Latest Twist in Distance Ed

American University finds that its students, away between academic years, are flocking to its online summer offerings.
August 9, 2007

Violeta Ettle wasn't sure what to expect when American University offered its first fully online course four summers ago.

The associate provost for administration was confident there would be interest, but from whom? That's the question facing many college administrators as they develop distance education strategies. The typical targets: students (not necessarily from that institution) from all over the world, and those (enrolled at the college) who are living on campus but want the online option so they can take courses whenever they want.

Turns out, the American program is somewhat of a hybrid. While the university marketed that first course, about terrorism and the legal system, to all sorts of groups in an effort to gauge outside interest, all but two of the 27 students who took the class were its own. Many of the students were away from Washington for the summer, living abroad or at home.

That's been the case each year since, as almost all of American's online students are enrolled at the university from fall through spring, and up to 70 percent are away from campus during summer months.

"The most important information we've gathered is that our distance learning courses are most attractive to our own students," Ettle said. "Students know they can use credits toward a degree, whereas some students [outside] might be unsure how they could use the credits."

As distance education continues to evolve, American's model will likely become more common, according to Diana Oblinger, vice president for Educause, the nonprofit group that deals with technology issues in higher education.

"It makes absolute sense," Oblinger said. "Both institutions and students are concerned about the time-to-degree. If you can take a course while you are away and when it's convenient, that helps you progress toward graduation. From an institution's perspective, why allow your student to take someone else's course?"

This summer, American is offering 25 online courses, none of which are longer than seven weeks. The condensed schedule works well for students who are either amidst or have just finished study abroad programs or summer jobs and want to extend their stays away from campus while earning credits, Ettle said. It's also popular with students who take on internships during the year and want to go to school in the summer without having a full course load.

American provides incentives for those who are part of the distance learning program. Starting several summers ago, the university began giving professors whose online course proposals were accepted a $2,500 course development grant. Summer teaching at American isn't a substitute for teaching an academic year course, and the additional compensation is only monetary incentive to teach in the summer online. Students receive a discounted rate on summer distance courses, and the price hasn't changed in four years. A three-credit course costs $2,200, which is about 30 percent cheaper than a graduate course and about 25 percent cheaper than an undergraduate course, Ettle said.

There are other obvious cost savings: Students don't have to pay for campus housing, and the university frees up space for other uses. The overhead cost of running a distance education course is also significantly less than it is for a normal classroom-based course, Ettle said.

"We're utilizing our facilities more efficiently," she said. "We want repeat customers -- it's good for them and it's good for us."

Still, American limits students to two distance courses per summer to prevent those who are working or studying elsewhere from overloading their schedules. The university places no limits, though, on the number of summers a student can take an online course.

Oblinger said it's becoming more common for a university to either require or strongly suggest that its students take an online course as a way to prepare them for how learning often takes place in the workplace.

Logistics are generally easier when a university's own students take its distance education courses, according to Oblinger. They are familiar with the academic enterprise, she said, and administrators know students are of a certain quality.

Some of the most popular summer distance courses at American are offered through the Schools of Public Affairs, Communication and International Service. Ettle said she would like to see an increase in the number of required courses, as opposed to electives, offered through the program.

American is considering expanding its distance program beyond the summer. Whether the existing summer program expands is largely a function of how many faculty agree to take time away from research and travel, Ettle said.

Then there's the question of effectiveness. American's summer distance courses are capped at 25 students, but only a few are at maximum enrollment. The attrition rate in summer courses is 10 to 15 percent -- well above the norm during the academic year. Ettle said it's common for students to drop a course after realizing they've underestimated the workload. (Oblinger added that one of the reasons why more colleges aren't targeting study abroad students is that many of them already have full slates.)

Students and faculty who take part in the summer courses continue to fill out satisfaction surveys, and Ettle said thus far she is "comfortable" but "not ecstatic" with the results. For instance, faculty report that student performance during the summer is generally comparable to performance during the academic year.

"The jury is still out on whether students are learning just as much or more in distance courses compared to face-to-face," Ettle said. "We're not saying that distance learning is going to be the silver bullet, but it's an option.


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