More grads in online classes

On any given day, Stephanie Parks wakes up at 5 a.m., goes to work as a flight attendant in Atlanta, makes three transfers, has a two-hour layover and, while waiting, sits down with her laptop, goes online and begins to study for her TCU class.Graduate students can live in different parts of the world and get their education without even setting foot on campus.

From fall 2004 to fall 2005, there has been an increasing amount of graduate students talking fully online classes at TCU, said Romana Hughes, coordinator of eLearning.

Parks, an MLA graduate student, said she enjoys the online graduate program because it allows her flexibility while she works as a flight attendant.

“I can be on a trip anywhere and as long as there’s Internet, I can still go to class,” Parks said in a phone interview.

TCU’s Master of Arts and Master of Science in Nursing – Clinical Nurse Specialist – programs both offer fully online classes through eCollege to accommodate schedules and to serve a different group of people, said Don Coerver, director of the Master of Arts program.

Students and administrators have mixed views about the advantages and disadvantages of fully online classes and the increasing number of students who take the classes.

Hughes said eCollege allows graduate students to take tests and quizzes and turn in papers to professors online.

Jeffrey Parker, an MLA student from The Woodlands, said with everything online, he has to be sure to stay on track and not fall behind on assignments.

“Instructors add information every day, so you have to keep up,” Parker said.

Parks said the online classes make her more disciplined in her studies and have strengthened her skills as a student.

TCU Registrar Patrick Miller, a former instructor in marketing who has used eCollege to teach at TCU, said professors can format and modify their material at anytime.

“I’m always trying to find ways to get students engaged in the material,” Miller said.

Catherine Wehlburg, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, said online classes can enhance interaction between students and instructors.

Wehlburg said professors can set up chat-room discussions at a certain time so all the students can communicate with each other.

Professors can also post discussion questions for students to respond to during the day as another outlet for interaction, Wehlburg said.

Parker said conversations with classmates through e-mail and discussions make it easier for him to pick up the phone and call them if necessary.

Parker said online classes help him develop friendships he may not have had in a classroom setting.

A classmate of Parker, who studies in Hawaii, recently visited him for the weekend.

Parks said with online courses, however, it’s not as easy to go out to eat with a classmate and have that personal connection.

“There’s no one to talk to so I have to depend on myself,” Parks said.

Another advantage of the online courses, Wehlburg said, is students can view their grades during the semester through a safe and secure Web site.

“Students can see their grades anytime and not have to wait for the next class period,” Wehlburg said.

One potential drawback of online classes is the possibility of cheating.

TCU’s eLearning Web site provides tips on how professors can prevent cheating in online classes.

Some tips include requiring students to use cameras on their computer desktop during discussions and exams, limiting the time to take a test or giving periodic quizzes during online chat sessions.

Coerver said he can’t be sure the right student is taking a test, but he said it’s not a major concern.

“It’s a graduate program so there’s not much emphasis on tests but more on writing,” Coerver said.

Wehlburg said a possible challenge with online classes is unexpected power failure.

Nick LaRusso, TCU’s account executive at eCollege, said eCollege recognizes the need for online reliability and prides itself on providing a 99.99 percent level of reliability.

“We have invested a significant amount of money to make sure we are secure,” LaRusso said.

Kathleen Baldwin, director of graduate studies in the Harris School of Nursing, said power outages have not been a significant problem in the online nursing graduate program.

Baldwin said during Hurricane Rita, three students were affected by a power outage but said professors were understanding and willing to work with the students.

Most students said their professors are helpful throughout their graduate studies.

Donald Cunningham, an MLA student, said the shift from a classroom setting to online courses was a big change for him, but the accessibility of professors has been great.

Cunningham, an 11-year instructor in computer science and information technology at Tarrant County College, South Campus, said his TCU professors are good at responding to questions and concerns in a timely matter.

Hughes said the number of students taking fully online course continues to grow.

In fall 2004, 126 graduate students took fully online courses. This semester, 140 students are enrolled, she said.

Anita Unger, graduate program coordinator, said students are offered about five or six online classes each semester. Students who live across the United States and other countries are enrolled.

Hughes said faculty members have taught from around the world, including one summer nursing course from Jordan.

The first graduate to receive a TCU degree through classes entirely online was a man from Hong Kong, Coerver said.

Parks, who has a 4.0 GPA and one class left, said taking online courses fits her schedule perfectly.

“It’s a wonderful program. I mix business and pleasure and make it all work for me,” Parks said.

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