Students simply expect to take courses online today, says Tim Conroy of Eastern Maine Community College.

Aug 05 2011

The Expectations of Online Education

Colleges bolster network bandwidth, invest in video conferencing equipment and increase their online course offerings to meet the growing demand for distance learning.


Wylie Wong

For Eastern Maine Community College, offering classes via distance learning is about student convenience.

The college uses video conferencing to help its rural students attend classes at three satellite campuses so they don't have to drive as far as 70 miles to the main campus in Bangor. And this fall, the college is giving its students more distance learning options by expanding its offerings of fully online courses.


For Eastern Maine Community College, offering classes via distance learning is about student convenience.

The college uses video conferencing to help its rural students attend classes at three satellite campuses so they don't have to drive as far as 70 miles to the main campus in Bangor. And this fall, the college is giving its students more distance learning options by expanding its offerings of fully online courses.

"Students today are fully wired," says Tim Conroy, the college's dean of information technology. "They can get anything they want online, and they expect to have the option to either come to class or get their education online."

Distance learning has seen huge growth over the past decade as broadband adoption has increased and technology has improved. Distance learning courses are offered through the Internet, television, video conferencing and even CD-ROMs and DVDs. But online is the most popular avenue for distance learning.

In fact, 29 percent of college students were enrolled in at least one online class in fall 2009, compared with just 9.6 percent in fall 2002, according to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, which surveys 2,500 colleges and universities annually.

Busy students, particularly those who have to balance education, work and family, find online education attractive because it gives them the flexibility to complete coursework on their own schedule. Students also view online courses as a valid alternative to classroom learning because the technology offers rich, interactive learning experiences, from recorded video lectures to live webinars where students and faculty can communicate and collaborate.

Colleges and universities have embraced online education because students demand it, says Jeff Seaman, survey director for the Sloan Consortium. Each school's online program is unique. While some public colleges are not making money or are just breaking even, others are generating big profits and find online education a cost-effective way to offer more classes without having to build and maintain more buildings on their campuses.

"It's a very good way for colleges to reach students they normally can't reach," says Seaman, also co-director of Babson College's Babson Survey Research Group. "A lot of students want an education but can't do it in face-to-face environments because of work, family or mobility constraints."

Expanding Online Ed

In 2009, Eastern Maine Community College leaders developed a comprehensive technology plan to improve education and campus services. A big part of that plan was to increase the college's distance learning offerings and build a full-fledged online education program to attract more students.

The first step was to increase bandwidth; so in spring 2010, the IT department upgraded the campus network backbone to 10 Gigabit Ethernet using Brocade equipment. The increased bandwidth will improve video quality for existing classes that use video conferencing, and will help with lecture capture and an expected increase in the use of video for online courses, Conroy says.

Video and video conferencing are playing more prominent roles in distance learning, say UNC Charlotte's Valorie McAlpin and Steve Clark.

Photo Brian Gomsak

"For us to grow our student population and increase distance education offerings, technology was a focus … and one of the big building blocks was bandwidth," he says.

Eastern Maine is largely rural, so a big percentage of the college's potential student population has to drive vast distances to attend classes. Over the years, the community college partnered with the University of Maine college system to build three satellite campuses 30 to 60 miles from Eastern Maine's primary campus.

Using video conferencing equipment and high-definition displays, students at the remote satellite campuses watch lectures and interact with their professors at the community college's main campus through a live, two-way feed.

"Rather than have to travel 70 miles to Bangor to take a class, they can complete a program at a distance," Conroy says.

Each remote classroom has one video camera and two 52-inch HD flat-screen displays. At the main campus, the display is split into four screens, so professors can see themselves and the students in the three satellite campuses.

Distance learning through video conferencing is very popular. Ten years ago, the college began using video conferencing in one or two classes; that's now increased to 30 to 40 classes each semester – about 15 percent to 20 percent of the college's overall courses, Conroy says. In each of these classes, about five to 15 students attend remotely.

$25 million
The annual revenue Kansas State University's Division of Continuing Education generates from distance learning

SOURCE: Kansas State University

The upgrade to the network will deliver the bandwidth the students and faculty will need for years to come as the campus builds its online education program. The college, which has about 2,300 students, had previously offered about 50 hybrid classes, in which a portion of a course is taught in classrooms and some is taught online. This fall, for the first time, the college is offering between 30 and 50 fully online courses. Over time, the college hopes to increase its online offerings to between 300 and 400 fully online courses, Conroy says.

Online at UNC Charlotte

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is also ramping up its distance education efforts through online courses and video conferencing.

The 25,000-student university offers 21 degree and certificate programs online. Many online classes are blended courses because it better fits the culture of the urban research university, says Valorie McAlpin, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Charlotte.

Most students prefer to attend class on campus, but they also want to enhance their studies by accessing video lectures and interacting with their classmates and professors online. "If a faculty member is teaching a large course, and more and more classes are increasing in size, they opt for a blended approach because it's a way of engaging students," McAlpin says.

UNC Charlotte is also using video conferencing to make room for more students taking popular classes. Steve Clark, the university's director of classroom support, says video conferencing will link two classrooms on the Charlotte campus so students can watch lectures in overflow rooms. The university previously owned 10 video conferencing systems from various manufacturers. It just purchased 10 more from LifeSize Communications, which were installed this summer.

Right now, about 10 courses per semester use the video conferencing equipment, which also lets students from other UNC campuses take courses from the main campus remotely. "It levels the playing field, so smaller institutions can still get the resources that they don't have locally," Clark says.

Survival Tools

In a time of lean budgets, faculty view online courses as a way to survive. Student retention is critical for college funding, so offering degree completion programs online is important, McAlpin says. For example, if students need specific courses that are only offered at certain times, and those students can't attend class on campus during those times, then they can take what they need online.

Deploying technology that offers a rich, interactive learning environment is critical, McAlpin says. UNC Charlotte uses an open-source learning management system and also has deployed a real-time communication tool that lets faculty and students hold web conferences and live group discussions, share applications and use interactive whiteboards. Faculty can also use the software to record short video lectures or podcasts.

"It's not just using a course website to say, 'read this, and here's your quiz,'" McAlpin says. "The challenge is to make sure faculty understand how to engage students and build in collaboration and interaction to make it a rich and social environment," she says.

One way to create a successful program, especially for institutions starting up, is for colleges to focus on developing online courses and programs in the areas in which they specialize.

"Look at the institution's strengths and the programs it is known for, particularly niches and areas that have high demand," says A. David Stewart, assistant dean of Kansas State University's Division of Continuing Education.

For example, the Manhattan, Kan., university is well known for its Food Science Institute, where its leaders and faculty have developed several certificate and degree programs online.

It's important to create high-quality online courses to protect the university's brand, says UNC Charlotte's McAlpin. That requires giving faculty the time and training they need to plan and design courses rich in multimedia, including audio, video, Flash and even online games.

The University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, has a team of instructional consultants that help professors plan and design such courses. UNT also offers $3,000 to $5,000 grants that departments can use to hire teaching fellows or adjunct instructors to teach courses for professors, freeing up their time to develop online courses, says Patrick Pluscht, director of UNT's Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment, and Redesign.

Colleges also should consider offering traditional student services online, such as library services or advising, the Sloan Survey's Seaman says. Many colleges already offer library resources online, but advising is historically done face to face.

For more information on distance learning programs at colleges and universities, go to

When launching a distance learning program, it's important to develop policies on intellectual property rights and revenue sharing. Have clear, formal agreements on financial arrangements in place to prevent any misunderstanding over money, Kansas State's Stewart says.

For example, before online course development begins at UNT, a faculty member will negotiate a contract with their department chair that specifies who owns the intellectual property if the class is licensed for education or commercial use. Royalty amounts range from $12 to $50 per student. In general, faculty members are paid royalties based on the effort they contributed compared with the amount of university resources invested, UNT's Pluscht says.

Overall, educators say distance learning is here to stay. It's simply part of campus life. In fact, UNC Charlotte has seen a 30 percent growth in online courses and programs over the past three years. "Online and tech-enhanced learning is not looked at as peripheral to our mission," McAlpin says. "It's just the academic mainstream and a way of doing business moving forward."

Photo: Comstock/Getty Images

Lecture Capture Adds Convenience

Steve Clark, UNC Charlotte's director of classroom support, has spent the past five years building 21st century classrooms. Two and a half years ago, he began equipping those rooms with lecture capture systems, which let professors record their lectures and make them available online. Today, roughly 10 percent of UNC Charlotte's rooms include lecture capture capabilities.

The lecture capture systems include pan-tilt-zoom network cameras and lecture capture software. Clark's team also designed and installed switching equipment, which he calls a "pressure mat," under the carpet.

For example, when the professor steps on the mat at the podium, he or she activates the switch and the camera aimed at the podium begins recording. When the professor steps away and walks to the whiteboard to write something, the system automatically switches to the camera aimed at the area of the whiteboard being used.

Lecture capture is popular with students because they can review lectures before tests. Faculty can also edit video clips of past lectures and make them part of their online or blended courses. They can have students review them as part of their homework assignment and then talk about them the next day in class. To say the least, the lecture capture systems "get a tremendous amount of use," Clark concludes.

<p>Jason Grow</p>