Online Education | Feature

Reaching Out with Distance Learning

Walters State Community College leverages its distance learning capabilities to reach out to high schools across Tennessee.

It was the early 1990s, and a handful of Walters State Community College professors were tinkering around online, thinking about how cool it would be if they could deliver coursework over the Web not only to their own students, but also for high school students who signed up for dual enrollment programs.

"The faculty members pursued their mission and discovered that distance learning worked pretty well," recalled Linda Roberts, dean of distance education for the Morristown, TN-based college, which has three campuses and 6,000 students.

Selling the idea of distance learning outside of that "circle" of founding faculty members wasn't as simple. "People were skeptical of online education delivery in the early '90s, so you really had to sell them on it," said Roberts. "It took a lot of years to break through that barrier and bring distance learning mainstream."

Fast-forward to 2010, and most institutions of higher education are involved in distance learning via the Internet at some level. Walters State Community College (WSCC) has stayed ahead of the curve, and today "offers as many classes online that our faculty members can teach," according to Roberts. "The concept has certainly caught on."

Distance Learning for High Schoolers
The school uses distance learning with its own students and also serves as a facilitator of online course delivery for high schools statewide. At Afton, TN-based Chuckey-Doak High School, for example, students take computer classes through the community college's distance learning program. Participating high school students receive college credits when they pass the program.

WSCC is also using live video streams that instructors use to broadcast their classroom instruction to offsite locations, such as to the school's satellite campuses. This semester, for example, the community college is offering an American history class to a high school that's located about 80 miles from its Greenville, TN campus. It's a dual enrollment class, with students receiving both high school and college credits for the course.

Roberts said the live video streams allow WSCC to better leverage its human resources, particularly when it comes to faculty. "For this particular history class, we couldn't find an instructor who was close enough to drive to the high school every day," she explained. "Thanks to the technology, we were able to use an instructor who is close to our Greenville campus, where he can teach the class while streaming it to other locations."

Social Media and Web 2.0
The community college is also experimenting with podcasting its classes to students in the dual enrollment program. High schools located in rural areas, for example, are prime candidates for the podcasting, said Roberts. Currently about five high schools (and about five to 10 students per class), are learning via the podcasting system in conjunction with online instruction.

"The podcast is basically a live recording of the instructor lecturing, and giving commentary and information to the class," said Roberts. "Students go online to get their assignments and complete them on their own time."

Roberts said WSCC's biggest obstacle to success with online learning involves scheduling the various entities (the college professor, high school teachers and students) for the courses. When the stream is being sent to several high schools at once, she said, the scheduling can be especially daunting. "We have to create a schedule that fits with every school, and with the instructor's calendar," said Roberts.

To deal with the challenge, WSCC uses the same course management system that the school relies on for its traditional classroom instruction. The online system handles the scheduling and allows students to submit assignments through a centralized repository where teachers can access and grade the work and provide comments.

"We offer so many online courses that it wouldn't be feasible for teachers to pick up the assignments at the school in person or try to manage the process by mail," said Roberts. "The online course management system solves that problem."

Reflecting on the Distance Education
When it comes to measuring the benefits of WSCC's distance learning investment, Roberts said the most important return is the institution's ability to expand its course offerings and reach without the need for additional physical space. "When a teacher needs to teach an additional English class and doesn't have anywhere to do it, adding an online section solves the problem," said Roberts.

WSCC can also reach students who either work full-time (about 75 percent to 80 percent of its student population), or who can't afford to commute to school every day. "If students can't work into our traditional schedule, distance education gives them a lot of flexibility," said Roberts. "They can go to school in their pajamas if they want to."

Next year WSCC plans to add more podcasts to complement its online course offerings and meet student demand for the portable option ("students love the podcasts," said Roberts). The college will also include more online video streaming to its distance-learning menu, and expand its technology training program for faculty members.

"Students pick up on technology faster than the faculty does," said Roberts. "We have a responsibility to those students to make sure faculty is trained to maximize the use of technology."

To institutions looking to replicate WSCC's long-standing success in the distance learning realm, Roberts said to "plan ahead and anticipate problems" before broadcasting the class. A supportive IT team that can mobilize quickly to solve problems is also important, she said, as is a "faculty that's well trained on how to use technology, whiteboards, and course management systems."

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