,” said Thomas Hofheinz, an EOU adviser.

Eastern Oregon offers online orientation for its distance learning program, an online degree planning workshop that helps students read the academic catalog and prepare their courses of study, and a web-based advisory list that provides resources either to answer students’ questions or direct them to someone who can.

When students reach the upper level courses, they generally deal more with professors than with their advisers, Hofheinz said. “But we block for them.We make sure their records are kept and make sure they aren’t heading for a fall.”

Joanne Parsons, another of the EOU advisers, said it is their top priority to get back to their advisees within 24 hours or less whenever they are called on the tollfree telephone number or messaged via the Internet. “I have been told many times that people went to big universities and didn’t get one-on-one contact,” she said. “These are adults who have been away from school and often are facing the Internet and computers, which is threatening.”

At Eastern Oregon, she said, students will find that there is someone responsible for helping them.“We are a small enough institution that we can provide cheerleading and personal support, yet we expect students to be responsible for themselves.”

Eastern Oregon offers one master’s degree online for prospective teachers, usually people who have worked in another field and now want to be in the classroom. Because of their jobs or family obligations, distance educators refer to them as “place bound.”They cannot easily leave their home towns for a year on a campus because they are fulfilling the requirement for a teaching internship. Eastern Oregon offers a one-year program that helps them earn their initial teaching license, then shepherds them through the long process of obtaining a final license.

It is clear to Michael Jaeger, dean of EOU’s school of education and business, that these students are earning their degrees through distance education for often poignant personal reasons—“not because they want to sit home on the sofa and get a degree.”

Teaching, Jaeger said, is “leadership in a crowded space.” In offering a teaching program at a distance, he added, “it’s difficult to judge whether a person can be a leader in a crowd if they are getting a degree off by themselves.We have to see how a person works in a social setting.” That’s why there are residential parts of the program in the summers before and after the teaching internship as well as evaluations by onsite administrators checking the master’s candidates as they teach.

Both Washington State and Eastern Oregon have had special reasons to build up their distance education programs. A decade ago,Washington was among the states with the largest percentage of people starting higher education but among the lowest-ranking in terms of students completing four-year degrees, said Muriel Oaks. The state had a strong network of community colleges, she added, but many people lived too far from four-year institutions to finish their university degrees. WSU decided that the students weren’t ever going to receive that education “unless we take it to them,” she said.

At about the same time, timber workers in the western part of the state faced high unemployment because of restrictions on logging. The state’s higher education coordinating board told Washington State it would provide funds to cover college tuition for those workers and their spouses who had had enough education to qualify for the university’s distance education program. The University of Washington, located in Seattle and therefore closer to the unemployed workers, was not doing much distance education at that point, so WSU got the nod along with Western Washington University.

Debbie Fredson, whose ex-husband had been a log scaling supervisor, qualified for the tuition waiver. She took most of her courses by watching videotaped lectures, reading the texts and other books, and writing papers, although she did take one research course online. She especially liked a course on gender and culture.

Asked which courses she liked best, she replied: “I liked them all. It was exciting to be learning. I used to cry that I was so glad I was able to get an education.” She always feared that the timber tuition waiver money would dry up before she finished her degree, because she was going so slowly. “I could only take two courses a semester,” she said.

The only disadvantage Fredson could see was the lack of fellow students.“I didn’t make any friends through my college experience—but I had many friends in Port Angeles that I could talk to about it, lots of educated friends.” As for the advantages, she said, “I have a degree. I did it at my own pace, my own comfortable level.”

Looking at the recent history of Eastern Oregon University shows how a distance education program can support its sponsoring institution. Because of its record of providing opportunities for students in the communities in which they lived and worked, the EOU distance education program helped keep that university open after voters passed Measure 5 to limit state spending in 1990.

There was talk of turning the small university, which today has 1,850 students on campus, into a rehabilitation center. But, said Dixie Lund, dean of the division of distance education, “we mattered to a lot of influential individuals as well as influential groups.” In addition to the number of EOU distance-education graduates around the state, the university’s regional staff, for example, had helped local communities apply for and receive grants for their programs. So “talk about closure of Eastern Oregon in the legislature was met by opposition.”

Today, Eastern Oregon’s challenge is growth. “How big do you want us to get?” Lund, herself a distance education graduate, said she asks her bosses. Once the Internet exploded onto the scene, she said, there were more adults seeking education, and EOU’s distance education became “a very robust program. In the 2001 fiscal year, for example, distance education earned $2.9 million in revenue against $2.5 million in expenses. The school is reinvesting its earnings in campus teaching faculty, course development and other resources so that it can keep up with demand, Lund said, adding that “maintaining our instructional capacity is our biggest challenge.”

Washington State faces a similar challenge —finding a way to finance its distance- degree programs that simultaneously meets the needs of students, faculty and the institution, said Muriel Oaks. “We need to develop high quality courses that provide effective and engaging learning for students, provide a reasonable workload for faculty, and do all of this in a costeffective manner that does not drain resources.”

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