Distance Learning Proves Popular with Students

Melissa Grill is exactly the sort of student who benefits when colleges and universities put together solid distance learning programs. Grill, returning to school for a graduate degree while working full-time, took 12 courses from Capitol College over two years to earn her graduate degree in information telecommunications systems management, all via a broadband connection from home.

Grill lives in North Carolina; Capitol College is a small, independent college in Laurel, Maryland, focused on engineering, computer sciences, information technologies and business. More than half its students continue to work fulltime while earning an undergraduate or graduate degree.

Since 2002, Capitol has offered online learning solutions using Centra Software, which provides software and services for online learning and training. Using Centra, Capitol now offers all its graduate programs as e-learning courses rather than through a classroom, and is now starting to offer undergraduate sessions as well.

Grill’s accelerated eight-week courses were in the evenings, so she avoided having to drive to class after work. Instead, she logged on through her home broadband connection to listen to lectures, view interactive PowerPoint slides, ask questions verbally by pressing a key on the keyboard, chat with classmates through a text function, and give presentations to the class. Online exams were administered using another product, the Blackboard Learning System. “We had students from Cuba to Hawaii to California,” Grill says. “It was a wonderful experience. I graduated June 25… I’m considering going back because I liked it so much.”

Among the advantages, Grill said, was the ability to replay taped sessions of her class presentations, to critique her own performance.

Capitol College began moving some of its graduate courses to Centra Software two years ago, after trying other online learning software. They quickly discovered, according to Dianne Veenstra, Capitol’s vice president of planning and assessment, , that students chose the online classes. “It was a natural progression,” she says. “Students found [online] learning equal to the classroom setting, with the convenience of no commute.”

Another benefit of Capitol’s the extensive e-learning offerings: Instructors, many of whom are part-time as well, enjoy teaching without having to commute. “It’s opened up opportunities for recruiting nationally known professionals,” Veenstra says. “We have an amazing network security faculty, for example.”

Are the online offerings drawing new students? “Absolutely,” she says. “The combination of online programs and a unique delivery system is opening up new markets for us.”

The experience works well for students because it mirrors a classroom experience in many ways, according to Danielle Faison, director of online support at Capitol. She says training in using the software takes perhaps an hour—although Capitol students are admittedly generally already technically savvy. Students have ready access to peers, classrooms and professors, Faison says, as well as the ability to listen to lecture recordings again after the fact.

The synchronous communication mode that Centra uses is perhaps one of its strongest points. Students listening to a lecture can click an icon at any point to raise a hand, be called on, then verbally ask a question that everyone can hear. Other students can indicate confusion with the same area by checking a box at the same time. “You don’t get that with other online environments,” Faison says.

Capitol has developed all of its own online courses, Veenstra says. The process takes about a year, six months for the professor to develop the online course, and another six months to fine-tune it for online use. “We’ve tried to mirror the on-campus environment. We find that students bond with each other, ask questions, work on projects together, and learn through their peers.”

With its graduate program firmly in place, Capitol offered an undergraduate program
this summer that combined online and face-to-face sessions in advanced junior level math course, alternating weekly between Laurel and the school’s satellite campus in Southern Maryland. “That went very well,” Veenstra says. “We can serve three markets that way”—students in either of the two areas, and online learners. This semester, Capitol is offering two more undergraduate courses online.

Because Capitol’s students are often fulltime professionals, Veenstra says, the backend systems need to be transparent and easy to learn. “They’re busy people. We have to make it as simple as possible for them—they don’t have time to fool around.” Training on Centra, Faison says, takes about an hour for students, slightly more for faculty.

Meanwhile, schools considering boosting their online learning programs might consider Grill’s feedback. She now plans to enroll in the school’s business administration program. “I just enjoyed the [distance learning] experience so much—I could be a lifelong student. It’s so much more relaxing to me. I don’t feel like I miss anything. I call the instructors a lot. They call me back, spend a lot of time on email. Great access, great responses. It’s just a great learning tool.”

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