Students and Web-based courses click at URI

Providence, R.I. — March 28, 2000 — URI classrooms aren’t what they used to be. Nowadays one classmate could be on a ship at sea, another at a dance studio in Pennsylvania and still another at home in a kitchen at 3 in the morning. URI students, particularly non-traditional students like those enrolled at URI’s Feinstein College of Continuing Education in Providence, are jumping onto the cyberspace bandwagon to earn college credits. Just five years ago, URI offered its first e-mail course through Feinstein-CCE. Seven students enrolled. When the college offered URI’s six Web-based courses this spring semester, 200 students enrolled. “We had to turn 60 students away,” said Ed Ferszt, associate dean of academic programs at Feinstein-CCE. “The demand is outstripping our ability to offer courses. To keep pace, we’re developing strategies to convert classroom courses into Web-based ones and figuring out how to add multiple sessions of the popular ones we currently offer.” URI is part of a national trend. Distance education, which includes Web-based courses, is growing rapidly. The National Center for Education Statistics conducted studies of distance education in 1994-95 and in 1997-98. It found enrollment in distance education courses jumped from 754,000 in 1994-1995 to 1.6 million in 1997-98. The number of courses offered leaped from 23.3 million to nearly 52.3 million, with four-year public institutions leading the way and private four-year institutions lagging behind. Web-based classes replaced the more limited e-mail courses last fall. Web-based courses are virtual classrooms in that they provide comprehensive resources. Course materials such as lecture notes, syllabus, and exams are stored on site. Graphics, short video clips, and pictures can be viewed and e-mail can be self-contained. Continuing education students seem to be particularly suited to these courses, according to Vince Petronio, lead programmer consultant and communication studies professor who currently teaches a course that explores the growing impact of the Internet on interpersonal communications. The class never meets face to face. “Students have to be self-motivated and self-disciplined,” said Petronio who divides his students into groups to research questions. Each week the groups are required to post a written presentation by Saturday at midnight. “There’s no chance to put off studying and cram the night before a final exam. If the student doesn’t post, he or she doesn’t exist,” says the professor. A traceable counter on the site lets Petronio know who has logged on to the posted readings. Petronio said asynchronous courses-meaning anytime, anyplace-are great for students because they don’t miss a class. One student participated in “classroom” discussions from a ballet company in Carlisle, Pa. Asynchronous courses would work well for student –athletes and debaters who travel during the semester or the harried business executive This semester, nursing instructor Jim Miller, who teaches human sexuality, has a student attending Springfield College in Massachusetts in his “class.” Miller has taught human sexuality as a Web-based course for the past two years. “It’s perfectly suited for a Web course. The class meets the first week. Each member draws a fake name to use the rest of the course. That anonymity seems to promote honesty and openness. The level of sharing is incredible. I’ve set up chats four times a week and the conversations go on and on. I’ve taught human sexuality in the classroom for the past decade and no one wants to reveal anything.” Dr. Deborah Burns, a URI Ph.D. alumna, taught URI’s first e-mail course. This semester she is teaching a Web-based one. “When I first started teaching virtual classes seven years ago, students had to be given instruction on how to use computers, and there were many technical difficulties because of the limitations of computer systems, dial in lines, and lack of access to computers. However, now things are much easier because most students are familiar with the web and all have access to computers (either on campus or at home). Many people assume there is a lack of personal contact in virtual classes, but because students must participate to exist in a class, everyone participates all the time. There is a tremendous amount of interaction in virtual classrooms and lots of personal attention from the instructor. What I like most about virtual classrooms is that students are WRITING all the time.” Classroom courses converted to Web-based courses can be a financial boon to Universities because they eliminate the costs of brick and mortar. However, they probably won’t ever replace the traditional classroom for 18-year olds who tend to want the campus experience. -xxx- For More Information: Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2116