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  El Cerrito   [Schools ]   Regional   History   Lifestyle   Opinion   Election  

Online learning can be a boon if you have the right stuff

Richard Hascal warns that his English 1A course is not for everyone. In addition to academic prerequisites, the successful candidate needs the right equipment and, most important of all, the right kind of study habits.

The course is taught through Contra Costa College, but the students spend most of their class time at their own computers, rather than at the San Pablo campus. They submit assignments and correspond with the instructor and classmates by e-mail.

When Dalton Huckaby Jr. of El Cerrito learned about the online course, he was quick to sign up.

"I took this particular online course because I knew that English was the sort of class in which I could excel without the need to meet in a classroom environment on a regular basis," he says.

"An advantage to taking this online course was that I could spend more time at home for studying and I could work ahead of the schedule if I wanted. Some of my classmates took the class so that they didn't have to physically attend class. Others, mainly parents with children at home, thought it more appropriate to take an online course as a time saver."

Diane Marcus of University of California Extension offers similar reasons for taking online courses.

"Based on feedback from our students, I would say the biggest advantage is the convenience and flexibility of the program; students can pace their work according to their own schedules. They can do their coursework from home, from work, late at night, early in the morning, where and whenever."

Marcus is marketing coordinator for the Center for Media and Independent Learning, UC Extension's statewide distance learning department.

Offering learning from a distance is not new. Other media -- mail, cable TV and videotapes -- preceded the Internet as surrogate classrooms. UC has offered courses at a distance since 1913.

But the Internet offers a level and speed of interaction other media couldn't provide.

 

How it compares to the classroom

While Hascal requires his students to come to the campus for a minimum of three meetings -- orientation, midterm and final -- other institutions offer courses entirely on line. The web site for Golden Gate University's "CyberCampus" boasts that it "offers online courses that allow students to earn full degrees, professional certificates, update their skills, or accelerate the completion of degree programs without the inconvenience and expense of commuting to class. Students can apply, register, attend class, and interact with their professors and fellow students without ever setting foot on campus. "

One of the concerns about online learning is the lack of face to face contact between the student and instructor and classmates.

Hascal's online course introduction notes, "A class without boundaries and no strict timetable is a blessing to some -- but uncomfortable for others."

Successful online learners, he says, have strong time management, reading and writing skills.

"If you often miss the point or aren't comfortable reading, you will almost certainly prefer a traditional class with more face-to-face interaction."

The on-site meetings for the Contra Costa College class were primarily needed because the college is new to online learning, says Huckaby. "I think that in the future, as more online classes are taken, less live class meetings would be needed."

Huckaby notes that in-person interaction can have its weaknesses as well.

"In a classroom setting, students are often quiet and don't participate too much. I think the same was true with the online class. I didn't receive a lot of responses from other classmates. But there were a couple of people that I received constant, productive feedback from."

He suggests grading students on participation in online communication with peers.

"Learning is all about helping other people, and I would encourage more interaction amongst the students to help fulfill that goal of learning the most one can get out of class."

Marcus says in some ways online interaction is better than off line.

"Students enjoy one-to-one interaction with their instructor, which can often be difficult in a classroom setting. Some students have also felt that they were able to better absorb the course material, since they are working at their own pace and not having to keep up with other, faster students (or slow down for others.)"

On the other side," she says, "some students do miss the interaction with other students. Course message boards are set up in each classroom for communication, but it isn't the same as face to face with their classmates."

 

Future

The extent to which institutions take advantage of online learning varies greatly. At the kindergarten to 12th grade level in California, according to information released June 6 by the Department of Education, 42 percent of classrooms don't have Internet access, and 2,000 schools have no Internet connections at all.

But there is little doubt online learning is growing.

Hascal's online course was offered at Contra Costa for the first time in the spring. He says it's been so successful that the college increased the number of sections this fall to meet the demand.

"Without question," says Hascal, "online curricula will be one of the staples of the 21st century education. It will not replace the traditional classroom paradigm, but offer an alternative distance-learning option to the unique individuals up to the special rigors such a self-directed, high-tech program demands."

UC Extension has had 5,000 students enrolled in its online program since it was launched in 1996 with nine courses.

Says Marcus, "I think the number of online learners will increase in the future as the method of learning becomes more accepted and understood."

 


Run dates: 2000-07-20 - 2000-08-03
 


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