Many students are getting degrees without setting foot on campus

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For an increasing number of Pittsburgh students, "yinzers," Terrible Towels and French fry-laden salads are unknown cultural relics.

As universities expand online programs, students from San Francisco to Cape Town can get a degree from a local university without stepping foot on campus.

At Robert Morris University, online degrees in organizational leadership and nursing are among the most popular for undergraduates and graduate students. Carlow University offers a fully online master's degree in fraud and forensics.

At Chatham University, one can earn a master's degree in education, professional writing or nursing, without the requirement of an "on ground" visit. La Roche College offers a fully online master's degree in nursing in either nursing administration or nursing education. And Point Park University offers a fully online bachelor's degree in public administration.

Air Force Capt. Neal Simpson, currently on active duty in Afghanistan, is earning a master's degree in leadership from Duquesne University. He's from Tennessee and started at Duquesne six weeks into his deployment.

"This is my first experience with an online class, but I find that it suits my needs well," Capt. Simpson wrote in an email. "Students living in Germany, other deployed military members, as well as nontraditional students in the States can all share the same virtual classroom, each bringing with them a true, current global perspective."

Capt. Simpson's story is becoming more typical in the landscape of higher education.

The proportion of students taking an online course -- nearly a third -- is at an all-time high, according to the 2012 Babson Survey for Online Learning. The number of students taking at least one online course in fall 2011 reached 6.7 million, an increase of more than 550,000 students compared to the previous fall.

Babson doesn't have specific figures for the proportion of students in online only programs, but according to Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, online only enrollments are on the rise.

Most fully online programs use web-based platforms like Moodle and Blackboard that allow professors to set up a range of multimedia tools, including discussion boards, blogs, videos, remote lectures and readings. Many of these tools are asynchronous, meaning students work whenever they choose rather than logging in for real-time lectures or discussions as long as assignments are completed by a specified date.

For nontraditional students like Cynthia Golembiewski, a 55-year-old mother of three and president of the Peters Township school board, the asynchronous online format is giving her a chance to earn a bachelor's degree at Duquesne.

She spent most of her career working at her husband's building supply company, but promised herself she would go back to school once her children became more independent.

"I always said that when my children are old enough that I am going to pursue my degree too," Mrs. Golembiewski said. "It was personally important to me. I started to look at universities I could physically attend, but the time frames of those classes would not still let me take care of my family."

She said she hopes to use her degree to get a job in organizational development and business ethics, so she can help organizations conduct themselves in a socially responsible manner.

Despite the flexibility afforded by asynchronous online degree programs, both administrators and students readily acknowledge that more self-discipline is required to be a successful online student.

"There's a misconception about online classes that they're going to be easier in some way," said David Vey, Chatham's assistant director of online admission. "The opposite has become the case. ... To succeed the student has to be someone who is a good time manager and takes responsibility for their education."

To do well in online programs, students must be comfortable self-pacing through readings and assignments, especially because professors don't share a temporal or physical connection with their students. This can make it challenging for students to feel like they have academic obligations.

"Online courses are not for every student. We have had students who aren't prepared for it," Mr. Vey said.

But even when students are completely engaged, there can be significant technological roadblocks from software and connection speed issues to classroom experiences that can't easily be replicated online.

Meredith Guthrie teaches an online-only course at the University of Pittsburgh and cited the arcane architecture of Blackboard software as a problem.

"Blackboard is optimized for really old browsers," she said. "A lot of the material I put up doesn't work for lots of students. We have to play browser roulette."

According to Ms. Guthrie, Blackboard is designed to accommodate older software and connection speeds, so it can be difficult to take advantage of the full range of multimedia tools.

Other professors have simply decided to not offer certain classes online when it becomes clear that the online learning environment is inadequate.

Pitt lecturer Tony Novosel chose to stop teaching his Northern Ireland class online because it was too difficult to engage students in dialogue. Although he embraces technology to enhance his classes -- such as videoconferences between his students and people living in Northern Ireland -- he does not think the technology can always serve as a viable replacement to the traditional classroom.

"You can't do [a traditional liberal arts education] online," Mr. Novosel said. "There's a place for a mixture of it, but unless the technology gets to the place where I could sit anywhere in the world and we could all interact at the same time, I don't think it could work."

Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation for the American Council on Education, is more optimistic about the role technology can play in creating more fully online programs.

She has seen adaptations of everything from design classes to laboratory experiments simulated online. As the technology becomes more flexible and sophisticated, Ms. Sandeen believes programs in the STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- fields will be able to take advantage of this trend in online education.

"We are going to see more and more disciplines being able to be translated [online]," she said. "The key is student engagement and involvement with the curriculum."

Few dispute that online-only education is fundamentally altering the landscape of higher education, but not everyone agrees on whether this trend is good for students.

Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University, believes that we are in the midst of a revolution that will change everything from the traditional classroom experience to the university business model. He argues that universities will begin to buy lecture courses from other universities, so that valuable teaching resources can be reserved for small seminars.

"We're literally substituting technology for labor," he said. "We've never been able to do that in education."

Mr. Moe also explained that online education can give disadvantaged students a way to break free of socioeconomic conditions that often limit the availability of quality education.

"It doesn't matter what a child's race is, or where he lives," he said. "They can all have access to the best of what's available. It has freed us from the iron cage of education having to take place in a specific geographical place, where students get fed a standard curriculum."

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson disagrees. He is worried about what he views as a false promise to under-served communities.

"Mostly online education programs will provide fourth-rate learning opportunities for poor kids who have little intellectual background," he said in an email. "The purveyors of online education will take the kids' money and lock them deep into debt. They will acquire few if any useful skills. But their educational debt will turn them into a class of indentured servants, well-nigh slaves.

"To say that this will help lots of poor people to get Yale-style educations cheaply seems to me absurd."


Alex Zimmerman: or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.


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