EXPECTATIONS OF INTERNET EDUCATION: CASPER COLLEGE'S EXPERIENCEGerald ("Jerry") E. Nelson, Ph.D.
Chair, Physical Sciences/Mathematics, Casper College
Casper College, situated in Casper Wyoming, is the largest of the seven colleges in the Wyoming community college system. We serve about 4,000 total students, or 3,300 Full Time Equivalents.
As Casper College has been offering distance learning opportunities via telecourse for two years, it was a natural extension to offer Internet Based Distant Learning (IBDL) classes when the opportunity arose. We already had a successful model to follow with our telecourses; several classes are broadcast by Wyoming PBS each semester to 15 to 20 students per class.
In the spring of 1997, Casper College initiated what we call "Cyber Semester", a group of four typically freshman level courses offered entirely on the Internet. These classes are: Physical Geography, Pre-calculus Algebra, English Composition I, and Political Science. The choice of classes reflects available expertise and interest in the delivery medium, as well as a desire to offer a reasonably complete freshman semester entirely on line. It is our hope to expand these initial offerings to a complete Associates Degree program in the near future to meet a portion of the needs for distance learning in Wyoming. The telecourses, and now the IBDL offerings, are intended to: 1) reach local students who may not be able to access traditional classes due to work or family commitments, 2) provide a convenient alternative to on site students, and 3) provide access for distance learners regardless of their geographical location.
Through informal discussions with stakeholders -- politicians, administrators, instructors, and students, as well as through more formal (but not scientific) written surveys, the IBDL team has sought to ascertain attitudes toward and expectations for the IBDL program.
When I first began organizing Casper College's Cyber Semester, I was struck by what appeared to me to be conflicting expectations of such a delivery system. In conversations with politicians, administration officials, faculty, and students, each group expressed a different view of what Internet based distance learning is, how much work it would be, what it would cost, how convenient it would be, whom it would serve, and so on.
WYOMING POLITICAL EXPECTATIONS
In the fall of 1996, I attended the Wyoming Heritage Foundation Meeting on Education, attended by politicians (including the Governor of Wyoming, Jim Geringer), business people, and K-16 educators.Throughout the two days of talks, presentations, and informal discussions, the same themes kept coming up: Internet based education is here to stay, it will become a more important part of Wyoming's educational offerings in the future, and existing higher education institutions in Wyoming are going to have to lead the way. It is clear from the Governor's statements that he is interested in and excited about IBDL possibilities.
Discussing IBDL with the politicians in attendance at this meeting, I came away with the impression that many of them look upon this delivery method as a cost-saving activity. As one state senator stated, "one history instructor at one college, delivering classes to the entire state" via the Internet. Fortunately, this attitude is not universally shared by the political power structure in the state. I believe there is a general realization that IBDL is about access, not about saving money; but I still worry about the perception that with this medium, one instructor can serve many more students than in traditional classes.
CASPER COLLEGE ADMINISTRATION EXPECTATIONS
Our college administration's attitude towards IBDL is one of cautious support. The administration as a whole views it as an interesting idea, but not so compelling as to commit additional resources. Those administrators who responded to requests for comment stressed access to education as being very important. For example, the director of planning and institutional research stated that distance education would provide "greater access because the student is able to access the class at the closest location possible -- the student's home or workplace." This administrator believes there will be an economic advantage, in that "with the proper support, the Internet and distance education allow a course to be easily scaleable from a one-to-one to a one-to-one-thousand faculty to student ratio." It may be true that with "proper support" faculty may be able to teach large numbers per course, but whether this economic argument should be the driving force behind the development of IBDL is debatable.
The vice president for academic affairs at Casper College, the administrator ultimately responsible for course offerings and delivery methods also stresses access:
I am looking for a delivery system that will provide needed/desired educational offerings to students who can not/choose not to access educational offerings through traditional face to face delivery -- allowing students the opportunity to interact with people from other parts of the country/world -- a delivery system that allows Casper College to be a major provider of educational services to all students, regardless of where they may be located, who wish to access educational programs provided by this institution.
Perhaps not unreasonably so from an administrative viewpoint, this person also stressed the economics of IBDL offerings as being "a delivery system that remains effective and affordable at a time when educational costs are skyrocketing." Affordable in this context is certainly not the same thing as serving hundreds of students per faculty member. Moderately sized IBDL classes of say, between 15 and 30, traditional for many community college classes, can be very affordable in rural areas such as Wyoming.
CASPER COLLEGE FACULTY EXPECTATIONS
Faculty expectations are somewhat different from those of politicians and administrators. Casper College faculty members are fortunate in that the vice president for academic affairs sees IBDL as "a delivery system that will allow faculty to become energized with the teaching and learning process as education delivery moves into the twenty-first century." The entire faculty involved with Casper College's Cyber Semester looks upon Internet classes as an opportunity to take on a challenge, to grow and develop, and keep up with technological trends.
In our meetings, both formal and informal, words such as "exciting," "interesting," and "challenging" are regularly used, but so are "scary," "frightening," and "dangerous." All four IBDL faculty members approach the project with ambivalent feelings, summed up nicely by the English instructor:
On the one hand, I was excited about the possibilities and opportunities of teaching English over the Internet. I felt much like the explorers of old must have felt -- I was testing new waters and charting unknown lands. Exciting. On the other hand, I entered this project with a bit of skepticism. Knowing how difficult it is sometimes to keep students motivated in a "traditional" classroom, I wondered how I would keep them going via a computer.
The math instructor thought that students who would take a math class via the Internet would be "above average" students, that they would know more mathematics and treat the course as a "review" of pre-calculus, that this caliber of student would jump in, not have any problems, and do great, and that if a student had a computer at home, he or she would be very computer literate. For my own class in Physical Geography, I expected 5 or 6 computer literate students would sign up, giving me plenty of time to do course development with small group of dedicated students as test subjects.
The reality was quite different in many respects. Thirty-six students signed up for Physical Geography, 22 for Political Science, 18 for English Composition I, and 6 for Pre-calculus Algebra. At the midterm break, approximately 60% of the original students remain active. This ratio is less than, but not greatly different from traditional classes, which typically retain about 70% at the break.
Besides the large number of students, the overall lack of computer sophistication in about half of the students was surprising. As a measure of computer sophistication, eighteen of the 36 students in Physical Geography required a temporary E-mail/Internet account, and they needed a training session to get them started; the other half of the class all had their own E-mail accounts and service providers. Similar ratios occur in the other three classes. Remarkably, there is no clear relationship between those who dropped out of the classes early and those who did not have their own E-mail accounts and Internet service providers. A proportionate number from each group dropped the class or stopped participating.
All instructors were puzzled that students would sign up for IBDL classes, which were clearly designated as such in the schedule, when they were so obviously ill prepared to take on the extra challenges of the medium. For example, the math instructor thought that "Because I required students to have a CD-ROM and Internet access, I felt that I wouldn't have to teach them how to email, download pages, and send attachments[; however,] the majority of my students didn't know how to send an attachment."
As instructor for the Physical Geography class, I spend a large share of my class time explaining the nuts and bolts of the computer system, file management, and search strategies. This is time well spent, but I have had to make adjustments in the quantity of material and in the level of difficulty in projects that I can assign. I had envisioned receiving hypertext project reports, but perhaps this expectation was unrealistic.
Lack of readiness on the part of the students should, however, not cause a hesitation in offering Internet distance learning courses. Dedicated students should quickly become adept and independent in regard to Internet skills. The rest may acquire the skills more slowly, but those skills should prove durable in the long run. All four of the instructors involved have experienced feelings similar to those of the English instructor: "The students who do take this class seriously are, in many ways, exemplary This class and the other Distance Learning classes have opened the door to higher education for them. This [development] is also exciting." Good students are still good students in IBDL medium, and average students still turn in average work at the last possible moment. However, the IBDL medium provides an opportunity for more good students and more average students to access education. For some, an average grade in a math or an English class satisfies their needs.
Demographically the IBDL students enrolled this semester are typical of a community college in many respects: they are older, mostly female students returning to or starting school after a long absence. In some respects, though, cyber students are atypical of community college students. For example, several high school students are taking one or more IBDL classes: they must meet the same prerequisites as a traditional college student. Prerequisites for math and English classes are appropriate scores on ACT (American College Testing service), SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), or the COMPASS (Computerized Adaptive Placement Assessment and Support System) placement exam. The prerequisite for the freshman level survey courses is generally "permission of the instructor." Wyoming high school students are allowed to take some college classes for both high school and college credit through the BOCES (Board Of Cooperative Educational Services) program if they meet the prerequisites and are otherwise ready for college level work. In addition, several students nearing completion of a Bachelor's program via distance learning, have indicated that they need just those one or two additional courses to complete general education requirements to complete their degrees at the University of Wyoming, the state's only four year institution. For example, all Wyoming college students are required to take political science as a graduation requirement, and the Cyber Semester gives them an additional option.
Age: Average 29 years, Range 17 to 55
Presently Own a Computer:
Present Education Level:
The "average" IBDL student is a 29-year-old female computer owner in her second year of college. Demographic data also show that IBDL classes are serving as many high school seniors as college juniors and seniors, both of which are populations not commonly served by Casper College. A large number of on-campus students are taking IBDL classes for convenience, a number of other students are truly "distant."Of the 63 different students originally signed up for Cyber Semester classes, 8 (approximately 13%) students are from outside the Casper area.
RESULTS OF THE SURVEY
Survey forms were sent to all IBDL students about one-third of the way through the semester to assess their expectations and to provide a check to see if IBDL classes were meeting those expectations. By no means scientific or statistically valid, this survey was designed to evaluate informally the IBDL experiment. Of the 82 surveys sent out, 23 were returned, which represents about 50% of active students. Duplicate results (from students taking more than one IBDL class) were not counted since the survey was not directed at any one particular class. The intention was to determine if student expectations differed greatly from their experiences in the IBDL classes. Students were asked to rate their expectations and experiences on a scale from one to five, with one being the lowest rating and five being the highest.
SURVEY RESULTS: QUESTION 1
1a) Thinking back to when you first decided to take an Internet class, you expected the amount of work to be ____ than a regular class. 1 = much less 2= 3= about the same 4= 5= much more 1b) Now that we are about 1/3 of the way through the semester, you have discovered the amount of work to be _____ than you expected 1 = much less 2= 3= about the same 4= 5= much moreThe average response on Question 1a was 3.0, indicating that students anticipated that the class would require about the same amount of work as a traditional class. The average response to Question 1b was 3.6, indicating students discovered that the amount of work is more than in a traditional class
Question 1a results: 1 x1 2 xxx3 3 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx16 4 x1 5 xx2 Ave. 3.0 Question 1b results: 1 x1 2 xx2 3 xxxxxxxx8 4 xxxxxxx7 5 xxxxx5 Ave. 3.6SURVEY RESULTS: QUESTION 2
2a) At first, you thought you could learn ______ than in a regular, face-to-face class. 1 = much less 2= 3= about the same 4= 5= much more 2b) You have since discovered that you can learn _____ compared to a regular, face-to-face class 1 = much less 2= 3= about the same 4= 5= much moreThe average response on Question 2a was 3.3, indicating they thought they could learn about the same amount of material as in a traditional class. The average response to Question 2b was 3.7, a slight increase in the perception of how much students think they can learn in an IBDL class compared to a traditional class.
Question 2a results: 1 0 2 xx2 3 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx16 4 xx2 5 xxx3 Ave. 3.3 Question 2b results: 1 0 2 xx2 3 xxxxxxxxx9 4 xxxxxx6 5 xxxxxx6 Ave. 3.7SURVEY RESULTS: QUESTION 3
3a) At first, you thought Internet classes would cost _____ compared to regular, face-to-face classes. 1 = much less 2= 3= about the same 4= 5= much more 3b) You have since discovered that Internet classes cost ____ compared to regular, face-to-face classes 1 = much less 2= 3= about the same 4= 5= much moreThe average response on Question 3a was 2.8, indicating they thought it would cost about the same as a traditional class. The perceived cost to students as revealed by Question 3b is about the same as the actual cost, compared to traditionally delivered classes.
Question 3a results: 1 x1 2 x1 3 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx19 4 xx2 5 0 Ave. 2.8 Question 3b results: 1 xx2 2 xx2 3 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx15 4 xx2 5 xx2 Ave. 3.0SURVEY RESULTS: QUESTION 4
4a) At first, you thought Internet classes would be _____ convenient, compared to regular, face-to-face classes. 1 = much less 2= 3= about the same 4= 5= much more 4b) You have since discovered that Internet classes are ____ convenient, compared to regular, face-to-face classes 1 = much less 2= 3= about the same 4= 5= much moreThe average response on Question 4a was 4.7, indicating that the students perceived that IBDL classes would be very convenient. The average response on Question 4b was 3.7, considerably lower as students perceive the IBDL classes to be less convenient than they thought at first, compared to traditional classes, but still considered convenient.
Question 4a results: 1 0 2 0 3 xx2 4 xx2 5 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx19 Ave. 4.7 Question 4b results: 1 xxxx4 2 0 3 xxxxx5 4 xxx3 5 xxxxxxxxxxx11 Ave. 3.7SURVEY RESULTS: QUESTION 5
5a) At first, you thought Internet classes would require _____ knowledge of computers and technology. 1 = very little 2= 3= about average 4= 5= very much 5b) You have since discovered that Internet classes require ____ knowledge of computers and technology. 1 = very little 2= 3= about average 4= 5= very muchThe average response on Question 5a was 3.0, indicating that students thought that the IBDL classes would require about an average knowledge of computers and technology. The average on Question 5b was 3.4, only slightly higher, indicating students perceive that IBDL classes require only an average knowledge of computers and technology. Of course, these are the students who are still in the classes at this point in the semester; one must assume that at least some of the students who dropped the classes or stopped participating may have done so because of daunting technology.
Question 5a results: 1 xxx3 2 0 3 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx16 4 xx2 5 xx2 Ave. 3.0 Question 5b results: 1 xx2 2 0 3 xxxxxxxxxxxxx13 4 xxx3 5 xxxxx5 Ave. 3.4SURVEY RESULTS: QUESTION 6
The sixth question in the survey was open-ended: "Please tell me the main reason why you decided to take an Internet class, and what you hope to gain from it." Responses were varied, and most students gave more than one reason. The responses can be categorized, from the most common response category to least, as:
"The main reason I decided to take an Internet class was because I live in Crowheart, WY. Which is 170 miles west of Casper."
"I took this class via Internet due to my strenuous work schedule. I work 40 - 60 hours per week and this is the only way I am able take a full load of classes."
"I have an extremely hectic schedule. My work hours change daily and I was never sure of when I could get to a standard class."
"The reason I became involved in this course is to satisfy a General Education requirement of UW I am an off campus student, senior. Off campus means getting your education anyway you're willing to do it."
Those citing CONVENIENCE:
"Did not have an opening in the class schedule for a regular math class"
"The main reasons were because it fit into my schedule better this semester than traditional classes"
"I wanted a class that I could do on my own time."
From a high school student: "I also know that it is a required course in any Wyoming college."(the idea being it is convenient to take it now while in high school)
"I don't like to listen to government lectures" (If a student doesn't like listening to someone lecture on government, that student may learn better in an independent format - this format is for the convenience of the student, who could just as easily sign up for a regular section of this required course)
Those citing INTEREST IN MEDIUM:
"I decided to take an Internet class because I wanted to learn more about how to get around the Internet This class has a purpose and a direction"
"My advisor thought it would be a good opportunity. So I went with it."
"I like to spend my free time on the Internet so I thought this class might be one good way to surf the net."
"I thought it was a very up-to-date idea for the College to do."
"I decided to take an Internet class because it sounded interesting and it would give me some experience on the Internet."
"I took this class because it sounded very interesting."
"I decided to take this class mainly because it was something new."
"Surfing the Net and corresponding via e-mail is one of my favorite things to do."
One respondent mentioned an INTEREST IN THE TOPIC:
"I am taking this Internet course because I am keenly interested in this particular science."
Casper College is typical of many community colleges that are striving to serve an ever-greater diversity of students on static or dwindling budgets. I do not envision IBDL classes as saving money by having an instructor serve hundreds of students. We should not take the worst aspects of the traditional lecture format (impersonal, top down, passively providing information) and transfer them to a new medium. IBDL classes provide an opportunity to interact one-on-one with students to a depth never realized in a traditional lecture format. I can provide help, information, or encouragement in just the right doses at just the right times. I cannot do this in a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students, and I certainly cannot do this through the Internet with similar numbers of students. Lest we forget why we are doing all of this, let me quote from a perceptive student: "I would stress the importance of quality teacher-student cyber communication with other instructors who venture to teach via the Internet."
The classes are, however, affordable, accessible, and convenient for a great number of students. Take as an example the student from Crowheart, Wyoming, 170 miles from Casper College. It would not be economically feasible to bring a traditional class to her at Crowheart, even if the student could round up 5 or 6 additional students, an unlikely event given Crowheart's population. However, when that student in Crowheart is enrolled in an IBDL class with two University of Wyoming seniors in Newcastle, high school students in Big Piney and Midwest the combination can be served at an affordable rate using the IBDL medium. In addition, students who enroll in IBDL classes for convenience or because of an interest in the medium subsidize students in distant geographical locations through their participation in IBDL classes.
IBDL classes can become a viable alternative appealing to politicians, administrators, faculty, and students.
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