Academic journal article Journal of Applied Research in the Community College

Online Instruction in Rural Community Colleges: Meeting Needs While Maintaining Quality

Academic journal article Journal of Applied Research in the Community College

Online Instruction in Rural Community Colleges: Meeting Needs While Maintaining Quality

Article excerpt

Once considered an instructional innovation, the online delivery of courses and even complete degree programs has become a familiar practice in American higher education (Foster & Carnevale, 2007; Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008). Not surprisingly, the use of online courses has expanded somewhat exponentially, as institutions and students alike have recognized the beneficial access that online delivery affords (Allen & Seaman, 2006). The growth of online education since the turn of the century has been so extensive that it now represents the primary instructional delivery system for some college campuses, in essence overshadowing the more traditional classroom option and making the shift to online appear like a run-away train. Now that online delivery has become almost the standard, educators have an obligation to consider what is needed to ensure high quality instruction while maximizing the utility of distance education.

No stranger to innovation, community colleges certainly have embraced the online revolution. Seeking to improve the educational reach of the institution, community colleges in urban as well as rural areas have recognized the benefits of adding online course offerings for both degree and certificate programs. The rapidity in which community colleges have implemented online offerings occasionally has led to a trial-and-error effort precipitated by market-driven forces and resulting in a time-consuming, costly, and frustrating experience for faculty as well as institutions. Although all community colleges can rightfully argue the need to expand their curricular offerings to provide students with additional access opportunities, the advantages offered by online courses, as well as other forms of distance education, take on a special meaning for most rural institutions - because of service-area geography, the economics of convenience, and cultural ties to constituents.

How Online Courses Benefit Rural Community Colleges

Regardless of the delivery system employed, distance education traditionally has served as a way to communicate with individuals dispersed over large geographical expanses (Schrum, Burbank, Engle, Chambers, & Glassett, 2005), and no sector of American higher education is more affected by geography than rural community colleges. According to the Rural Community College Alliance (2012), out of 860 community college districts nationwide, 553 (64%) are rural, and they serve approximately 3.4 million students. With many rural community colleges located in sparsely populated or remote areas of the nation, their assigned service areas typically include multiple counties that span thousands of square miles. Increased technology-often in the form of online courses -has provided great potential for delivering courses to even the most isolated and widespread reaches of the nation (Pennington, Williams, & Karvonen, 2006).

The use of online courses to improve the educational reach of a rural community college also offers a level of economic convenience for both the institution and its students. The remote location of many rural community colleges translates into small enrollments. Of the 922 rural campuses identified by Hardy and Katsinas in 2007, at least 206 of them had annual unduplicated headcounts of less than 2,500, and 499 campuses had annual unduplicated headcounts ranging between 2,500 and 7,500. These enrollment levels mean that, at many rural campuses, the number of full- and part-time faculty members is also small. Online courses provide these institutions with the potential to maximize their instructional assets. According to Mupinga and Maughan (2008), such courses "eliminate the classroom walls that restrict class size and hence have the potential to enroll large numbers of students" (p. 17).

Students in rural venues can also profit from the availability and practicality of online courses. Although evidence exists to suggest that family stores and farms are disappearing from the rural landscape (Fluharty & Scaggs, 2007; Hill & Moore, 2000), many rural community college students still maintain close ties to, and are involved with, the family business. …

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