Online education growing as colleges face state budget cuts

Enrollment in online classes at Whatcom Community College are grew 35 percent last year and is expected to continue to...

With all of the state funding cuts that higher education has sustained the past two years, universities and colleges are struggling to find ways to increase enrollment and keep up with demand from students. One solution that is proving popular for students and educators alike is online classes.

“Higher education has borne as much cuts as it can without seriously affecting the community,” said Michael Shepard, eLearning director at Whatcom Community College, adding that there is still hope. “We’re at capacity and have been for years, but eLearning allows us to increase opportunity and enroll more students.”

In his position at WCC, Shepard oversees all of the college’s online classes, which have seen enrollment grow 25 percent to 45 percent annually over the past three years. This year, about 2,100 students are enrolled in an eLearning class at WCC. More than 100 classes — about one out of every five — now have an online component and a majority are entirely online, Shepard said.

For students, taking classes online allows them to work and fit school into their own schedule, and for the college, they are an affordable way to offer more classes and increase enrollment.

Also, it helps that technology has improved to the point that taking a class online is, in some cases, more multimedia-rich and participatory than the traditional classroom, Shepard said.

“The technology has allowed us to be less focused on text-based instruction,” he said, adding that professors can upload video tutorials and PowerPoint presentations, among other things. “There’s really no reason that courses these days can’t be highly interactive, collaborative, and foster community. We have some faculty say they feel a higher level of participation and community in online classes. No one can sit in the back and never ask a question — participation is required.”

Whatcom Community College launched its eLearning program about eight years ago with its physical therapy assistant degree. Graduates from this program were in high demand and the industry needed more assistants. So the college developed a hybrid degree program with all of the core classes online and a once-a-month, three-day weekend of intensive lab work at the college.

“We almost doubled the size (of the program) by adding an online component,” Shepard said. “It’s really allowed us to expand. We get students now who fly in from Alaska, Texas and California to take part in this program.”

The success of the physical therapy assistant program spurred the college to offer on online AA transfer degree and switch all five of its health care degrees — massage therapy, nursing, nursing assistant, medical assistant and physical therapy assistant — to an online hybrid model.

Saving time and money

The flexibility of online classes was a key factor for Jeannine Lyon, a project coordinator at St. Joseph Medical Center who is pursuing an MBA in health care administration through WGU Washington, a nonprofit online university that earlier this year was endorsed by the state Legislature.

“For me it’s absolutely great. I can work when I can and no one’s going to beat me over the head if I can’t,” Lyon said, adding that it’s a different experience from when she got her undergraduate degree. “It’s definitely different to work outside of a traditional class setting where they have a pace that’s set. In the online world, you get to set your own pace.”

Lyon chose WGU Washington because of its competency-based structure, meaning students can test out of subjects they already know. This allows students to move at their own pace and ensures that they understand the subject before moving on.

“I’m a pretty quick study. If I really want to focus on something that is meaningful to me, I can spend as much time as I want,” Lyon said. “I’m not in a hurry to get through my classes.”

Still, Lyon said she is planning to complete her degree in a year and a half. She studies on evenings and weekends and estimates she puts in 15 hours to 20 hours a week.

Lyon is also represents the average student at WGU Washington, said Chancellor Jean Floten. Of the 1,000 students in Washington, most students are older than 35, working full-time, and a majority of them are women. They choose online programs over traditional universities because the classes fit into their lifestyle, she said.

“People are place-bound and time-bound, and online education is faster, more affordable and can be scaled up,” Floten said.

Online classes are also proving to be cheaper for students. WGU Washington charges a flat rate of $2,890 per six-month term no matter how many classes a student takes — and there is no additional charge for textbooks, most of which are ebooks. One year of classes would cost $5,780 compared to $6,468 for one year of tuition at Western Washington University.

At WCC, students can use the Open Course Library, a project that compiles course materials for the highest enrolled classes around the state and offers them for no more than $30, said Linda Maier, dean for Workforce Education.

“That really helps students because textbooks continue to rise in price and faculty across the state can access those resources,” Maier said.

Though online classes are growing in number each year, they may not be right for every student, Maier said. Taking classes online requires students to be self-motivated, have the ability to work independently, and be comfortable with with technology.

But for a growing number of students, earning a college education will involve a username and password rather than a pen and paper.

“It’s come a long way over the years as the technology has improved,” Maier said. “We’re moving more of our programs to an online hybrid model, and the enrollments continue to increase.”

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