Distance Learning; Net-Savvy Universities Seeing Huge Enrollments

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

University of Maryland University College has gone the distance in its approach to distance learning.

With a worldwide student body of 87,197, it is the largest public university in the country offering online classes, with 650 courses available in 91 undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs and typically 22 to 25 students in a class. Enrollment figures for the fall 2003 semester - the latest available - include about 57,500 U.S. military members and their dependents.

The next-largest enrollment - 16,485 - is of Maryland residents.

UMUC, one of 11 schools in the state university system, is expected to account for one-third of all students in the state system by 2011.

The term "distance learning" encompasses every kind of educational program, including correspondence courses, in which a student does not meet face to face with an instructor. More frequently these days, it refers to online computer-facilitated programs that link a teacher and student electronically.

Northern Virginia Community College, which has offered extensive online courses for seven years, enrolls 7,000 online students each semester out of a total of about 60,000 students.

General-studies degrees are the most popular for online students because they prepare students for transfer to a four-year college, but also popular are two-year certificate degrees, which include technical and business subjects.

Students' median age, says Monica Sasscer, the community college's associate vice president for instructional technology, is 26 or 27 and dropping. One-third of the faculty has been specially trained in online teaching techniques.

"Different disciplines have different needs," she points out, "but in general, even lab courses can be held online."

Beyond the online courses, Nova, as the college is widely known, has been in distance learning for a long time, promoting tele-course education through public television, says John Sener, an online consultant formerly at Nova, which has been involved in adult education for 30 years.

The Adelphi-based UMUC also offers classes in-house at 20 locations in the Washington area and requires all students to be proctored on site for exams, with special arrangements made for students living overseas.

According to the New York-based nonprofit Sloan Consortium, which aids learning organizations, more than 1.6 million students in the United States took at least one online course in 2002, and more than one-third of those students took all of their courses online. Also, says Sloan, 81 percent of institutions of higher learning offer at least one fully online or blended course - an online component combined with the traditional classroom setting.

Frank Mayadas, director of the consortium's grant program for online education, estimates that the national figure for students taking online courses is 2 million. Dropout rates mirror those in traditional classroom settings, he notes, and reflect the different populations being served.

"The biggest drawback now is seeing that this is a legitimate form of education, an idea that is not widely accepted."

Accreditation is done regionally, with peer-review authorities holding online educational institutions to the same standards to which they hold any other, according to Gerald Heeger, UMUC president.

"Students are expected to have the same level of services and attention." One difficulty, he has found, is that in offering such courses, "you need a whole lot of support... learning that it is not [just] a technological change but a whole institutional change. …