Online U

For all professor Robert Mertzman knows, his students could be attending class in the nude. Why should he care whether they wear clothes or not?

His course is one of many that has no physical address. It’s one of the 762 Distance Learning classes offered this semester, according to OASIS.

Mertzman’s class, Issues in Sport, lays claim to the title of most popular distance-learning course at USF. Nearly 1,600 students are enrolled.

“The combination of the popularity of sports contributes a lot of interest, and the convenience of the course – no driving, working at your own pace for the most part – is what I think attracts students to the course,” Mertzman said. “It uses sports, but it’s about life-long learning, critical thinking and ethics, so even those not interested in sports have sent me e-mails saying they were pleasantly surprised by what was offered.”

Mertzman’s class isn’t the only Distance Learning course that’s gaining popularity – the University’s entire online education program has nearly tripled in the last four years. During the 2002-2003 school year, there were 21,722 students enrolled in distance learning classes, according to the USF Office of Educational Outreach.

By 2006-2007 that number had grown to 60,054. Nationwide, the New York Times reported about one in five students took an online course last fall, according to a survey of 2,500 college campuses by College Board and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

For biomedical sciences major Ashley Dale, a Distance Learning course was the most convenient way to work around her full-time job at BJ’s Wholesale Club.

“Not having another class to go to made it a lot easier to get in the number of hours I need each week,” she said. “It’s less of a hassle that way.”

Distance learning offers schedule flexibility, but it also means a reduction or complete elimination of face-to-face communication between students and faculty. Live debate and discussion of unclear topics has moved to message board posts and e-mails, but Mertzman doesn’t consider that to be such a bad thing.

“There’s just as much a failure in face-to-face classes for a student to ask to have something repeated or repeat the entire lecture because a student was absent that day and couldn’t see it,” he said. “Unlike a (face-to-face) class, where you get your notes and forget it … you can watch the online lessons at home. If you don’t get something you can replay it as many times as you need to. Both methods have their weaknesses.”

Sherman Dorn, an associate professor in the College of Education, said he’s tried to simulate the give and take of a classroom discussion with live chats in a graduate-level course he is teaching online.

“The thing you struggle with is how to reproduce the live experience,” Dorn said. “It’s going to be different without an online classroom. You’re not going to get that same ‘aha’ moment.”

The success of an online course depends primarily on the faculty member teaching it and their mastery of the technology, said Dorn, who has been teaching a Web-based course for graduate students in the College of Education for several years.

“I’ve taught it some semesters when it has gone well, and some semesters when it has bombed,” Dorn said.

Courses fit preferences

Students tend to have their own preferences when it comes to deciding which classes to take online and which to take in a traditional classroom setting.

“You can’t take some of the science classes online because the (work-at-your-own-pace) setup lets you get lazy,” biomedical sciences major Dipali Patel said. “I tend to take electives online, rather than general education classes.”

For Dale, deciding which online courses to take stems from her own assessment of how challenging the course will be for her.

“If I think it’s harder material, I definitely prefer to go to a lecture, so I can talk to the teacher,” she said. “I like to sit in class and take notes – that’s the way I remember things.”

Personal assessments aside, some courses requiring hands-on activity, like science laboratories or fine arts classes, don’t translate as well into the distance-learning medium. Exam or essay-based classes tend to fare best, which is why Engineering and Public Health offer the most courses of any college within the University, said Boyette, USF’s distance learning coordinator.

No matter the course, the primary reason for the strides in the Distance Learning program can be attributed to technology.

E-mail, Blackboard and the Internet enable more students to take classes that normally wouldn’t fit in with their busy schedules or physical distance from USF.

“The Web is so much more sophisticated now, and so most of our growth is in the Web-based courses,” Boyette said. “You can embed video and watch it anytime. For instance, our telecourses allow students to watch video online or on WUSF TV. It’s just more convenient than ever before.”

Distance learning courses also allow more students to take a course each semester than the traditional face-to-face class. There’s no need for a classroom, so the professor’s roster is no longer bound by the number of seats a lecture hall offers.

Additionally, the time spent repeating the same lecture in five different sections of a course can be spent responding to students and grading papers. A professor can record a lecture once, post it online and have as many students as he or she wants view it at any given time. That’s how Mertzman manages his 1,500-plus students.

“There’s a lot of time involved, but the way it’s possible is due to technology,” Mertzman said. “Students can take quizzes, (Blackboard grades them) and they just show up in my grade book. I’m also a very fast reader – I read assignments every night.”

Despite Mertzman’s propensity toward online classes, he doesn’t recommend students pursue their entire degrees via the Web.

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to only do online courses,” Mertzman said. “There’s so much more going on in college than the simple mastery of information and mastery of content that should be experienced.”