When Carrie Davis was hit by a drunken driver in 2005, she thought for a moment she wouldn’t be able to continue her education at Illinois Central College.
Davis was then a part-time student studying art and graphic design when the accident left her in a wheelchair for about a year.
“I was really thinking I wouldn’t be able to physically handle walking around and going to school,” she said.
However, the Kickapoo native was able to take advantage of what was then a new option for ICC students — online courses.
Davis continued taking online classes until she took a full-time position, at which point she stopped going to school. She returned to ICC last year, this time in business administration, but once again using the online model because of time conflicts with her full-time and part-time jobs.
“If it wasn’t for the availability of a completely flexible schedule I wouldn’t be able to get a degree at all,” she said.
On the rise
Since Davis began taking online classes seven years ago, the model has evolved. She said back in 2006, those classes were mostly conducted through email correspondence, rather than online course management systems such as Blackboard.
Those advancements are part of the reason online classes have grown in popularity in central Illinois colleges in past years.
Ruth Schaffer, dean of academics at Midstate College, said about 73 percent of Midstate students are enrolled in at least one online class, termed eLearning courses. Midstate offered 99 online courses for its spring term and 104 online courses in winter, almost half of all the classes the college offers.
She said Midstate is unique in that it offers students the choice of completing an entire degree online as well as offering individual courses through the web for on-campus students.
“Our students take more online classes than the traditional students at schools like Bradley because our students have to work and have family obligations,” Schaffer said. “Online classes let students sort of pick their own schedule, and allows them a week to do the work so they can be a weekend warrior.”
Schaffer added because Midstate has a mixture of traditional students and non-traditional students — typically older students with families or jobs going back for a degree — getting a full degree online can be a more viable option.
Still, Midstate sees more students opt for a mixture of online and traditional classes rather than pursuing the degree entirely online.
It’s the opportunity for students to mix and match online and brick-and-mortar classes which makes them so appealing to students.
Not quite perfect
But online courses do have their drawbacks.
Because students don’t have a set time to meet in class or with the instructors, the students have to rely on their own motivation to keep up with their schoolwork.
“One of the myths of online classes is that it’s done in the middle of the night in pajamas at your own pace,” said Patrice Hess, ICC’s associate dean of online learning. “There’s more chance of procrastination.”
Davis recalled a professor who once told her during her first stint at ICC she didn’t have tolerance for students who take online classes, viewing them as “too lazy to come to class.” Davis said those perceptions have changed.
“It’s pretty much up to the professor to come up with a creative way to teach you to teach yourself the material,” she said.
Another concern about online classes is the potential for a disconnect with students and their instructors. But Dan McAvoy, a full-time eLearning professor at Midstate, said he hasn’t had any trouble connecting with his students since he began teaching online.
McAvoy had worked at Caterpillar for 30 years before retiring in 2002, when he took up teaching. He now teaches a full schedule of online courses at Midstate, despite living in Florida.
“I can still have discussions, and I check in every day with students that are online, and I can talk to them one-on-one. It’s a real interactive learning environment,” he said.
With cell phones, videos and Skyping, it makes things much easier, and he said he just doesn’t see much difference.
“Plus, if a student asks me a hard question I don’t know the answer to, I can always look it up online.”
While online classes are becoming popular, Bradley provost David Glassman believes a computer screen will never replace the classroom experience.
“What’s beneficial to students is that the online option has a great deal of flexibility,” he said. “Classes can be virtually anywhere and there are technologies now that do allow for feedback to take place between professors and peers with students taking the classes. But the online experience is missing an important part to the growth and maturity of an educated individual.”
Glassman asserted despite technological advances, online courses would never be able to fully replicate the university experience.
“All of the extracurriculars that blend the learning in the classroom to everyday experiences and applied activities — internships, study abroad, group projects and teamwork — are situated right on campus,” he said. “The bottom line for me is that online education is a reasonable way to pass on knowledge, but not the best way to derive the university experience, using the broad based educational individual.”
Bradley offered 156 online classes in 2012, and there were 1,643 students enrolled in the web-based courses, according to the university. That pales in comparison to the amount of students at nearby Illinois Central College taking online courses.
Hess said ICC’s online education option generated 32,571 credit hours in 2012, about 20 percent of all credit hours earned at ICC last year. She added more than 11,000 ICC students took online classes in 2012, and while the school does offer the option to attain a degree through online courses alone, about 85 percent of those credits were earned by students living within the community college’s district.
“Some students just want to be in a classroom,” Hess said. “It’s a preferential thing as well as a skilled thing, so we want to make sure the right students sign up in online classes for the right reasons.”
In addition to online classes, most schools now use an online course management system where instructors can post assignments and grades for students to access from their own home. This software is used by students not only for online classes, but also as a supplement to on-campus classes.
Hess said ICC will soon be introducing a new system tailored not only for use on personal computers, but also tablets and smart devices.
“Most of our students have devices that work for smart phone and iPad and, the fact they can do a lot of their homework on that platform really encourages them,” she said.
Jesse O’Brien can be reached at 686-3257 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jesseobrien.