Education That Really Goes the Distance

Posted: February 24, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: February 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm

By Jennifer Edgerly

While the blizzard of 2010 caused widespread cancellations throughout the university, not everyone was stuck at home without classes to attend.

More than 4,000 Mason students who take classes online were still able to listen to lectures and complete homework assignments despite the nasty weather. Such enrollment in distance education courses at Mason has climbed steadily over the years, and the recent winter weather may provide an added push to grow online educational offerings.

“Several professors at Mason were able to keep classes going and not lose any days during the recent snowstorms,” says J. Goodlett McDaniel, associate provost for distance education.

“Whether faculty members re-arranged classes to take place online once the university shut down, or are making arrangements to make up class time missed by using distance education, it has definitely helped to keep many faculty members and students right on track.”

For those faculty members and students who attend class online, Snowpocalypse didn’t seem to disrupt their schedules at all. The ease of online courses also made it possible for faculty members to have students in their ground-based courses join their online sections as necessary, as many English 302 and Volgenau School professors did.

“There are no snow days in my NET courses,” says Kammy Sanghara, instructor of applied information technology.

“Weekly course material is made available to students on Monday, and it is due on Sunday night, regardless of the weather. Everybody is talking about falling behind in the schedule, [but] we are staying on track in our NET courses.”

So What Is Distance Education?

Often thought of as online education, distance education (DE) is a formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction occurs when students and instructors are not in the same place at the same time.

Along with online education, a distance education course may employ correspondence study, audio, video, software and other technologies. Blackboard is the official university learning management system, but professors also regularly use blogs, Skype, Wikis and other Web 2.0 applications to enhance courses.

Mason has been offering DE courses for more than 20 years. When McDaniel, who is also the associate dean for business development for the College of Health and Human Services, took his newly created position in 2007, one of his first orders of business was to create a distance education council. Comprised of staff and faculty members from around the university, the council has provided direction to help sustain DE at Mason and established goals to help it grow.

“We’re building a variety of DE courses at Mason that meet different program requirements, allowing us to meet a range of student needs,” says McDaniel. “Some courses are 100 percent online, others may have some on-campus requirements, and others are considered blended courses where the majority of the course is offered through the web but instruction is also delivered face-to-face.”

Not wildly popular or accepted across the university 20 years ago, DE has grown tremendously in the last few years. McDaniel notes that from fall 2008 to fall 2009, the university saw a 66 percent increase in enrollment in DE courses.

A common notion is that DE is not as good as face-to-face education. However, a recent review conducted by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that DE students had equal, or better, outcomes than classroom-based students. Findings also indicate that students in blended courses had better outcomes than either DE or classroom-based students.

University Plans to Grow DE

McDaniel explains that there is a demand, from current and potential students, to be able to complete programs entirely online, and that filling that need is one of the top priorities of his office. The other focus is on offering as many high-volume undergraduate courses online as possible.

Currently the university offers 68 undergraduate courses online, as well as two complete graduate programs and seven graduate certificates. The graduate programs offered are the MS in Computer Science and the MA in Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics.

Not only does DE free up space on campus for other courses that don’t lend themselves to the DE model, it also allows students to take courses while away from the university without the added paperwork of transferring courses in from other universities.

“Mason faculty members are working to make more courses available that meet the needs of students. Those who have to leave during the summer often transfer in courses taken while away,” says McDaniel. “When Mason faculty members can build and offer Mason courses, there are no transfer issues for the student, and the faculty member has control of the course content.”

The university plans to continue to increase DE offerings, but McDaniel notes that growth has to be planned to support faculty, student and infrastructure demands. The cost of creating and maintaining online courses is labor intensive. At the same time, DE courses allow certain students to still study at Mason even though attending a ground-based class is not feasible.

Faculty members considering creating a DE course should realize that there is no slack time, McDaniel says. Currently, it takes a full year to produce a course. That year includes one semester for faculty members to work with instructional designers to translate the classroom-based course into a course that is effective online. Once course development is complete, it takes one semester to pilot the course and one more semester to evaluate the course.

For more information on distance education at Mason, please see the DE web site.

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