Sunday, February 06, 2000

Virtual University clicks for students


Computer acts as classroom

BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A computer, a password and a modem, these are the essential back-to-school tools for thousands of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky students who attend college without stepping foot on a campus.

EDUCATION ONLINE
  Consortiums of Tristate colleges and schools offer thousands of virtual learning opportunities. Here's where to find information:
  • Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University: Offers 160 classes from 19 Kentucky colleges; www.kcvu.org; 877-740-4357
  • Ohio Learns/Ohio Learning Network: A catalog of distance learning classes at Ohio colleges and universities; www.ohiolearns.org; www.oln.org; 614-995-3240
  • Kentucky Virtual High School: An online high school offering 21 courses in arts and humanities, English, math, science, social studies and foreign languages. This is the pilot semester. Online registration closes Friday; www.kvhs.org; 877-740-4357
  • College of Mount St. Joseph: Will offer two online degree programs in paralegal studies spring semester; www.msj.edu; 800-654-9314, ext. 4952.
  • Cincinnati State Technical and Community College: Starting Monday the college will offer online classes in environmental science, nursing, computer science and horticulture; www.cinstateonline.org; 569-1230
  • Miami University: The college is just venturing into online classes with a few offerings in technology; www.muohio.edu; 513-529-1809
  • The Union Institute: Hundreds of tutorial master's and doctoral degree programs. Students can design their own curriculum; www.tui.edu; 800-486-3116.
  • University of Cincinnati: There are 100 Web-based classes and 500 Web-enhanced classes offered. The addiction studies certificate program is a popular online offering: www.uc.edu; 556-6000
  • Wilmington College: Offers a dozen Internet classes through the college and Ohio Learns; www.wilmington.edu; 937-382-6661
        For them, classrooms are becoming obsolete; virtual education is putting higher learning into their homes and workplaces. With a computer and phone line, students can dial up their professor, talk to other students, get the week's assignments and even take tests.

        Brenda Clark, a 36-year-old library employee and mother of two, is pursuing a library sciences degree at Lexington Community College. But she never has to leave her job at the Covington branch of the Kenton County Public Library, to commute to campus.

        Instead, she comes to work early, stays late and uses her lunch breaks to log in to class on her computer at work.

        “With a 40-hour work week plus home life, where do you squeeze time in for class?” she said. “I'd like to see my children grow a little bit.”

        In less than a year, Kentucky's virtual college programs have exploded in attendance. Cincinnati-area online programs in Ohio are expanding, too.

        There are 1,788 Kentucki ans taking a total of 160 college courses offered through the Kentucky Commonwealth Vir tual University, a statewide online learning project developed last year by 19 of the state's colleges.

        Professors from the schools develop and maintain Web pages and classes online.

        J. Michael Thomson, who teaches American politics online at Northern Kentucky University, helped launch the virtual college. He said virtual classes offer essential flexibility to students juggling careers, family and school.

        “You do not have to come to campus for this. You can be sitting anywhere in the world, as long as you have Internet access,” Mr. Thomson said.

        The Kentucky General Assembly approved a measure in 1997 that created a one-stop center for inexpensive online college classes and degree programs.

        The Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University went online last fall and has since spawned a virtual library, more online courses and even a virtual high school.

        Beginning this month, Kentucky's high schools began offering online classes. So far, most registrations are from students in rural or coal mining towns in eastern Kentucky, administrators say. The first classes include English, arts, math, science, social studies and foreign languages.

        Students take the classes through their home high school, which makes sure the student completes the work and gives them the credit.

        Classes cost $300 each, but school districts work with students to cover that cost. The system could expand the options for home-schooled students, ill students and even adults who want to finish their high school diplomas.

        Virtual high school might also be a solution to Kentucky's teacher shortage, said Linda Pittenger, director of the virtual high school program.

        “This is a great option for summer, for kids (who) need remedial work, or for the more advanced students who want a leg up on college work,” Ms. Pittenger said.

        Ohio is studying various online education programs in other states before deciding how to proceed with it throughout the state's school systems. Even so, some online classes and other distance learning courses are expanding learning opportunities for college and high school students in the state.

        In Butler County, for instance, students at four high schools are learning Japanese language and culture through a teleconferencing class. Seiko (pronounced “say ko”) Danset teaches Japanese via video at Edgewood High School in St. Clair Township. Five students attend the class in person, while other students at Fairfield, Madison and Ross high schools attend by remote.

        Across the country, “distance learning” used to mean “correspondence classes,” courses advertised on TV and completed by mail. That developed into classes broadcast over closed circuit TV or via satellite or even videotape.

        In the Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University system, there were 237 students enrolled in the first semester last fall; now there are more than 1,700.

        The largest number of online students are at NKU, with 539 enrolled, said Mary Beth Susman, CEO of the virtual university.

        The virtual university is funded by the state. Students register through the KCVU Web page but pay their bills to the individual schools offering the courses. Tuition is generally the same as classes offered on campus, minus some fees.

        With online classes, schools must wrestle with such issues as Web site security, student privacy and appropriate student participation in online discussions. The Web classes also must make sure that the student enrolled in class is the one doing the work.

        Even in face-to-face learning, though, some of those problems are possible.

        It is difficult to find reliable national statistics on the use of online education, but the “Electronic Campus” operated by the Southern Regional Education Board has 30,000 students enrolled.

        Many of Ohio's colleges and universities participate in Ohio Learns, an online collection of distance learning opportunities. The Web site offers a list of online, televised and correspondence classes in nursing, legal issues, foreign languages and Internet technology.

        The Union Institute, in Walnut Hills, is the ultimate in distance learning in the Cincinnati area, educators say. The private university pioneered the concept in 1964, using telephones and mail. Now, computers and the Internet have expanded its options for distance learning and drawn more than 2,200 students, mostly adults.

        Instructors caution that virtual and distance learning classes are just as tough as those taught in more traditional ways. It's simply a different way to offer the same material, said John Ginter, who teaches distance-learning courses in media communications and broadcasting at the Butler County Joint Vocational School.

        “You really have to rethink how you teach, and plan more,” he said.

        “It's certainly a cost savings, and it's a different way to teach. It's more of a different kind of challenge. You really have to have students who are self motivated.”

        That means a strong desire to learn and the willingness to commit the time for class, said Megan Downing, a 41-year-old education student who takes online courses at the Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University and telecourses at Northern Kentucky University. A li censed practical nurse, Mrs. Downing had planned to finish her nursing degree once her children were in school, but an arm injury from a car accident changed her plans.

        “I've really wanted to return to school and pursue a teaching degree, but I didn't see how I could work it into my schedule without quitting my job,” Mrs. Downing said.

        “My oldest son is now in college, so quitting my job is not really a good option for the present.”

        Instead, Mrs. Downing participates daily in full-time classes through her computer.

        One of those classes is music appreciation, taught by Gary Johnston. With 145 students enrolled, it is the most popular virtual class offered at NKU. In addition to computers, students purchase CDs and a CD-ROM player to hear the music being discussed in class.

        Most of Kentucky's virtual instructors require students to post messages or thoughts online at least once a week. Many students engage in “classroom discussions” through forums and chat rooms set up for their course.

        Mr. Johnston said that online class is more of a convenience for students than a time saver for teachers. That's because students can choose to sign on during any of the 168 hours in a week.

        “I'm almost a 24-hour-a-day, online guy,” Mr. Johnston said. “If I'm watching satellite TV and drinking a Coke in my easy chair and an e-mail from class comes, I answer it on the spot. If it's for something else, I wait till the program is over.”

        Some professors require students to be on campus for an orientation session and for exams. Others allow everything to be completed online.

        Mr. Johnston said he misses the personal interaction with the students that comes with standing in front of a class. But that doesn't mean that Web-based classes aren't just as intense as one-on-one encounters, he added.

        “There's nothing impersonal about this,” Mr. Johnston said. “It's very upfront and personal. I feel closer to my students this way then I ever did (standing) in front of a large class lecturing.”



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