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May 12, 2011

Online education is growing, but it’s not for everyone

The growth in the number of college students signing up for online courses is far outpacing overall growth in higher education, according to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning. More than 5.6 million students were taking at least one online course in fall 2009 — nearly 1 million more than in fall 2008 — making for the largest one-year increase in the survey’s eight-year history.

The survey of more than 2,500 colleges and universities, released in November, showed online enrollment rose 21 percent at a time when total college enrollment grew just 1.2 percent. Online enrollment has risen each year since 2002, when it accounted for 9.6 percent of total enrollment. As of fall 2009, 29.3 percent of postsecondary students were taking at least one online course.

In addition, research firm Ambient Insight has projected that more than 22 million post-secondary students in the United States will take some or all of their courses online by 2014. While students who sit in traditional classrooms currently far outnumber their online counterparts, those who take all their courses in a bricks-and-mortar classroom are predicted to be in the minority by 2014.

And while the classrooms in the Cathedral of Learning are in no danger of being abandoned any time soon, Pitt’s online educational offerings are on the rise.

Holly Shiflett, associate director of online programs, said Pitt has 85 fully online students. Half of them are alumni and nearly a quarter are from outside Pennsylvania.

While the University’s emphasis for undergraduate education is on being a residential campus, Shiflett said, 3,059 Pitt undergraduates took at least one online course in 2010, as did 750 graduate students.

Peruse Pitt’s online offerings and you’ll find a wide range of options including self-paced, synchronous, asynchronous and hybrid courses.

The University launched its Pitt Online ( initiative in 2009 to offer fully online graduate programs and certificates. Individual schools throughout the University and the College of General Studies (CGS) also offer distance education opportunities. Pitt Online’s first two programs were the School of Education’s master’s degree in English and communications and the School of Nursing’s Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) Master of Science degrees.

Now the master’s in elementary education and the post-master’s Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) also are part of Pitt Online, as are the University Center for Social and Urban Research’s graduate gerontology certificate and the Katz Graduate School of Business Center for Executive Education’s management essentials programs.

While the Pitt Online programs are asynchronous (meaning that although students move through the course materials together, there typically is no set class time), other options exist. For instance, a number of graduate engineering courses give students the option of sitting in class or watching the class session from a distance in real time. CGS, in addition to web and self-paced courses, also offers hybrid classes that include both online work and in-person components.

“Everything works. There are a lot of right answers,” Shiflett said, adding that instructional and technological support is available through Pitt’s Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) for faculty interested in online education.

Who’s studying online?

Online learning isn’t for everyone. Students must have some motivation and organization as well as a basic grasp of the technology that’s used to deliver the courses. Prominent on the Pitt Online home page is a link to a quiz, “Is Online Learning for Me?” that offers insight into whether a prospective student has the characteristics needed for success in online education, or whether they might perform better in a traditional classroom setting.

David Barnard

David Barnard

Learning styles also come into play, noted David Barnard of medicine, who co-teaches a clinical research ethics course in which students are divided into online and face-to-face sections.

One section of 20-25 students meets traditionally while the rest take the course online.

Both sections have access to Barnard’s lectures, which are outlined and archived on video. “We hope we’re giving them pretty much the same content in the online experience,” he said.

While he initially taught both the in-class and the online sections, today he shares the teaching duties with Center for Bioethics and Health Law affiliate Valerie Satkoske, who sits in on the classroom sessions and directs the online section.

The online section is asynchronous but assignments are timed week to week, to keep students on a common pace.

Some students who may glaze over in the classroom absorb content better in the online format, Barnard found. Others prefer the in-person interaction. “They like being in the room” and feel disappointed to be in the online section, he said.

Satkoske pointed out that participating in classroom discussions online can make students feel more vulnerable than they might in an ordinary classroom. “Everyone sees their assignments, their thoughts,” she said. “Their spelling and grammar are put out there for all to see as well.”

Valerie Satkoske

Valerie Satkoske

Distance learning fits the bill for many students, especially those who are pursuing advanced education in their field.

Nursing faculty member Gail Wolf, who heads the school’s master’s and doctoral programs in nursing leadership, said prospective students had been asking for an online nursing leadership program for years.

Most students in those programs are experienced leaders with high-level jobs; coming to class on campus often isn’t an option, Wolf said. “For them, managing online is an ease to their life rather than a burden. It meets a lifestyle need very much.”

The School of Education’s online programs also are designed for working professionals. Amanda Thein, coordinator for English education, said the master’s-level students primarily are practicing teachers who may find it difficult to get to campus for class, which is particularly true of teachers in rural areas.

While Pitt’s online nursing and education programs are asynchronous, the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Material Sciences’ nuclear engineering certificate program caters to working professionals in a different way. When adjunct faculty member Larry Foulke teaches, he’s live on camera in an audio- and video-equipped classroom in Benedum Hall. While some students attend in person, others watch him from their own computers wherever they are.

Amanda Thein

Amanda Thein

Many students in the program work at Westinghouse in Cranberry Township, the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin or the Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, he said; the program’s setup enables them to participate even if business travel, bad weather, family or work obligations get in the way of coming to campus.

Equipped with microphone headsets, students in “Remoteland,” as Foulke calls it, can listen and ask questions, or type comments to share with classmates.

Typically about half of his 31 students attend in person, although on one wintery Thursday evening, only eight made the trek to class while 22 chose to participate from afar.

Barring power outages, even a repeat of 2010’s Snowmageddon storm wouldn’t necessarily cancel class because the technology makes it possible for the instructor to teach via webcam from a distance, said Foulke.

Broader influence

Not having to be on campus provides an upside for instructors as well. Education’s Thein typically visits family in Colorado each summer without it affecting her class — she can teach from there. “It’s wonderful,” she said.

Online education also allows the University to extend its reach, attracting students who otherwise might not pursue a Pitt degree. Thein noted that the master of education programs are drawing nationally, adding that she has had students from Wyoming, Texas, North Carolina and Virginia in her online literature course.

Wolf said the same holds true for nursing. “It will allow us to recruit internationally as opposed to just in the Pittsburgh metro area,” she said. “It’s a smart move on the part of the University. The return on investment will be a very positive one.”


Linda Dudjak

Linda Dudjak, a faculty member in the clinical nurse leader program, sees even broader benefits. Giving instructors the option to teach part-time online could stretch faculty resources, she said. That’s especially important in nursing, where, in addition to a looming shortage of practitioners, there is a dearth of nursing educators.

The average age of a nursing school faculty member is in the 50s, said Wolf. Rather than losing them — and their valuable experience — to retirement, she said, “We can maintain that knowledge and intellectual capital.”

Engineering’s Foulke said his field also could benefit. “I see tremendous opportunity to be able to deliver technically current material worldwide,” he said, adding that nations that want to develop nuclear power need an educated workforce to build and operate nuclear power plants.

But technology and cost issues must be addressed, he said, noting that a presentation he made last fall in Egypt on distance education was not as enthusiastically received as he had hoped. There, many students can’t afford laptops or the cost of Pitt tuition relative to the costs at an Egyptian university, he said.

Making the leap

Faculty seeking to teach online have more than a mere learning curve ahead of them. Rather, it’s a complete paradigm shift, said Wolf of nursing. Online, the role of the professor changes dramatically — transforming from the proverbial “sage on the stage” into the online “guide on the side,” she said. “I was never one to spoon-feed my students content,” but, in person, it’s easier to tune in to students’ cues and know whether the pace is too fast or too slow, or if certain concepts need further explanation, Wolf said. When teaching online, more thought upfront on what to ask about, which discussion questions to pose and how to organize the exchange is needed. “My role becomes guiding them in that discussion,” she said. “It takes creativity in getting messages across online.”

Rosemary Hoffmann

Rosemary Hoffmann

Rosemary Hoffmann, director of the clinical nurse leader program, agreed. “Teaching an online course is not simply taking your content material and putting it online.” Students want to feel that they’re in a classroom without actually being in the classroom, she said — and they want to do more than simply read online.

“They want to communicate with their faculty member but they want the freedom to learn the material at a time that is convenient for them,” Hoffmann said. “They don’t want to be reading stuff on a computer. They want to be really interactive,” she said, noting that video, graphics and interactive review sections  — all of which are time-consuming to develop — were integrated into the online program.

“They want to dialogue with the rest of their classmates, which I think is a plus because we have students who are not just from Pennsylvania,” Hoffmann said. “They are able to dialogue and learn from a whole variety of students,” she said.

The quality of instruction doesn’t suffer, nursing’s Dudjak said. “That’s what we’re trying to emphasize: Even though you are an online student, you are a Pitt student, so you are getting the quality of education that is the same as if you attend class.”

Engineering faculty member Larry Foulke lectures to his fundamentals of nuclear engineering class in Benedum Hall. Students can attend class in person or participate remotely using CourseWeb/Blackboard. With the help of a student technician, audio and video are streamed live from the classroom.  On the big screen is a view of what class members in “Remoteland” see. The largest window shows online students the material Foulke is posting onscreen in the classroom. Smaller windows let class members know who is online and a chat window enables students to type comments from a distance.

Engineering faculty member Larry Foulke lectures to his fundamentals of nuclear engineering class in Benedum Hall. Students can attend class in person or participate remotely using CourseWeb/Blackboard. With the help of a student technician, audio and video are streamed live from the classroom. On the big screen is a view of what class members in “Remoteland” see. The largest window shows online students the material Foulke is posting onscreen in the classroom. Smaller windows let class members know who is online and a chat window enables students to type comments from a distance.

Dudjak said students want faculty feedback. “Students don’t just want a score on something; they don’t just want a check mark when things are completed. They want individualized specific feedback. And they want to know when they can expect to have that feedback.”

Collective feedback isn’t acceptable, Dudjak found. Students don’t want a broadly applicable response — regardless of whether many submissions have common points. Even if she draws from one comment and responds to an issue that 15 other students also related, they still all want the personal feedback, she said.

Developing online courses

Experienced faculty agreed that developing a high-quality online course is time consuming.

Wolf said she was surprised at the amount of effort required in taking her organizational and management theory course online.

In her lectures, she used PowerPoint slides that served as a mental cue for discussion points and questions that she kept in her head.

In moving online, those slides had to be condensed and she had to decide exactly what to say before recording lectures so her online students could access the material. “There’s a lot more planning upfront in doing it,” she said.

“I already had this course I taught face-to-face on campus. But I spent a minimum of one day a week for 15 weeks designing content I already had to fit into a good online format,” she said, adding that she worked hand in hand with instructional designers at CIDDE.

(Their efforts have been rewarded with a Blackboard Exemplary Course Award. Wolf and Pitt Online team members Lorna Kearns, Carol Washburn and Lynn Cooper will be recognized at the Blackboard World conference in July.)

Tim Oldakowski

Tim Oldakowski

Tim Oldakowski, a doctoral student in education, likewise was struck by how long it takes to develop a course online. A former high school teacher, he has put his passion for technology and education to use. Since 2008, Oldakowski has helped faculty in the School of Education develop 15 online courses. “This is a dream job for a GSA,” he said. “I have a lot of say in online pedagogy,” a field he’s sure has huge growth potential.

He said he has spent anywhere from three weeks to a year developing courses in conjunction with faculty.

It’s not so much that it takes a lot of time to put a course online, he explained. Rather, it takes a lot of time to determine the best way to use available technologies to present the course online.

Interaction is good, but how that plays out depends on the subject matter and the instructor. For instance, how do students do math problems online for others to see? “I think you need to hear and see your instructor,” he said, noting that the use of a voice thread for explanation may be appropriate in such cases.

When considering technology, “Don’t be flashy because it’s there,” he advised. He said many faculty and students are grateful for online courses that “use technology, but don’t overuse it.”

Oldakowski noted that some faculty fear that technology will fail while they’re teaching online, either through incompatible equipment or students’ errors in using it.

“Take what you’re fearful of and try to learn a little about it,” he advised. He suggested faculty set up a simple dummy course using Blackboard, then enlist colleagues who can pose as students to test posting and responding. He noted that one flaw of CourseWeb is that when instructors log on they see only the instructor’s view. “You can’t see the course from a student point of view.”

Oldakowski admitted that getting started in teaching online may be difficult, but advised faculty to remember the value of CIDDE as a resource. “They’re experienced in using the technology and in new technology,” he said.

Foulke said he finds the assistance of a student technician invaluable in his synchronous nuclear engineering courses. “To me it’s very important. I don’t worry about connectivity or sound; I can concentrate on teaching,” he said.

In addition, all his lectures are archived, which allows students to review classroom discussions at their leisure. Posting them also serves as a safety net, he noted. During one lecture, technical difficulties left some remote students cut off from some of the content. However, they were able to catch up using an archived version of the corresponding class session from the previous term, he said.

Teaching online courses

It’s also a misperception that teaching online is somehow less work than teaching in person, said Thein, who teaches a multicultural literature course in the master of education program. “It’s quite time-consuming.”

Thein said she had initial concerns about translating the course — a discussion-heavy seminar-style class that tackles issues of race, class and gender — into a format in which the participants aren’t sitting together talking.

Wikis and discussion boards take the place of verbal conversation, but writing a response takes longer than making a comment in class, she pointed out, noting that 30 seconds of classroom commentary could take 15 minutes to type.

On a wiki, “Everyone writes on the same page, so the flow of conversation is very authentic. It’s like passing a note back and forth,” she said. Because only one person at a time can be editing a wiki, she finds that tool best for smaller classes.

For larger groups of 15-20 students, she said discussion boards, albeit less linear (because students post separately with more opportunity to jump from one discussion thread to another), are more practical.

Thein requires students to post three times a week, making their initial submission before Wednesday night. And they can’t merely make their own comments, they also must respond to one another’s postings.

Managing discussion

Wolf said she’s discovered a different dynamic when students interact through a discussion board instead of face-to-face in class. In classroom interactions, some students are willing to speak up, but others are not really comfortable doing so. In contrast, online discussion boards give students time to ponder the questions and prepare their response. “There is incredibly rich discussion in the discussion boards,” she said.

Satkoske noted that because posting comments and responses is part of her research ethics students’ grade, those who might have sat quietly and not joined in on in-class discussions can’t “hide” online. “It’s easy to see whether they’re posting or not,” she said.

While that can be good — everyone has a say and no one student can dominate a discussion — it also can expose students’ shortcomings. Satkoske takes care not to publicly single out students who may be on the wrong track. If a subset of her online section demonstrates a lack of comprehension with some aspect of the course, she’ll address it with the group. “But if I really think somebody’s missing the boat, I’ll send a separate email,” she said.

Thein agreed that online forums can be more equitable, with everyone having a chance to participate. “You’re going to hear everyone’s voice at least three times. That doesn’t always happen in class,” she said, adding that some students can sit quietly and thereby go unnoticed.

Students say they’re learning a lot, she related, adding that they tell her they’re doing more work. “But not in a negative way,” she said, citing comments confirming that the structure makes them participate. “And it’s hard to participate well without having done the reading,” she said.

Her own participation in the discussion is a bit of a balancing act, Thein noted. While she tries to participate in a low-key manner, she said it can be difficult for her to join in without becoming the leader.

“I have to be careful what I say if I don’t want to sway discussion,” she said, adding that she creates all her discussion comments first as Word documents then reads them over carefully before posting them online.

She said she’s sensitive to the fact that the tone of a comment or conversation also may be harder to discern online. “We talk about those issues,” she said, adding that the humor she might inject into a classroom discussion may not translate well in the online forums.

Fortunately, misinterpretations haven’t been an issue, although Thein wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

She has found that the issue of self-identification also plays out differently online. In the course of discussion in her multicultural literature class, students may reveal their ethnicity or sexual preference. They often do so less rapidly online than in a face-to-face class, where race often is obvious, or students may self-identify as gay early in the term, she noted.

The choice of when or whether to share such details is a double-edged sword, she said. “Interestingly, some students are more careful in conversation because they don’t know such details about their fellow students; others are less careful,” she said.

Information overload

Online discussions, either through a wiki or a discussion board, can result in information overload. Some students write paragraphs, rather than just a few lines, when they comment.

In the classroom, if there’s a question, typically only one student is chosen to answer, Barnard of medicine noted. “We don’t go around and ask each and every student ‘what do you think?’ to every question,” he said, noting that he and Satkoske still wrestle with issues of redundancy and participation.

Satkoske said, “It’s more work than you would think,” reiterating students’ desire for interaction and individual feedback. “If they post twice a week, times 25 students, that’s 50 postings,” she said.

Facing hundreds of posts, papers to grade and assignments to review can be daunting, Wolf of nursing agreed; she turned to CIDDE for advice when postings were threatening to overwhelm her.

The solution? This year, on a rotating basis, Wolf’s students serve as discussion board leaders. With a group, they discuss an issue and post a synopsis for the whole class — and Wolf — to read. She also reviews posts at random, but now is freed from reading every last one, many of which would overlap.

The advantage of this is two-fold. In addition to making the amount of information more manageable, it gives students leadership skills: listening to information, weeding out the noise and distilling it into a cohesive package for presentation, Wolf said.

She agreed that teaching online carries a workload similar to an onsite course.  “It feels like more because students email you 24/7.” On campus, she knows she has a three-hour block of classroom time devoted to her students and other times set aside for grading. Online, however, her time is spent in smaller segments throughout the week.

Pitt Online team members, from left, Lynn Cooper, Lorna Kearns, Carol Washburn and nursing faculty member Gail Wolf have won a Blackboard Exemplary Course Award for their work in taking Wolf’s organization and management theory course online.

Pitt Online team members, from left, Lynn Cooper, Lorna Kearns, Carol Washburn and nursing faculty member Gail Wolf have won a Blackboard Exemplary Course Award for their work in taking Wolf’s organization and management theory course online.


Satkoske said she initially made the mistake of going online every day. “That sets up an expectation of running commentary,” she said. Better, she said, is to let students know when they can expect replies. “I let students know that things due Wednesday at midnight will be replied to by Thursday at midnight,” she said.

Online classes can be hard to step away from, particularly for faculty who are online frequently, Thein agreed. Students may send a message in the middle of the night, and, if the instructor happens to be online, she said, “there’s the temptation to jump on.”

As a solution, education faculty make it a point to be very clear about when they will be available to students; for instance, committing to checking email every 24 hours, she said.

Hoffmann finds the same in nursing. “These students, they’re online. They think you’re online all the time,” she said.

Details, details, details

Helping students manage their expectations is important. Students want details, faculty say — desiring specific timelines for when assignments are due, when they can reach the instructor, when they can expect a reply. Dudjak said, “Once students know what to expect, they’re fine.”

Through experience, Oldakowski of education said he’s learned it’s a must to spell out instructions in painstaking detail.

“I’ve become more and more explicit,” he said, adding that there’s no such thing as too much: “Click on ‘edit’ to … or ‘move cursor here to’ …” can improve students’ online experience.

Satkoske advises faculty to take time to create a very specific syllabus “in excruciating detail” on the front end to avoid confusion.

“Be very, very specific,” she said, adding, “You don’t realize how much you give verbally.” In addition, she said she must craft her communications with students carefully, being precise in her language and careful of her tone.

She also advised faculty to specify the format in which students should turn in their assignments. Even better, “Get them to send a test document before the first assignment so they get the hang of it before an assignment grade is on the line.”

Impact on the classroom

Dudjak said the first nursing courses she put online were ones she’d taught onsite many times. Reassessing content as she developed the online course prompted her to take a fresh look at the material for her onsite classes as well, she said, improving her own classroom teaching.

Wolf had a similar experience. She said that developing online courses has made her more creative in her teaching in the classroom.

“Probably some of the creativity has spilled over into the face-to-face teaching as well,” she said. “I wasn’t in a teaching rut, per se, but the attention to the online course shook things up. Because it was so new it energized me, too.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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