November 5, 2007

Online Learning Goes the Distance

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Over 3.5 million students at universities across the country took an online course last fall, according to a recent survey by the Babson Survey Research Group. The study, “Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning,” reported a 10 percent increase in popularity for the cyber classroom over the past year — a trend that Cornell students seem to follow.
Recently, both forms of online learning at Cornell, the Distance Learning Program and eCornell, noticed a growing demand among students and members of the professional world. Some purists, however, insist that sitting in front of a computer screen is nothing like sitting in front of a professor, and question the credibility and quality of the online experience. According to the Babson study, only one third of academic leaders believe their faculty members accept the legitimacy of online credits.
“It’s kind of like maintaining a long distance relationship,” said Justin Buechel, a technician and consultant for the Distance Learning Program at Cornell.
The program allows undergrads to take courses over summer or winter break, from virtually any location with a decent internet connection. By streaming live video over the internet, students everywhere from California to Ireland or Brazil can “sit in” on winter or summer-session courses in Ithaca, for around $925 per credit hour.
Buechel, a recent graduate of Ithaca College, has been running the cameras and microphones that connect students around the world since he began working with the program last May.
“It’s like doing a live TV broadcast on a smaller scale, I’m constantly switching cameras and setting up microphones for students and professors … you get to see a lot of the coursework that goes on — it’s kind of like auditing five classes a day,” he said.
Last summer over 150 Cornell students took a course online, according to Cathy Pace, registrar for Distance Learning. She said that Distance Learning has seen a consistent and increasing demand in recent years. The most popular courses last summer included AMST 202: Popular Culture in the United States, GOVT 161: Introduction to Political Philosophy, and ECON 101: Introductory Microeconomics.
“If a student needs to go home during the summer and work, she or he can still take a Cornell class, fulfill a requirement and earn credit via Distance Learning. Some students want to take a Winter Session class, but don’t want to be on campus in January. Distance Learning is a great solution,” Pace said.
Buechel, however, said there is limited interaction between the students watching online and those in the actual on-campus classroom.
“The students on the far end have the full ability to ask questions, but they rarely do. It’s so rare that it’s kind of an interruption when they come booming over microphone,” he said.
Buechel also mentioned that students lose “the personal touch” when they take courses online.
“You don’t get the post-class interaction like you do when you’re here. Once class officially ends, the professor turns off microphone and a few students come up for personal asides; at that point I can leave the cameras on but they’re not really hearing anything,” he explained.
Despite the personal interaction lost in translation from lecture to laptop, students are still choosing the online options for fulfilling requirements or preparing themselves for the professional world.
“We have grown by over 30 percent every year for the last five or six years,” said Ross Pearo, vice president of Product Development and Marketing at eCornell.
The Cornell-owned company specializes in professional development and education, offering around 70 different classes ranging from two to four weeks in length.
“Our typical student is a working professional that’s looking to learn more about their current career field,” Pearo said.
Last month alone, he said, 989 students from 96 different countries took at least one of the company’s mini-courses.
Pearo expects the demand to keep growing among students, and said eCornell has plans to add 30 more courses within the next year and a half.