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Online U: How distance learning impacts USF

This is the second half of a two-part series on distance learning at USF. To read Part I of this series, which discusses why online classes are gaining popularity among students, check out

As USF tries to distance itself from its commuter school image, more and more students are taking classes farther from campus. The University has had to balance the goals of its five-year strategic plan – one of which is having 10 percent or more of the student body living on campus – with making a college education more widely attainable to people everywhere.

At the center of this paradox is the distance learning program.

The distance learning program has allowed students to complete an entire degree without stepping foot inside a classroom, as students can attend class through Web, video or

TV-based courses. Over the last five years, enrollment in these courses has nearly tripled. The bulk of the growth has occurred at the undergraduate level, from 16,727 enrollments during the 2002-2003 school year to 51,700 in 2006-2007, according to the USF Distance Learning Trends PowerPoint at

Metro Initiatives Director Lagretta Lenker said that distance learning appeals to two types of students, and that this division mirrors that of the University’s interests.

“Distance learning deals with two different audiences: the students who live on or near campus and take distance learning out of convenience, and those who take them who are involved in their lives and can’t have the experience of being in the dorms,” she said. “One of the goals of our Metro Initiative is to increase University access to people, and distance learning is a great way to do that.”

In addition to expanding access, the distance learning enrollment increase may help the University in the long run by augmenting graduation rates. About 21 percent of the students at USF graduate within four years, compared to 55 percent at the University of Florida and 32.6 percent at the University of Central Florida, according to a Florida Board of Governors-commissioned report. In fact, the report – carried out by the Massachusetts-based Pappas Consulting Group – recommended that state university schools expand their distance learning programs in order to improve these rates.

Budgeting tactics at the federal level seem to fall in line with the report’s recommendation. Last year, Congress got rid of a requirement that colleges provide at least half their courses on campus in order to qualify for federal aid, according to The New York Times.

Similarly, the Tampa Tribune reported that in October, state lawmakers decided to offer an incentive to increase graduation rates by offering schools with the highest graduation rates the largest amount of a $4 million pool. As it stands, according to the article, USF would receive $517,116. How much the distance learning program could aid matriculation rates and thus improve that figure is anybody’s guess.

USF distance learning coordinator Marie Boyette said that because the growth in distance learning is relatively new, little research has been done on how significantly online courses could impact graduation rates.

“Since the courses offered can be taken at virtually any time, they can fit any schedule, which should help students who cannot take those same courses in a classroom due to time conflicts, (also helping students stay on track for graduation),” she said.

To entice professors to teach more courses online, the USF distance learning program offers small grants and workshops that help them transition their existing courses into online courses, Lenker said. Each department may also choose to provide a variety of incentives to professors teaching distance learning courses, but that decision is entirely up to the department.

Because it takes longer to set up an online course, some departments allow professors to take one less course the semester before his or her new online course launches in order to devote extra time to its creation. This holds true for the College of Engineering.

“There is no across-the-board policy for incentives – some of the departments assess more ‘load’ to the distance courses, thereby giving the faculty member extra preparation time for the course and extra time for interaction with the off-campus students,” said Sally Coovert, director of Academic and Professional Engineering Excellence.

In a few cases, an adjunct professor may receive increased pay during the first semester of his or her online course to compensate for the time spent preparing the course, said Dwayne Smith, vice provost of faculty and program development.

“The setup period of an online course is the most difficult, but typically the second and third semesters run much smoother,” he said. “The extra pay an adjunct professor may receive would only occur during that first semester though. After that, the pay would return to a typical adjunct professor’s pay.”

Sherman Dorn, a professor in the College of Education, supports the idea of providing additional support to professors of distance learning courses with high student enrollments. Some professors, such as Issues in Sport instructor Robert Mertzman, teach up to 1,600 students a semester.

“I would certainly hope those faculty members (teaching classes with huge enrollments online) would have considerable support,” Dorn said. “Any time you start to teach a course online, it requires an additional investment of time. There is a number of faculty who create absolutely outstanding, wonderful online presentations. It takes a lot more time to do than to simply stand in front of class and deliver a lecture.”

Though rising distance learning enrollments may keep more students out of the classroom, the Pappas report found that about 92 percent of students are taking classes on campus as well as online and through other distance learning mediums. In Boyette’s experience, some of the students may still be on campus while they’re taking a distance learning course, even if they’re not in a classroom.

“I teach a University Experience, and many of the first-time, freshman residential students are distance learners,” she said. “They are taking distance learning right from their dorm rooms. It’s a matter of convenience and access.”

Administrators and educators ultimately agree that the growth of the distance learning program depends largely on students’ attitudes.

“It’s a mode of instruction that appeals to some and not to others,” Smith said. “Many students enjoy the flexibility online courses afford them. Others enjoy it because of the medium of delivery – it incorporates tools and skills you may not use in a classroom. Some just find it too impersonal.”