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Opting Out Online

A re students choosing distance learning instead of going to campuses? In October 2000, the National Association for College Admission Counseling sponsored the first U.S. Virtual University Fair. In the first 15 minutes, more than 5,000 students signed on and jammed the system. No one had expected this type of interest from traditional aged students.

These are the kids who go off to college to get away from their parents, meet new friends, drink beer, download music through their dorm high-speed Internet connection, and study. So why would there be so much interest in virtual universities?

As one of the research universities with which we work reported to me recently, there are a lot students sitting in their dorm rooms taking online courses. This particular institution had just learned that 85 percent of their online students were on their own campus as full-time students.

I was curious about why a student would go online for a class when they have the option of sitting in a room face-to-face with a faculty member. Here were some of the reasons I picked up:

· Scenario One. I have to work and I don’t have a car. The only job I could get close to campus is in a fast-food place. Unless I want the late-night shift, I have to be there when they need me. The only lunchtime hours I could get this term were on Mondays and Thursdays. That pretty much knocks out middle-of-the-day classes that are set up for either Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/ Thursday. The only way I could take the courses I need this term was to take a couple of them online so I can control the schedule. It’s working out pretty well.

· Scenario Two. I showed up for my calculus class this term, and there were more than 100 people in the lecture hall. The guy doing the teaching could barely speak English. I am not that good at math anyway, so I knew I would never be able to pass that course. I found an online calculus course that uses the same book and comes from another state university. It costs a little more, but my folks understand and are helping me with the extra tuition.

· Scenario Three. I am a nighttime person. I hate getting up early so I take the online classes. That way I can study at night and still be able to participate in class. None of these reasons are surprising or even new ones. However, for the first time, students actually have other options. More and more institutions are recognizing this. Some faculty members are trying to integrate online experiences and options into their oncampus classes.

It is possible to imagine a future in which 18-year-olds go away to a campus for all the usual reasons, but once there, they will not have classes whose meetings are determined by the number of classrooms available that can hold all of the students registered for the class. Instead, they will meet with their professors in small groups, work on class projects in online groups, and progress toward their degree—not based on credit hours earned, but rather on the demonstration of the knowledge they master.

To get there, we have a lot of work to do. We have to develop a new framework for awarding credentials, re-tool the faculties of our colleges and universities.… On second thought, maybe we should just let the kids take some of their classes online.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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