More than six million higher education students are taking at least one course online, according to a 2011 study by the Babson Survey Research Group. At the University of Oklahoma, approximately 3,000 students are taking advantage of the college’s current online options. Assignment Radio reporter, Molly Evans, spoke with an English major and leaders of OU’s digital initiatives about incorporating online learning into the traditional college experience. A sea of more than 30,000 students floods the University of Oklahoma’s campuses each year. Those students have the option to choose among hundreds of classes taught by more than 2,600 full-time faculty members housed in 21 colleges. But when Victoria Heath, a 22-year-old English and Women and Gender Studies junior, had to take all of her OU courses online last semester, she was navigating uncharted waters.
Health: I felt isolated obviously just not being in the campus environment anymore that I was in for almost three years previous. So I mean it was a struggle seeing everybody going to class, having these intimate kinds of experiences in the classroom with professors, with peers, and then me just kind looking at a screen all the time.
Heath suffered a debilitating ankle injury and reconstructive surgery, which prevented her from attending her classes on campus, so she enrolled in all online courses during the fall 20-13 semester.
Health: I was incapacitated for so long, and I had so many other things to do, so much healing to do, that I think it made me feel more positive that that was just an option.
Heath took 15 credit hours to maintain full-time student status through OU’s Center for Independent and Distance Learning, the online program of the College for Continuing Education.
Health: I felt kind of like I was taking a step out of the college experience even, which sounds weird because I mean it was beneficial and I liked it, and I appreciated that option, but at the same time it felt like I wasn’t progressing as everybody else was, like I wasn’t experiencing it the same way, or maybe even like a correct way.
Although the online environment was isolating for Heath, she was not as alone as she felt. C-I-D-L director Randy Doerneman says about 2,500 students enroll in online courses each year, most being traditional OU students, but the center also serves students with military contracts, participants in foreign exchange programs and adults in the business world.
Doerneman: The 18 to 22 year-old group is kind of expected to be here on campus for those four years, and the reality really is some of them aren’t or can’t be because they run into life situations that take them away from the campus. To hopefully stay connected to those students, an online option provides that opportunity.
The C-I-D-L has been providing online courses for students beyond OU’s campus since Doerneman started 10 years ago. The center offers select courses in various fields and even a few bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Last semester, OU established another online educational option, called Janux. OU’s senior vice provost and Janux leader Kyle Harper says it incorporates digital technology in two formats: one a paid-admission course for credit and the other a free course open to anyone interested.
Harper: Only really in the last few years have people on a large scale started to say in a big way, “Let’s figure out what new technologies we can develop that let’s online learning be powerful in its own way and recognize that’s it’s not the same as more traditional classrooms just moved into an online space.” So I think there’s been a lot of change in the last few years, and I think we’re going to see even more change in the next five to ten years.
About 500 students took courses through Janux in the fall 20-13 semester. And overall approximately 10 percent of OU’s students are choosing the online option available through Janux or the Center for Independent and Distance Learning. While Harper expects online learning to grow, it will not change the university’s distinction as what he calls a “place-based institution.”
Harper: Online will never displace that from being just our primary identity, but at the same time, online learning and technology more broadly has to be a part of your culture and your portfolio. If you want to help your students succeed, you need those options for some of our non-traditional students and for some of the fully online programs that we offer and will be offering that are maybe outside of our traditional bachelor’s degree student population. There really is an important role for that.
Randy Doerneman agrees, and he hopes OU will make even more classes available for a broader range of majors and degree programs.
Doerneman: We just need to be flexible in providing some options, so the student can choose what works for them.
Victoria Heath now fully recovered from her surgery is glad to be back on campus raising her hand, engaging in discussion and walking slowly but surely to Gittinger Hall. And she’s grateful to have had the option to learn through the Web last semester and plans to take more online courses this summer to graduate by 2016.
Health: There are things I really love about being online, and there are things I really love about being back in the classroom. But I honestly don’t think I have an opinion on which is better or not. Technically, I think in class is better because that’s my option right now, if I want to advance in my courses.
For more information on Janux or the Center for Independent and Distance Learning courses, you can visit their websites at janux.ou.edu and cidl.ou.edu