the time Southern Oregon University student Jason Stone earns his degree in criminology in 2009, he will have spent hundreds of hours on coursework without stepping foot inside a classroom. He takes his classes online, squeezing in assignments between work as fire captain in Fortuna, Calif, and his commute between Fortuna and Medford.




"I wouldn't be able to go to school if it wasn't for this system," he said. "I can do the work when I need to do it, and there are no set classes you have to show up for. There is structure to the courses where you have to turn in your assignments at certain times, but for the most part, a lot of them you can complete at your own pace."




Attracting students like Stone through online courses is one of three strategies SOU identified, along with increasing the size and retention rate of the freshman class, to prevent future budget problems.




Since the program began in the late 1990s, total enrollment has grown to 521 students, almost double the number five years ago. Now students can choose from 39 classes in business, education, or criminology and criminal justice, and officials would like to see that number grow even more.




"Our president would like to see us increase the number of offerings that we have," said Jeanne Stallman, the interim executive director of extended campus programs. "We know that students like the flexibility, but it's not for all students because it requires a self-directed student, and it's not for every faculty."




The program is designed mainly for students who can't get to campus or working adults who need to finish their degree, Stallman said, although some traditional students are supplementing their schedules with online classes out of convenience. Online teachers use the same material as their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, using audio and video clips or two-way video technology, and office hours can be held over the phone or through e-mail. The classes cost $42 more than traditional classes to cover technology and course development fees, she said, and financial aid still applies.




Proponents of online learning say the results are largely the same as a traditional college experience.




"According to what the research tells us, there is no significant difference," said Criminology and Criminal Justice Professor Lee Ayers, who earned her doctorate in instruction technology and distance education from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. while living in Ashland. "What's really changing is the vehicle driving the information. Whether my students are in the classroom or online, the outcomes should be the same."




Ayers, who has been teaching online courses since 1999, said teaching students from a distance requires creativity to provide an experience equal to classroom learning, such as setting up special discussion boards for group projects. Some of her traditional students who have taken online courses have reported working harder online than in the classroom because they have to make time to listen to the lectures as well as do the homework.




Not for everyone




Not all students and programs fit the online model, however.




Online classes make sense for working adults, parents, military students and those who have to travel, she said. But the conventional model still meets many needs.




"If you were an 18-year-old freshman, and you were taking an online course because of football, I would say, 'No, don't do it,'" she said. "We want to make sure it's the right fit."




Junior accounting major Sarai Nash has the option of taking some of her classes online, but she said she is not all that interested.




"I don't think I would actually do my work if it was all online," she said. "I've traveled a lot, so if I was going to go somewhere, it would be nice to be able to do it online and not have to worry about attendance."




Business, education and criminology are some of the most popular online programs at many universities, not just SOU, Ayers said. Those subjects make more sense online than others, she said.




"Some disciplines lend themselves to more interaction," she said. "If I were a psychology professor teaching a group dynamics course, I might have some concerns if my students never met."




More discussion needed




Faculty members in some of those disciplines still have reservations about increased reliance on online classes.




"There's never been a coordinated discussion about use of online classes," said Sociology Professor Echo Fields. "I'm personally not real thrilled with online pedagogy. I do like having real people in front of me."




Issues such as who owns the material once it has been developed for the web, how to prevent cheating and whether the costs involved are acceptable require more discussion, she said.




"There's some evidence out there that suggests that online courses aren't huge cost saving measures," she said. "A lot of folks, like politicians and commentators on higher education, seem to think the technology is going to make it all cheaper somehow, but in fact tuition rates are often way more expensive."




In addition, some students need more human contact and peer pressure to do well in school, she said.




"I think for a lot of faculty there's a real concern about the loss of sense of community and personal involvement with a group of students, because you're not looking at facial expressions or tone of voice," she said. "We haven't talked about how students make connections. They do social networking in class. They get to know each other, and they get to know things beyond just the course itself. I have some concerns about students losing that in online formats."




Fields also voiced concern on a sociological basis.




"I could see something developing in the next 50 years where lower middle class or working class students would get the message that they could just do these online programs that have fairly limited choices and that more elite students would go to 'real' college with professors and buildings," she said. "I have a sneaking suspicion that we could be evolving in that direction as a society. You could outsource lots of online courses to Ph.D.s in India that will work for far less money...We're increasingly outsourcing higher skilled better paying jobs in lots of areas in the U.S. economy, and higher education is just as vulnerable."




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