International College Eyeing Enhanced Distance Learning Opportunities For Students

International College has taken steps to enhance and increase the virtual classroom experience in the homes and workplaces of its students. Recently, the College hired a full-time director of Online Instruction, hired a distance education librarian, increased the number of online class offerings and changed the platform – or system – for delivery of online courses.

But the vision doesn’t end there. In the near future, International College officials plan to offer more than 50 percent of classes in designated programs online. Those degree programs will include Health Information Technology, Interdisciplinary Studies, Management, and Public Administration.

International College is just one of many higher education institutions in the country to mirror a growing national trend. According to the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the percentage of higher education institutions in the United States offering courses outside the traditional classroom has increased from 33 percent in 1995 to more than 50 percent in 2000.

As the College matured, changes to distance learning were necessary because student demand for additional online classes increased each semester, said Dr. Jeanette Brock, J.D., and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs.

“International College increased online courses to accommodate the needs of our students, who are primarily the adult learner,” Brock said. “Because of work and personal demands, students were having difficulty coming to class three nights a week. This option allows students the ability to retain their full-time status.”

Brock stressed that the changes in distance learning at International College were done carefully and incrementally.

“We evaluated every step to make sure the quality was there,” Brock added. “International College will never be a total distance learning institution, but we will accommodate students who learn better under that format and give students that option.”

As part of his job as the Director of Online Instruction, Don Forrer worked with the Distance Education Committee and Academic Committee to standardize the online program and improve procedures. He also trained faculty and students on the new online delivery platform, called Blackboard. The old delivery system became outdated, unable to provide the support and expanded services needed to offer programs online, Forrer said.

“Blackboard is reliable, user-friendly and works with the software we already use,” said Forrer, also a business professor at the College. “Distance learning is another way to deliver quality instruction and reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have been reached.”

With Blackboard, professors can interact with students, and students can interact with each other through discussion boards, live chats and email, Forrer explained. Things are also made simpler: Syllabi and weekly class assignments are posted in Blackboard, providing easy access for students; quizzes are given electronically and automatically graded; and students can direct link to the Internet on specially-designated pages to help with assignments or group projects.

“Blackboard has been a Godsend,” said Frederick Nerone, Ph.D., and Dean of the School of Business who offered the first distance learning course at International College in 1995 and teaches one this semester. “Online levels the playing field. Before, you had some people in the class who were passive and never said anything all semester long. Now, everyone contributes. Everybody talks. Those same students who hid in a traditional classroom come out of their shells and can show their mastery online.”

Katherine Dew, Ph.D., and Business Administration Program Chair who teaches two online classes, enjoys the format so much, she incorporated segments of Blackboard into her traditional classroom.

“The online method allows us to add another dimension to the class, so it’s not just one person’s perspective but multiple viewpoints,” she said. “The online world is here and is going to stay, so we need to provide those skills for our students.” Dew points out another plus of the online method – more individualized attention to students. Day-to-day contact with students via discussion boards and live chats has helped her strengthen students’ skills in research, debate, writing and other areas. Students who’ve taken distance-learning classes have given them high marks both for convenience and for content, Dew added.

“They love it. It’s a whole new caliber of discussion,” she said, adding that online courses are very rigorous and challenging.

Forrer said there are still hurdles to be overcome in the distance-learning program, but for now, things are moving forward in the right direction.

“I want to see a stellar program where the quality of online classes continues to be the same as those of a real classroom,” he said. “That’s the goal.
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