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Feb. 2, 2012 Volume 33, No. 18

Students are learning at a distance through MU online program


Better online access helping e-learning grow

Last year, around 8,400 students, some thousands of miles from Columbia, traveled as far as their home computer to attend an MU class. MU e-learners have nearly doubled in the past five years, in part because of technological advances in rural areas. Students can now choose from 550-plus courses in more than 75 degree and certificate areas.

Conduit to campus

Many of these students are what university administrators call “place bound.” Because of financial, family or employment obligations, they are unable to make the first-year freshman move to the MU campus, but are seeking to advance their careers.

Proponents for e-learning and other forms of distance education say the courses will provide an educated workforce where it’s needed. About 6,600 of MU’s e-learners reside in Missouri, and the courses act as natural job feeders into the areas where the student currently lives, rather than into larger cities.

“We’re helping to improve the educational base across the state,” said Jim Spain, interim vice provost for e-learning. “If I now have a teacher who is a more effective educator, I think there is a broad benefit to the state as it relates to education.”

Stacy Snow, interim marketing director for Mizzou Online, said most online degree-seeking students are female, at least 26 years old, and many are already employed.

“For good reason, a lot of people don’t want to quit their jobs right now,” Snow said. To reach out to prospective students, Snow said marketing efforts are targeted, such as direct mailings to current teachers who may want to pursue a master’s degree.

Snow said much of the recent surge in the popularity of distance learning comes from the ability to make it happen. Slow dial-up connections used to prevent students from obtaining their materials, especially when they used video. But national studies show that high-speed Internet access has become more accessible than ever before, making online education a possibility for those in remote rural areas.

“There has always been this concern that you can’t get really fancy with the techniques you’re using,” Snow said. “But the Internet isn’t slowing us down anymore. We’re helping academic units build new programs constantly.”

Figuring out what works

Not every degree or course lends itself to natural online compatibility. Although many degrees are offered 100 percent online, there are countless different models for “blended” or “hybrid” learning, meaning students complete some of their course work on campus.

Currently, the College of Education, the Sinclair School of Nursing and the College of Arts and Science offer the largest portfolio of degrees for distance education, but many other units are working to figure out ways that advanced technology can supplement live student-teacher interaction that traditional courses offer.

Science-based courses have come under particular scrutiny as critics worry about the implications of graduating students without hands-on laboratory training.

Leona Rubin heads a group of professors tasked with answering some of these concerns. An associate professor of veterinary biomedical sciences, Rubin is developing a course that will use digital imaging technology to employ a “virtual microscope” that allows students to zoom in and out of slides on their home computer. In a veterinary medicine course on equine lameness, another professor posted videos of horses undergoing therapy.

“It’s really neat,” Rubin said. “The students aren’t losing anything.”

However, Rubin thinks that the ideal learning environment is a blended course.

“Blended has a whole range of definitions,” she said. “There are pros and cons to both [online and traditional courses].”

Academic integrity

Spain said one of the reasons online learners gravitate toward an MU degree rather than one of the often less expensive online options is the quality of the institution.

“We have no intentions of advancing online learning unless it meets the quality standards that we put in place for all of Mizzou,” he said. “There are a number of institutions that are offering similar degree programs. We have a reputation that is strong and solid as it relates to the academic quality and rigor.”

Spain said MU ranks second in the Big 12 and among the top of all public AAU universities in distance education. Since the curricula are created and taught by MU faculty, Spain said he’s confident that online degrees will be every bit as meaningful to students.

Educators are more concerned, Rubin said, with student self motivation. Some students find it difficult to stay disciplined when there is no scheduled class to attend. Additionally, Rubin said many may enter under the false assumption that flexibility equals a lighter course load.

“We work them very, very hard,” Rubin said. “Not all students are ready for online education.”

How professors are adapting

At MU, each department is responsible for creating and governing its own distance education programs.

“First the faculty have to believe that their course can be learned at a distance,” Snow said. For a time-strapped professor, the sheer number of options may prove daunting in creating an online format.

Will your course be semester-based or self-paced? Will you facilitate a chat room? Work with the instructional design team? Utse Blackboard?

“[Faculty] have to figure out ways to deliver the content in new and interesting ways,” Snow said. “It’s definitely more time-consuming in the beginning.”

Rubin said she is taking all of the online training the university offers.

“There are blackboard courses available, and the [UM] System has offered three- to four-day workshops,” she said. Additionally, Rubin plans to spend an entire week in the summer at an ET@MO ( program, which helps instructors use new technology.

“The material online is now so good, we can teach many things at a distance,” Rubin said.

“We are giving [students across the state] an opportunity to improve their knowledge-base and future.”

—Megan Cassidy