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Extended Learning
Colorado Electronic Community College offers online options

By Kathy Reeves Bracco
Denver, Colorado

Angie Boheler, a 31-year-old bank manager in Little Rock, Arkansas, could be a poster woman for the new part-time working adult college student.

Although Boheler lives in Arkansas, she has taken internet courses from Park College, in Missouri, and from the Colorado Electronic Community College. She will receive her bachelor's degree in Management and Human Services from Park College in December.

Boheler began her undergraduate career at the University of Arkansas in 1985 but dropped out after one year. Since then, marriage and full-time jobs have occupied much of her time but she has continued to pursue a degree through evening and weekend classes, as well as online.

Two years ago, Boheler transferred her credits to Park College, a small institution outside Kansas City that operates 34 "extended learning" facilities in 19 different states, mostly on military bases. One of these centers is at an Air Force base in Jacksonville, Arkansas, just a few miles from Boheler's home.

Needing two accounting courses to complete her degree work, Boheler read about the Colorado Electronic Community College in brochures handed out at the air base. She signed up and has found the courses to be the best she has taken on the internet. And she likes the flexibility of online studies.

"You can finish your class and just go right to bed," she said.

The Colorado Electronic Community College consortium, founded in 1995, links together 12 Colorado public two-year colleges and offers both telecourses (telephone and video) and online instruction.

Jerome Wartgow, retired chancellor of the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System, said the electronic college was started because so many Coloradans were looking for alternatives to traditional, on-campus higher education.

Many of the state's 16 two-year colleges were offering a few online courses but "it seemed expensive for each college to do it alone," Wartgow said. It made more sense to "share expenses, talent and expertise and put together a high-quality program." So he persuaded the 12 colleges east of the Rocky Mountains to join together in the Colorado Electronic Community College, offering courses from each of the 12 consortium members.

"A leap of faith" was necessary for faculty members in one college to accept credits from another, Wartgow said, but he pointed out that community colleges have been arguing for years that four-year schools should accept community college credits at face value, so it seemed reasonable to expect faculty at the two-year colleges to do the same.

The Colorado Electronic Community College currently offers two degrees - a general Associate of Arts, which is now a telecourse but will be available online next spring, and an Associate of Applied Science in Business, offered entirely on the internet.

Bob Norden, an instructor at the Community College of Denver, coordinates online courses for the electronic college. He teaches Principles of Accounting online and describes this kind of teaching as "much more challenging" than classroom instruction.

"In class, you have the ability to interact with the students - you can read their eyes, know when they're falling behind, know when you need to stress a particular concept," Norden said. "This is not as easy with online courses."

Norden employs a "threaded discussion," which he described as "a chalkboard that no one erases." He begins with a question, encouraging all students to answer electronically. Norden then tries to respond quickly to each student and ask a second question.

Angie Boheler, who took Norden's online accounting class, described him as a "wonderful professor...who seemed to communicate well" with the ten or 12 students enrolled at that time.

However, Norden said his "threaded discussion" approach takes a lot of time, and he worries when class size approaches the 25-student cap that has been set for Colorado Electronic Community College classes.

Arapahoe Community College, in suburban Denver, was chosen as home base for the telephone and video courses, to provide student services and award degrees. "We wanted to connect to a traditional college, with traditional faculty and a successful transfer function," Wartgow said. "We wanted to avoid this being a stepchild."

However, students pursuing the Associate of Applied Science in Business degree can enroll at any of the 12 consortium members, each of which provides its own student services and awards its own degrees.

This fall, more than 200 students are enrolled in the telecourses, while several hundred more are taking online work. About 87 percent of the students are from Colorado, but the number of people who are like Angie Boheler, in far-off Little Rock, is increasing.

Tuition is $115 per credit hour for online courses, $120 for telecourses, while on-campus tuition for Colorado community college students is only $55. However, Brad Wood, who took an online course last summer, said, "It's more expensive, but the costs are more than offset by (low) transportation costs."

"The parking at CCC online is great," Wood added.

The typical Colorado Electronic Community College student is a 32-year-old female, with young children, who works full-time. Angie Boheler has no children but otherwise fits the description.

She likes internet courses but finds them "more intense, because you have to work things out for yourself." For instance, the instructor might not respond to an e-mail question for a couple of days, "so you have to do a lot more reading to try to figure it out for yourself."

Boheler thinks she has learned as much on the internet as she has in her on-campus classes, because "in many respects you are teaching yourself."

"I recommend online courses to everyone," she said. "But you have to be disciplined. You have to tell yourself you're going to turn on that computer and spend the time, or it's not going to work for you."

Kathy Reeves Bracco is senior policy analyst at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

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