Online courses gain popularity on campus

Soon, a classroom with a professor who gestures and speaks to students may become a scene for the history films. With no end in sight, students are increasingly opting to take classes from behind a computer screen while in the comfort of their own homes.

USF is among the nation’s leaders in online education, with graduate engineering, business and education programs ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s list of the nation’s top 30 universities for online learning.

Stephanie Harff, the executive director of marketing and recruitment for USF’s Innovative Education program, said she thinks the high ranking is due to the university’s growing number of options for online coursework.

Last year, 135 new online courses were added to the USF system, bringing the total to 3,064 among USF’s Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota/Manatee campuses. All of USF’s general education requirements can be completed online, as well as 17 percent of all degrees, according to Harff.

Cindy DeLuca, assistant vice provost for Innovative Education, said the substantial increase in options was done to meet the demands of students, 63 percent of whom have taken an online course during their enrollment. 

“This is part of a broader national trend — one we expect to continue long into the future,” she said.

The added number of courses also serves as a cost-effective measure for the university, Harff said. Each student is charged $50 per credit hour as a long-distance fee that funds the “development and delivery” of all the courses.

The total amount of funding the university brings in depends on the semester. Since 2007, Harff said the fees have generated millions for the programs.

Many students have taken notice of the spike in online courses.

Abbie Smith, a junior majoring in biomedical sciences, said she noticed the increase while registering for classes and chose to take several different online options. She said they are convenient when balancing schoolwork with her part-time job as a pharmacy technician at a local grocery store.

“It can be much more convenient,” Smith said. “Students are able to work at their own pace and complete the assignments at their own leisure. They don’t have to wake up early to attend class. Instead, they can watch lectures at any hour of the day.”

But some USF faculty members caution that convenience doesn’t always necessarily mean the best choice.

Christopher Metzger, a geography and environmental science instructor, who taught several hybrid and online courses, said he saw firsthand the struggles that some students go through with online classes.

“I think it’s better for some people, but not all people and that’s something everyone has to assess,” Metzger said. “I think if they take an online class and they don’t do well in it, then they need to think about whether they are the type of person that needs to have it in-person and needs to ask questions to a human being. Some people are really good at it — some people shouldn’t do it. It all depends.”

Smith said she has found that the challenge is one reason online classes are more appealing to her.

“Online classes can also be much harder for some students,” she said. “It requires time management, dedication and responsibility.”

Metzger said while the online route provides a good option for students, he doesn’t necessarily believe it’s something that will be pushed enough to overtake the classroom completely because of older students that aren’t completely technologically savvy.

“I think it’s a matter of, is it good for them?” Metzger said. “I think that’s what students and professors should think about and the schools should think about. If it’s good, then that’s fine. If it’s not, then (students) need to take classes in person or take a hybrid or blended course.”