Virtual Degrees: Students Have More Options to Take Online Classes at Public Universities

May 1, 2008

Credit University of Illinois at Springfield
Thousands of miles away in Guatemala, a 62-year-old college student learns math from instructors at the University of Illinois at Springfield. 

For several years, the increasing number of students taking online classes at for-profit schools has invited questions about the quality of education received through the Internet. But as public universities face mounting costs, they also are entering the mix, changing the way students and professors think about the classroom. 

The implications could be great. 

Renato Sanchez, the student in Guatemala who's earning his second bachelor's degree through UIS, says the math courses are a lot like face-to-face classes, something he didn't expect. 

"I thought I was going to be able to study at my own pace, and I found out that the program is very structured with a lot of deadlines to meet," he said in an e-mail. 

Sanchez represents the typical student earning an online degree. He already has a bachelor's degree in engineering, works full time and needs a program that doesn't restrict his activities. 

"The best part is that I can continue to study, and I have the ability to get material and turn in homework from anywhere I happen to be," he said. 

Traditional universities are trying to capitalize on the demand for online classes to capture the booming number of students who probably wouldn't attend otherwise. Students who take online classes don't occupy classroom space, live in campus dorms or take up parking spaces. Yet, they pay the same tuition as students who do, and they usually pay additional fees specific to online courses. 

In the past five years, statewide enrollment in online classes more than tripled, according to the Illinois Virtual Campus, a group at the University of Illinois that tracks distance-education trends. The group recorded more than 145,000 online class enrollments in Illinois last year, and public schools account for about half of online enrollments in the state. 

The way state schools approach online learning contrasts with methods used by for-profit universities. Yet, both are accredited and certified through the same review procedures by the Higher Learning Commission, a division of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. 

For instance, the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, reports that the for-profit University of Phoenix enrolls more than 165,000 students online across the country. But critics point out that the school uses part-time instructors who work in the fields they teach, not tenured faculty or professional scholars. 

Michael Kaley, the University of Phoenix's vice president for Illinois campuses, says that teachers go through a five-week training course, and all have at least a master's degree. He adds the pool of instructors fits the school's older, professional students, who prefer instructors with real-world experience. 

"These are mostly people who would not normally go to school. It's good we get access for as many people as possible." 

The school prides itself on helping students earn online degrees quickly, but federal statistics suggest many don't earn their degrees within five or six years. The school's graduation rate for its online-only campus is 1 percent over four years and 6 percent over a six-year period. 

That falls below the 17 percent overall rate at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Northeastern has the lowest graduation rate in the state and enrolls a large number of returning adult students, a population resembling that of the University of Phoenix. 

Kaley says the federal numbers only measure part of the University of Phoenix's population. The graduation statistics only account for first-time college students, or about 40 percent of the school's online enrollment. The school reports its own overall graduation rate closer to the national average of 55 percent. 

Illinois' answer to the criticism of for-profit schools is to use a model that is an extension of the existing university. 

The University of Illinois at Springfield has become a model for other state schools. It uses the same full-time tenured professors and scholars who teach on campus to instruct most online courses. The online-only enrollment is nearly 25 percent of the school's student population, according to Ray Schroeder, director of the Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning. Almost a third of all students at the school take at least one online class. 

A general myth abounds that online courses are easier than a regular class program and that online students are less likely to be good students. Yet Schroeder reports the incoming grade point average for students in the online major program is 3.5 on a scale of 4, well above the average GPA for incoming on-campus students of 3.0. 

"It takes a more disciplined student to thrive online," he says. 

Like those at the University of Phoenix, most of the UIS students enroll in online courses that relate to their existing careers. The median student age is 34 for undergraduates and 35 for graduate students. 

Schroeder says the strength of the UIS online program is that it offers courses already being taught by career professors, as opposed to the approach of most online programs that operate from a distance-education department and use more part-time faculty. 

The UIS program also offers courses over 15 to 16 weeks, unlike the more condensed versions often offered by for-profit schools. 

To ease the need for class space and parking for commuters, UIS also plans to offer "blended" classes. At least 50 percent of the course is taught online, but students still have regular class time. 

"The carbon footprint of a student who commutes is significant," Schroeder says, adding that the school's blended classes will cut student visits to campus in half. 

Online classes also may help relieve limited campus space as enrollment grows and capital dollars from the state become more scarce. 

Northeastern Illinois University is building its online program based on the UIS model. Located in Chicago, the commuter campus is built vertically to fit within limited space and is a good example of a school that could benefit from putting more courses online, says Anthony Pina, the school's coordinator of learning technologies. 

"Technology in education is best used to solve problems. We're a landlocked university," he says. 

The school sought state construction funds to develop the last available piece of land on campus — a   baseball diamond — to accommodate growth. 

"If we want to grow, since we can't build many more buildings, we have to grow virtually," Pina says. 

Northeastern plans to start with blended courses that will offer 20 percent of the classes online. Plans also include incorporating a live streaming video that allows students to see the professor's lecture and potentially helps ease them into online learning. 

"The delivery system is not the significant factor in learning if the design of the course and the teaching methods are sound," Pina says. "Putting a course online does not turn good instruction into poor instruction." 

Pina also suggests that contrary to common perception, the level of interaction between instructors and individual students can be higher in online courses. 

Even with the growth potential for state schools from online programs, they can't mitigate the growing capital needs on most campuses. 

State Rep. David Miller, a Lynwood Democrat, says the urgent capital needs of the state can't be addressed simply by putting more classes online. He chairs the House committee that oversees the budget process for higher education. 

"Even though the online campus is clearly where the world's education system is going, there's still going to be a need for bricks-and-mortar buildings," he says. "You're still going to need places for students to work on laboratory experiments, and these places need to be up-to-date." 

During an Illinois House committee last month, the University of Illinois alone listed hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance at its campuses, including one academic building that was described as being in "disgraceful" condition. 

Lincoln Hall on the Urbana campus is 100 years old and needs an estimated $60 million in repairs, which cannot be solved by online courses, Miller says. He cites the slow progress of students taking online courses through the University of Illinois' Global Campus initiative, a $3 million program based at Urbana-Champaign that has only enrolled 10. 

State Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, says there's still a high demand for the traditional educational experience, particularly among younger students. He says he believes online education can add to the existing pool of students. 

"The University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign] raised tuition [and fees] to $20,000, and they're going to fill every seat," he says about the state's largest public institution, near his legislative district. "There's a potential for enormous growth in higher education from this." 

Even if online programs aren't yet changing the bottom line for schools, they are already changing the face of education for students around the world. 

Sanchez, the UIS student who lives in Guatemala, plans to attend graduation and pick up his diploma in person. It'll be the first time he sets foot on the UIS campus. 

Illinois Issues, May 2008