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story.lead_photo.caption Dr. Jami Forrester, a history professor, works in her office Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in Burns Hall at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. - Photo by Ben Goff

BENTONVILLE -- College students increasingly are going online for their education, and the trend is evident at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

The college has 4,092 students -- 47% of its total enrollment -- taking at least one online class this semester. That's an increase of 9% from last fall and up 32% from three years ago, according to college figures.

About 20% of the students take all their classes online. About 30% of the 75,416 credit hours enrolled in this semester are online.

Kate Burkes, associate dean of distance learning and faculty development, said that when she attends graduation ceremonies, students often tell her they couldn't have completed their degree without taking online courses.

"It is a very critical part of what we do here now," she told the college's trustees last week.

The two-year school is the largest community college in the state.

The trend affects the college's future and its spending priorities.

Officials are weighing the possibility of building a dormitory on campus. President Evelyn Jorgenson is planning a two-day trip to Texas and Oklahoma next month, along with board members, to visit other community colleges with dormitories.

Jorgenson has urged caution on that matter, noting on more than one occasion that the rising popularity of online classes must be considered when contemplating new facilities.

Burkes believes the college will continue to see growth in its online sector. Some have predicted that nationally, 75% of all college classes will be online by 2035, she said.

"You have to think about Generation Z that's now coming into college," Burkes said. "A lot have done their high school online, or at least one class online. So it's getting to be much more acceptable and easier for them to navigate."

Joshua Mendez, 22, of Fayetteville has taken a mix of online and traditional classes during his time at the community college. He took a business law class over the summer and is taking a microeconomics course this semester. Both online classes have been "fantastic," he said, although he acknowledged drawbacks.

"One of the cons is not being able to be face to face with the teacher and ask questions when you have them. Of course, you can always email them, but there's that delayed response there," he said.

As someone who works a full-time job, he appreciates the flexibility that comes with online classes.

"You can kind of learn at your own pace," he said. "I can do some class right now or put some aside for later."

Flexibility is the main reason students take the online classes, Burkes said.

"Our students are so busy. They have children. They have jobs. Especially here at a community college, they have a lot of other responsibilities," she said.

Even the traditional-age students -- those who are 18 to 22 -- are taking online classes. It may be because they couldn't fit a particular class into their schedule, or they are making up a class they didn't do well in, Burkes said.

Students pay the same tuition per credit hour for online classes as they do for traditional classes, but each online course comes with a $43 distance-learning fee.

The college works to ensure the quality of instruction is the same in online as in traditional classes, Burkes said.

"So it's the same faculty. Same small class size. We have the same course objectives, same curriculum. We assess the same. Everything except for how we do the class is the same," Burkes said.

The college also stresses to faculty that they maintain a high level of interaction with students, she said.

Nearly 6.3 million college students nationwide -- 31.7% of all college students -- took at least one online course during fall 2016, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That was up from 6 million the previous fall -- a 5.5% jump.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has seen an explosion of growth in online education. The number of undergraduate and graduate students taking at least one online course has nearly doubled in the past six years, from 7,161 in 2013 to 14,007 during the 2018-19 academic year, according to the university's Global Campus.

This year about 7,987 students at the university are taking at least one online class, about 29% of all students.

Jami Forrester, a history professor at the community college, has been teaching online classes for about 10 years. The classes aren't for everyone, she said, adding she would not have been a good online student when she was an undergraduate.

"I think it has to do with the way in which people learn," Forrester said. "If someone learns better by sitting in and hearing it, doing very hands-on activities in a traditional classroom, I think they need to be in that traditional classroom."

Forrester loves the time spent with students in traditional classes. But, like her students, she benefits from the flexibility of online classes.

"I can still be a mom to my kids," she said. "I can pick them up from school and be with them until I put them to bed."

Sevin Gallo, a history professor at the college, is teaching four online courses this semester. The lack of face-to-face interaction diminishes instructors' ability to communicate with them and hold them accountable, so it's critical students be self-motivated and take initiative, she said.

"I think there's a myth that if I take a class online, it's going to be easier," Gallo said. "Well, a lot of those students fail because they fail to understand a lot of the responsibility is going to be on them. It's more difficult to be successful in an online environment if you're not going to be advocating for your own education. You can't be a passive learner online."

Some researchers have cast doubt on the effectiveness of online education at the college level. The Brookings Institution, a research group based in Washington, published a report in 2017, Promises and Pitfalls of Online Education. The report stated online courses are challenging, especially for students who aren't well prepared.

"These students consistently perform worse in an online setting than they do in face-to-face classrooms; taking online courses increases their likelihood of dropping out and otherwise impedes progress through college," the report states.

Burkes noted the college faces challenges as the online sector grows. She said the college must try to ensure all of its services, such as advising, are available remotely. Another challenge is meeting the needs of students with disabilities. The content of the courses needs to continue to evolve as well, she said.

"A lot more video, I think, is the way we're going to head. It's a YouTube world. And so we've got to continue to ramp up our ability to provide that for them," Burkes said.

State Desk on 09/25/2019

Print Headline: Demand for online classes surging in state's NW


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