Consumer — 03 March 2014

Special to American News Report

Taking a college course online used to be a quaint notion.  Much of academia resisted the trend, preferring to deliver the traditional classroom experience because it’s inherently interactive.

That’s not the case anymore.

Online courses and degrees offer immense potential for increasing access to college education, decreasing the cost of education, and providing expanded options for personal and career enhancement.

bigstock-Teacher-and-student-working-on-30690470“I love going to class and interacting with my classmates,” said Mary Clare Coghlan of Annapolis, Maryland. “But to pursue my master’s degree while working, I couldn’t go the traditional route, so I found an online program.”

Ms. Coghlan is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership at Gonzaga University.

A recent Gallup Poll reported how much Coghlan’s attitude about online education is becoming the norm. The poll found that Americans rated online education the best for value and options.

Capitol College, in Laurel, Maryland, recognized this trend very early. In fact, Capitol College is somewhat of a pioneer in online education: It created its first online degree programs in 1997, well before most schools. The college started its first doctoral program in information assurance in 2010, which is offered almost exclusively online. And, its online graduate engineering programs have earned high rankings in U.S. News and World Report.

“When Capitol College launched our online programs in 1997 we made a strategic decision to provide the convenience of online course with the quality of on-site instruction,” said Dianne Veenstra, Capitol’s Vice President of Planning.

“We tried to ‘mirror’ the classroom environment so that students and faculty meet together in real time, exchange thoughts and ideas.  Groups of students can break into ‘virtual’ classrooms and work on projects or case studies and then return to the course classroom and present their findings.  We limit our class size to 25 to ensure this intimate climate of the class.”

The growth of online education far exceeds the growth of higher education, and areas such as information technology and business have seen the steadiest increase, according to an annual survey by the Babson Survey Research Group.

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of chief academic officers believe that “online education is critical to long-term strategy.”

Why the popularity? Online courses are convenient for students, particularly for those who are already in the workforce.

“It is really fun to see non-traditional aged students taking these online courses because they are motivated, they are excited, and since they’re paying for it, they expect quality education,” said Ken Mayer, Director of Distance Learning Services at Capitol College.

“Students can plug in and tune into class in the car and listen through the radio via Bluetooth, so they’re not missing anything while commuting. We have had students sitting in airports in Japan waiting for a flight while they are tuned into their class. We have had students in Afghanistan take classes live so they’re not losing out on that live social interaction,” said Helen Barker, Dean of Capitol’s Business and Information Sciences.

cc-logo1Capitol’s online platform has evolved over the years to keep ahead of the competition and on top of the latest technology. The college is considered a leader in online education due to its focus on making the online environment as true-to-life as possible.  In fact, they even limit the number of students per class to maintain an intimate climate, which fosters better learning.

What technology advances have improved online classes the most? Live online interactivity coupled with screen sharing applications.

“It’s a live classroom that students are required to attend, and that is very different from what many colleges are doing now and certainly what we all did in the past,” said Barker.

Capitol’s students take live, three-hour, weekly sessions that are highly interactive. Students and professors talk to each other, hear one another, and see the same screens simultaneously.

Professors can expose what’s on their screen, or they can bring multiple systems into that screen. They can also get permission to gain control of any student’s screen. Students can break-out into virtual classrooms to work on projects, then return to their online “classroom” to share their findings. Screen sharing applications make the entire process simple.

“It’s beyond a traditional classroom experience with the use of technology. Normal classrooms don’t have a budget for multiple devices. Online platforms allow teachers to use their own devices. This way of teaching and learning is highly interactive and it’s an awesome experience for the students,” Barker added.

Technology has even advanced online education from live classrooms to live labs.

“Capitol is a National Center of Academic Excellence in cyber security and information assurance. The professors have the students work with virtual machines where they have to detect and mitigate a problem on these devices in real-time,” said Mayer.

“The software allows the professor to have control over these machines with the student, so it’s a very engaging way to teach.”

This interactivity and real-time content sharing is an area of continuous emphasis in online education.

“The hunger for more interactivity increases the more that students are exposed to it. Students’ interaction with other apps and other platforms means you can’t use yesterday’s technology today,” Mayer added.

Student-driven learning is the cornerstone to successful online degree programs.

“The students really help us craft our online platform. If they tell us they want more, we do our best to give them what they want,” said Barker.

A recent Huffington Post article on trends in education certainly indicates that online education is going to continue to expand, particularly as the nation’s broadband infrastructure expands. For schools around the world, it will mean continuously evolving online learning to attract the best and the brightest.

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Special to American News Report

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