Imagine the educational landscape if today’s coronavirus outbreak had happened before online classes were an option.
What would students have done? Attempt to finish their classes via correspondence? Forfeit the semester and re-enroll in the summer or fall or when things returned to normal? Continue to show up to class and chance getting sick?
Thanks to online programming – offered at Southeast Community College since the mid-1990s – social distancing impacts related to COVID-19 have been minimal to students and faculty. They've been logging in, participating in virtual discussions, viewing recorded lectures and turning in assignments without any interruption to their regular college routine.
“Students may access their online course any time, any place with Internet access, and utilize their cell phone, personal computer, other mobile devices, or even a local library, coffee shop or campus computer lab,” said Dr. Bruce K. Exstrom, dean of Virtual Learning & Instructional Development.
“It’s almost an endless array of places to work on their class ... The creative solutions provided by faculty can mitigate the challenges of not seeing each other face-to-face," Exstrom said. "Students and faculty can even see each other in the virtual classroom if they desire. The possibilities provide for an academic environment that continues the teaching and learning process.”
SCC has been offering online classes for 25 years – beginning with a few selected courses in the first “online academy” initiated by the college and a few select leaders and faculty members willing to be pioneers in the endeavor.
In those early years, the learning management system was “simple” and offered mostly text information with minimal visual learning enhancements.
But today, it’s wide open and offers something for everyone. In fact, 60% of SCC's 8,000 students took at least one online course last year.
Those numbers have already risen over the past couple of weeks as students who may have been hesitant or reluctant to take classes online now are seeing the value in convenience and ease.
“From the initial start, the pioneers of this learning environment were committed to providing students with courses that had the same learning outcomes as other face-to-face courses,” Dr. Exstrom said. “They also provided an active learning environment that was academically rigorous and provided a venue for student engagement and discussion.
"These initial courses were committed to not be independent study, but rather courses with appropriate deadlines, student work, and student learning assessment.”
Since those days, the growth of online learning has been steady in both course offerings and student enrollment.
In the past four years, there has been a 15% increase in enrollment in the virtual learning area of SCC. Students continue to enroll in increasing numbers as the flexibility of courses, 24/7 access along with the increasing use of mobile devices to access coursework and complete course assignments, provides a conveniently appealing educational option.
But the draw is more than that.
“The continuing trend of student engagement keeps occurring; online courses offer students many opportunities to engage with other students in small groups, large-group collaborations and regular interaction with the faculty member(s) teaching the course,” Dr. Exstrom said. “Another trend we are seeing is that students are reaching out to the college for advising services, life coaching and career exploration.
Dr. Exstrom added that programs offering online courses are equipping students to think critically and interact with one another, and using new tools in virtual reality is beginning to increase and be utilized.
“Students are looking for social interaction and interaction with their peers, and the online environment offers them,” he said.
Programs that are offered 100% online continue to grow, and at SCC, students can complete an online program in many areas of study – Academic Transfer, Accounting, Business, Business Communications, Office Professional, Adult and Juvenile Services, Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement & Homeland Security and Geographic Information Services.
There are several programs that offer most of the “classroom” lecture portion of the program online and then require a face-to-face (hands-on) lab/clinical portion, including career-technical, allied health fields and Long Term Care and Dietary Manager – making it possible for students to not have to step on campus unless they wish.
As a complement, services including registration, enrollment, advising and course completion also can be completed online. Many programs are expanding to the “hybrid” format as well, where students may attend just a day or two on campus, and then complete the remainder of the course online.
“The value of online learning is that students who may not otherwise enroll can enroll in courses,” Dr. Exstrom said. “Many SCC students are employed full-time and/or part-time and have family responsibilities, or are currently finishing high school and taking dual-credit classes, which makes it a challenge to get to campus during the week.
“The online environment enables them to enroll in classes, enhance their skills, obtain a degree from SCC or transfer to a four-year university and continue their education. SCC has always been committed to providing a learning experience and environment that has the same learning outcomes no matter the type of delivery.”