Home Schooled

05/15/2008
By From the Boston Globe

By Brenda J. Buote

Forget about waking with the sun and dashing out the door to make it to class on time. The Internet is transforming college life. Instead of shuffling sleepy-eyed into a lecture hall, a growing number of students are attending class in cyberspace.

For some of the students, "distance learning" - as online education is commonly called - is merely a convenient option. For others, it is a necessity.

"There was no way I could have been enrolled full-time if it were not for the online classes," said April Amirault-Doherty, a single mother to a teenage daughter and 8-year-old triplets who managed to take classes at Northern Essex Community College while juggling family life with the demands of running a painting company.

"I was able to go to class in my pajamas at 3 a.m. if I had to, or sneak in a few minutes of schoolwork after I put the kids on the bus," said the 36-year-old entrepreneur. "I didn't have to spend 45 minutes commuting to classes, or tie up my whole day on campus. I was able to pursue my degree without taking time away from my other obligations."

Such flexibility has fueled the growth in online education as more students choose to advance their studies by turning on a computer screen instead of tuning in to a classroom lecture. As commencement season shifts into high gear, area colleges are reporting that a record number of students are relying on online classes and "blended" courses that require limited face time to earn their degrees.

More than 8,000 University of Massachusetts at Lowell students study online, according to Catherine Kendrick, executive director of distance market development and corporate outreach. The university has been offering online classes since 1989; today, UMass-Lowell offers 600 online classes, and an additional 650 blended courses, she said. The courses run the gamut, from a class on infectious diseases to one that examines international law.

At Merrimack College in North Andover, 25 percent of the classes offered through the division of continuing education are now offered online or in a blended format, up from 13 percent two years ago. Middlesex Community College in Lowell, one of the first schools in the region to embrace distance learning, and Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence, through a program facilitated by Massachusetts Colleges Online, are now offering an associate's degree in criminal justice through online courses in partnership with Bunker Hill and Quinsigamond community colleges.

At Northern Essex, enrollment in online courses has grown faster than any other area of the college, according to Ernie Greenslade, spokeswoman for the school. The college now has 1,588 students studying online, she said, a 22 percent increase from 2005, when 1,277 students were taking advantage of cyber classrooms. More than 6,500 students are enrolled at the school, which also has a campus in Haverhill.Continued...

"These days, everything is on demand. People don't go to the bank anymore, or to the video store," said Alan A. Foucault, who serves as director of the Center for Instructional Technology at Northern Essex and helps professors translate traditional content into an online format. "Students want their education on demand, too."

Online courses differ from traditional classes in only one respect: The delivery of the materials. The textbooks and exams are the same, said Northern Essex professor James W. Gustafson, who has been teaching philosophy courses at the college since 1967, first with chalk and blackboards, and now with streaming video.

"Remember the times we daydreamed for a minute during a lecture and never did figure out the thread? Online, instant replay is always there," said Gustafson. "Another advantage lies in discussion quality. In face-to-face classes, no matter how hard I try, there are a few students, quick of mind and articulate, who tend to dominate the limited discussion time. Online a student can think for a day if need be before chiming in - and they can enrich their input by looking at some sources and checking their facts. Even the shy can shine."

The cyber classroom has not only made learning possible any time, anywhere, it has also given local schools the opportunity to expand their reach and boost their bottom line. As for tests, generally online exams are open book instead of multiple choice, require more analysis, and are timed to reduce the opportunity for cheaters.

"A year ago, we had 20 students; today, we have 75," said A. James Lee, an associate professor in the School of Health and Environment at UMass-Lowell who teaches a blended master's-level course in healthcare finance and is a leader in expanding the school's online learning options. "They come from the South Shore, Manchester, New Hampshire, the North Shore. Before, most students were coming from the immediate Merrimack Valley area. This new format has expanded [our reach]." There is no difference in tuition between online and face-to-face courses

Those programs that are exclusively online - meaning they require no face time at all - are attracting students from places as far away as India and Germany, area college officials said.

"The UMass-Lowell program was appealing because it allowed me to complete my degree without ever stepping a foot on campus," said Nathan T. Morris a systems analyst in Helena, Mont., who expects to earn his bachelor's degree in information management this fall.

Morris is among the thousands of students who are contributing to the growth of UMassOnline, the Web-based learning division of the University of Massachusetts, which reported last month that revenue from the program jumped to $36.9 million in fiscal 2007, up from $28 million the year before.

Those statistics reflect a national trend. More than two-thirds of the nation's higher education institutions offer at least one online course, according to "Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning," a study completed in October by Babson and Olin colleges for the Sloan Consortium, an association that promotes online programs. Thirty-five percent offer a degree earned entirely online, the study showed.

Public colleges and universities are in the lead among those embracing online education, with two-year community colleges commanding more than 54 percent of all online enrollments in US higher education, the Sloan Consortium report shows.

Private schools have lagged behind public institutions in embracing online learning, in part because some educators fear the digital classroom will compromise the personal faculty-student relationships for which the schools are known. That perception, however, is slowly changing.

Without the digital classroom, Amirault-Doherty is sure she would still be years away from her goal. But technology put a college degree within her grasp. This Saturday she will graduate from Northern Essex with dual associate's degrees in general studies and paralegal studies.

She leaves Northern Essex with only one regret - that she waited so long to enroll in classes available over the Internet.

"I mistakenly thought it would be like a correspondence course, not as rigorous, but I got the same quality education online that I would have received if I had enrolled in traditional classes."