Going the distance

Distance Learning­ courses open new avenues for students

By Peter Hubbard
News Editor

Distance Learning, briefly summarized, is access to learning through electronic media when the learners are separated by distance and time. Basically, learners access instructional material through virtual mediums (predominately the internet) instead of going to to physical classrooms. Although instructors and students are in different locations, continual interaction facilitates the understanding and application of content.

“The reason online classes are growing has to do with the population. Now people are online natives, and it’s how future generations are learning,” Stacy Whiddon, Schoolcraft College Instructional Designer points out. She explains that online courses were originally utilized for students who found it impossible to come to campus. However, times have changed, and now many students find they learn better through online formats being comfortable with digital technology because they grew up with it. Younger crowds often prefer this medium.

Now, Online classes have skyrocketed at Schoolcraft over the past decade. To illustrate this gain, let’s compare Fall Semester 2003 with Fall Semester 2013. The statistics used for the comparison are based on the number of different courses along with the number of sections. Courses such as English and Math have multiple sections of the same course running each semester. In Fall 2003, 75 different courses/120 sections were offered online. A mere decade later in 2013, 110 different courses/293 sections were offered, with that number continuing to climb as late-starting sections are added based on the needs of students.

Not only are vast selections of classes available online, but entire degrees can be obtained strictly over the web, provided the correct classes are selected. Schoolcraft students can obtain the following degrees strictly online: Associates in Arts (AA), Associates in Science (AS), Associates in General Studies (AGS), Associates in Business Administration (ABA), and Associates in Applied Science (AAS) in Aviation Management, Business-General, Marketing & Applied Management, and Small Business for Entrepreneurs. In addition to these degrees other credentials such as certificates can all be completed without setting a foot on campus.

By combining the various modalities in which courses are offered at Schoolcraft (Online, OE/OE, hybrid, and face-to-face), students can construct their own learning plan designed to complete their degree requirements.

This is fantastic news for students that may want or need to take classes outside of campus. But the question becomes are courses completed online viewed as any less prestigious than their classroom counterparts?

Cheri Holman, Associate Dean of Distance Learning, answers. “It is expected that regardless of the modality in which you choose to complete your coursework, the learning outcomes should be the same. Because Schoolcraft does not differentiate between modalities and thus learning outcomes should be the same regardless of the format of the course, students will note that only courses are listed on their transcript, with no designation for the format in which they were completed.”

The stigma that used to accompany distance learning is now dissolving into history. “By universities and colleges adopting common standards, the quality of online courses is improving,” Ms. Whiddon explains.

Every online course offered through Schoolcraft’s virtual classroom is designed to be as effective and reputable as courses taught in traditional settings. Associate Dean Holman explains that “at Schoolcraft, we develop courses as a team. The team consists of one or more faculty members, an instructional designer, and a project manager. The criteria used to develop and evaluate courses are aligned with best practices in the online environment.  Schoolcraft College has fully adopted the standards established by Quality Matters (QM), an international organization and leader in quality assurance for online education.”

To simply describe online courses, however, would fall short in conveying all distance learning has to offer. Open Entry/Open Exit (OE/OE) and Hybrid courses are also available allowing students to minimize their trips to campus. Hybrid courses combine in-class instruction with flexible online learning. Most often students attend classes on campus for presentations, laboratory work, and discussions, while doing reading assignments, research, and projects online.

This format benefits students with both the flexibility of online delivery with the personal interactions of classroom settings.

“OE/OE courses help students meet their educational goals on a schedule that better fits the individual student. The flexibility of this modality allows students to complete coursework around work and family commitments or when life just happens.” Timothy Ellis, Associate Professor at Schoolcraft summarizes.

Designed for the disciplined student that can set their own pace and deadlines, these classes allow room for tremendous amounts of flexibility. Most OE/OE courses only require students to attend a face-to-face orientation on campus with their instructor to obtain access to their classwork, followed by at least one proctored on-campus assessment during the semester.

Some courses may require additional on-campus assessments.

Holman notes, “OE/OE  instructors provide students with suggested due dates to keep them on track. Students are required to finish all coursework by the end of the semester however.”

Professor Ellis adds, “OE/OE courses allow students to complete coursework in an accelerated format, which can be very important for students who may need grades posted to their transcript before semester end in order to transfer to another institution or perhaps to accommodate requirements for a job.”

As students realize the potential of online classes, is it possible one day distance learning will become the new norm? “This is being seen more and more with Summer 2013 serving as a perfect example, Whiddon reports. Of the 200 sections offered 83 were on online courses, 11 were OE/OE courses, and 2 were hybrid courses. Courses offered via modalities accounted for 48% of the college’s total offerings.” However, it is noted that the percentage of online classes versus face-to-face courses is smaller for fall and winter semesters.

Associate Dean Holman concludes by saying “I’ve been at the college for almost 40 years, and Schoolcraft is committed to high educational standards regardless of modality. Our students are selecting courses from all modalities to meet their educational goals.”

With today’s technology and a growing respect for online learning, one assumption can be made. In their educational relationships, students can really go the distance. ■Unfortunately for college students, textbooks fail to word their material simply. In efforts to explain ideas as academically and precisly as possible, textbooks authors sometimes sacrifice using the simplicity of common language. To students’ dismay, this results in daunting sentences and syllables that sound foreign in comparison to everyday conversation.

Luckily for the students at Schoolcraft, their struggles are to be sympathized with. After refining and reconstructing the classes formerly available in the English department, this fall premieres the first semester of the revised courses. Now administrators are confident the programs will prove more effective than before in accomplishing their ultimate objective–maximizing the learning potential of Schoolcraft’s students.

Dr. Dianne Aitken, Adjunct Faculty in the Collegiate Skills department, explains that the new programs “teach students more to learn in general and optimize learning. They can read, but they need to apply that learning to college reading.” Responsible for a significant portion of re-designing the courses, she made sure to describe how the brain works in these classes to illustrate the best learning methods. A notable comparison she utilized was that “coaches always instruct athletes how to optimize their bodies, but educators often aren’t taught how to optimize their students’ brains.”

Combating a common misconception about the classes, Dr. Deborah Daiek, Associate Dean-Learning Support Services, clarifies, “Most of our students are developmental, not remedial. They may have lost their interest, or they’ve never been taught. In high school they have to read short fiction, but most students haven’t had formal reading instruction since the fourth grade.”  Because of the obvious developmental gap between fourth grade and college, “a lot of students don’t learn to read college texts, separate from novel reading.”

The courses will provide a much-needed service to all, regardless of their assumed reading level. “It’s a blended psychology and reading course,” Dr. Aitken notes, explaining its nature. In order to retain the most text information, students are taught cognitive strategies for recalling pages.

So far, the fall semester appears to be fruitful for the college reading courses by the admirable numbers of those enrolled. “We keep adding, but I’d say about 25 sections, with about 20 to 25 students per class.” Dr. Daiek reports, a significant number for its debut year.

In the Collegiate Skills department, two reading courses are offered: Colls 050: College Reading, and Colls 053: Critical Reading and Thinking Applications. Specific classes tailored to ESL students and nursing are also available. “The majority of our students are placed in our classes based on placement tests, but a few students volunteer and realize the benefit of learning how the brain works and how to process it,” Daiek assessed, referring to how universal the course is.

She stresses that, for these courses, “the need has never been greater, because people are going to be hired based on their ability for higher level reading. Those that read well will get the highest paying jobs.”

For students that may want to get ahead of the game and sign up for these courses, a promise can be made: Collegiate Skills will teach you how to read, satisfaction guaranteed.