In the late 19th century, punched cards, vacuum tubes and teleprinters infiltrated America’s upper class. Wealthy industrialists used these communication means to share important data. Since then, the development of advanced technology has made the U.S one of the most tech-savvy nations on the planet. Americans use millions of computers, cell phones and Palm Pilots to access videos, news articles, e-mails and web pages each day. Now, especially on college campuses, there is something else that can be accessed via the Internet: the classroom. [lead1]
A 2006 report released by The Sloan Consortium, an online education group, found 3.2 million college students took at least one online course during the fall of 2005, up from nearly 2.4 million in the spring of 2004. The increase sparked the creation of numerous computer software projects for enhanced-learning products. Global software companies developed classroom-hosting programs such as Blackboard and ANGEL that have transformed the ways in which information is obtained in the academic world. Tedious hours of taking notes and waiting in line for office hours have shifted to a culture of reading PowerPoint slides and chatting with professors online. The traditional learning environment appears to be evolving into a cyber classroom, so how does MSU stack up?
MSU currently offers more than 300 online classes to its graduate and undergraduate students. According to Gerald Rhead, the director of strategy and advisory services for MSU Global, an entrepreneurial academic business unit that develops and markets online institutes, programs, and services, most of those classes are either introductory or graduate level for three main reasons. First of all, professors are looking to maximize their efficiency. They see online classes as a way to offer introductory courses to MSU’s undergraduates without having to teach it live. Another reason is graduate courses tend to be part of degree programs that are offered online by MSU’s colleges. Since the degree is obtainable online, the colleges put most of their courses online as well. And the third and most important reason, according to Rhead, is “the faculty’s willingness to be able to explore and utilize the online modality of each course.”
Certain faculties are more hesitant about putting courses online than others, which affects the variation of the courses offered. “It’s a nice variety during the fall and spring semesters, but they need to expand over the summer,” said criminal justice senior Brenda Williams, who has taken IDES 140 and PKG 141 online. “A lot of people might want to take a few classes over the summer, but might not be able to afford to stay on campus during the summer. Or they might just want to take one or two classes, but don’t need to stay here for the whole summer, and they’ll be able to take the online course at home. So I think they’ll probably need [to offer] more classes over the summertime.”
Michigan State is one of the leaders in the Big Ten when it comes to the number of online classes offered to its students. According to information compiled by The Big Green from MSU’s Virtual University and other Big Ten university online course departments, MSU offers 305 classes, the 3rd most online classes in the Big Ten. Wisconsin-Madison and Penn State are the two schools that beat out MSU in the amount of online classes they offer. Rhead said the reason MSU is able to provide so many classes is because the university has done a good job of delegating its spending on online programs. “By catering to off-campus students, it’s increased the revenue base of what comes in, and a lot of that revenue goes into reinvestment of developing more courses,” Rhead said. “So I’d like to think that part of the reason we’ve been able to grow is that we’ve done good strategic, incremental investments.”
Michigan State uses ANGEL and LON-CAPA software to run its online courses. According to Brendan Guenther, the assistant director of MSU’s Virtual University Design and Technology, these systems are starting points for the course. Students can use these systems to access the class’s Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and other informational sheets. From there, the Virtual University, an online development division, can link the pages to Breeze presentations, recorded lectures and any other learning devices the professor wants his or her students to use.
[jacobs]According to Rhead, professors primarily select the online courses offered by MSU. When a professor wants to teach an online class for a course that is already offered as a traditional class, he or she takes his or her idea to the department and its dean for approval. If it’s an online class that has not been a traditional class, the professor then has to take it to both the college’s and the university’s academic governing councils and have the members of these boards approve the course.
Jenifer Barclay, a teaching assistant for Professor Alan Fisher’s HST 150 course last summer, believes professors are good at determining which classes should be taught online. “I think while professors might not have the same access to things as the administration would in terms of understanding sheer numbers, I think professors understand probably ‘what kinds of courses’ can be taught online because upper-level courses and courses that are more complex might be more difficult to offer online, and I think that’s where professors certainly have input in terms of what should be offered and what shouldn’t,” Barclay said.
Not only is the complexity of a course taken into account, but also the components of the class. According to Fred Jacobs, an accounting professor who taught Survey of Accounting Concepts online this past summer, some classes cannot be taught online because they involve too many intangibles. “If a faculty member does something special and unique in the lecture that requires some live interaction between the students and him or her, then I’m not sure if the online will be able to capture that,” Jacobs said. “But if a faculty member simply lectures and feels that’s the best way to get the material across to the students, and the class is relatively big, so there isn’t any interaction or much interaction, then I see no reason why an online class can’t work as effectively.”
Students opt for these courses for a number of reasons. Some are away on study abroad and can’t take a class on campus. Others want to get ahead, especially during the summer months. Most, however, have obligations such as work, children or sports that make traveling to the classroom difficult.
“I take online classes just to keep my schedule open for working, because it’s hard trying to work while classes are at crazy, random times,” said Williams, who works 15 to 25 hours a week at Macy’s.
One of many students’ favorite aspects about online courses is the convenience factor. Students like being able to log in and learn at their own pace, which is something traditional classrooms don’t allow. The obvious downfall of these courses is the lack of interaction with classmates. “Well, in hindsight now, I liked that I could do it anywhere,” said Samantha Suhajda, a lifelong education student who took Packaging 101 online during her freshman year. “But I didn’t like that you didn’t really get any interaction with other students, or even with the professor. If you were having problems, it was kind of hard to get to the professor right away, because it wasn’t like he was in front of you – you had to go to his office.”[laptop4]
While the university believes it’s offering a wide variety of classes, Rhead says that MSU can continue to improve its quality of online courses offered. Many students feel as though more 200 and 300-level courses need to be offered online. And some departments do not offer any online classes, including the Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures Department, the Religious Studies Department and the Spanish and Portuguese Department, to name a few.
“I think one of the areas that we can continue to improve on, and it’s something that we take into consideration a great deal, is really being able to map the [needs of the students]…to help students come up with a way in which they can manage their experience while they’re here,” Rhead said. “We’ve got undergraduate students that are working – some are holding down considerable jobs, sometimes full-time. And so it’s trying to provide more flexible ways for students to be able to complete programs in a timely and cost-effective manner.”
Guenther said MSU began offering online classes for the fall semester of the 1996-1997 academic year. The first classes, which were primarily telecommunication and computing courses, were not nearly as sophisticated as today’s classes. Most of the university population at the time used 56-kilobyte (KB) modems, which were very slow. As a result, the Virtual University used very little graphics with its software programs. Today, most people use a much faster 256 KB broadband connection, which enables the courses to be more graphic-oriented.
According to Rhead, the university only had about 800 online class enrollees during its first year. Last year, the university had about 13,000 students enrolled in online courses, including Anthropology 200, Criminal Justice 885 and Physics 231C, just to name a few.
[stuart]”It really has grown,” Rhead said. “It’s a coronation of growing programs, making good choices about what we put out there and certainly the general growth of online courses too. All those variables work together.”
Many students see the trend continuing to grow as well. “The economic trouble – it may be hard,” retail management junior Chris Bomer said. “You may have to work more and have less time traveling to class and being in class, so online classes may be more convenient.”
But will online classes completely replace traditional ones? Despite online classes’ increasing growth in popularity, there will always be students who thrive in a traditional classroom setting. “The majority of classes have it where live experience is critical for the learning that occurs,” Jacobs said. “So you can’t replace it with an online class. But I think there are other courses for which [an] online course will result in the same kind of learning that would result in a natural class.”
If online classes are not going to replace traditional classrooms, then what is their purpose? Most professors feel online classes will enhance the traditional learning process rather than take it away. It appears MSU has been doing just that, and then some. So while it will always be nice to meet new friends in class and have the occasional class crush, it’s good to know that if you have a full semester once in a while, you can roll out of bed, hop on your computer, and suddenly be in class.

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