Technology in the Higher Ed Classroom: Online Learning in the 21st Century

This month, while some students are heading back to campus to start their fall classes, others may be heading to their computer instead. With rising costs associated with education, including gas prices for commuting students, online classes and degree programs have experienced recent growth. According to the Sloan Consortium, almost 3.5 million students took at least one online course during their fall 2006 term, which is about 20 percent of all higher education students in the U.S. There is also a 9.7 percent growth rate for online enrollments, exceeding the overall higher education student population growth rate of 1.5 percent.

A portion of this expansion in online course enrollment has occurred in two-year associates institutions, which have the highest growth rates and account for over half of all online enrollments for the last five years, according to the Sloan Consortium. This month we talked to Dr. Nancy Thibeault, dean of Distance Learning and Instructional Support at Sinclair Community College. Located in Dayton, OH, Sinclair Community College, a public community college founded in 1887 originally as the YMCA College, is one of the largest community college campuses in the United States with an enrollment of 24,000 students. Sinclair was also named a Vanguard Learning College by the League for Innovation in the Community College.

What types of classes or degrees are offered online at Sinclair?

Dr. Thibeault: Sinclair offers a variety of online courses to support both transfer and career programs. Our current fully online programs include an A.S. in Business Administration, A.A and A.S. in Liberal Arts, A.A.S. in Health Information Management, a General Education Certificate for Radiologic Technology (RAT) and ATS Social & Cultural Awareness for RAT, a short-term certificate for Software Applications for the Professional, and a Medical Office Coding Specialist short-term certificate.

We are also currently developing the following programs: A.A.S Business Management, A.A.S. Business Management — Supply Chain Concentration, Supply Chain Management short-term technical certificate, Supply Chain Management certificate, Activity Programming short-term technical certificate, Pharmacy Technician Certification short-term technical certificate, Business Management certificate, and an A.A. Psychology emphasis.

When did Sinclair start offering online courses?

Dr. Thibeault: Sinclair was an online learning pioneer. We first began offering electronic courses via e-mail in 1992 and have been offering online courses via the Internet since 1995.

Have online courses gained in popularity?

Dr. Thibeault: The growth in demand for online courses has been phenomenal. We’ve seen 30 to 40 percent growth per year since 2005.

What are the advantages of using online courses or online course components for students?

Dr. Thibeault: Some of the main reasons students take online courses at Sinclair include child care, commuting costs, a preference for online learning, and schedule flexibility.

I’ll give you a few comments we’ve received from students:
“The convenience and ability to work ahead on class materials, along with the feeling of more personalized attention/response if questions were asked — without wasting time of other students in class.”
 “I was deployed to Kuwait for months, and this was the only way I could attend school.”
“Sinclair’s online courses help me reasonably merge my life and my education.”

Are there any new trends in online learning?

Dr. Thibeault: Online courses continue to improve, and new technologies continue to be integrated into the online classroom. These technologies include Web 2.0 (Wikis, blogs, and podcasts) and social networking. Online courses are not correspondence courses — a strong sense of community can be created online, even more than in the classroom!