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Distance learning provides flexibility
to help students further education
Dec. 15, 2014
Technology has made it possible for advances not only inside our classrooms and labs, but also outside the physical, traditional class environment. Distance learning, which began at the Community College of Rhode Island in the late 1980s through the U.S. Postal Service, has evolved and become an important supplemental option for students.
Distance learning courses represent "a growing segment of classes" at the college, said Maggie Burke, assistant professor of Computer Studies and faculty coordinator for distance learning. This fall, 1,620 students, approximately 9 percent of the college's total enrollment, were enrolled in the classes.
In the spring, 70 instructors will teach 136 courses through distance learning. While the college does not intend to offer entire degree programs that can be completed online, a significant number of students can take advantage of an arrangement that allows for flexibility and access – particularly important to students who work or have other responsibilities outside of class.
"Most of our students are taking on-campus courses, but they also have work and family obligations. Online courses allow them to fit in another class, so there's that advantage. It allows them to do more, and more quickly," said Burke.
Computer Studies Professor Anthony Basilico said he was one of the first to offer an online course. His courses lent themselves to this format, so while the learning curve was still steep as he and his students navigated the loss of face-to-face communication, they were comfortable with the interface.
As learning platforms have evolved, the college has switched to Blackboard to facilitate its online offerings, and Basilico said his students can easily access instructional videos for the software itself as well as the coursework.
"You try to put up as much information as you can," said Basilico, clicking through a sample class, where syllabi, assignments and discussion forums were neatly laid out for students to move through at their own pace to meet course deadlines. "I do a lot of videos and audio PowerPoints to try to duplicate the physical classrooms. And many textbook authors provide videos."
Basilico echoed Burke, saying that many of his students work full time or are working parents who otherwise would not be able to fit in a course.
He said he polled several students to see why they took advantage of distance learning courses, and some responded with glowing words not just about the accessibility, but what it did for their learning ability. "It's a more proactive approach to learning," wrote student Alejandro Rodriguez in response to Basilico's email query.
"It's not for all students," Basilico said. "They definitely have to be disciplined and proactive."
Mike Russo of Coventry is in his third semester since returning from Army service in Afghanistan. With a full-time course load and a job with Box Electronics Systems Inc. in Warwick, as well as two Great Danes and a home to maintain all on his own, taking online courses has been the only way he has been able to make his dreams of pursuing higher education a reality.
"I want to try to create another path for myself. This has been the perfect option," he said of distance learning, which has made up seven of his 12 courses taken at the college so far.
Russo, who is working toward an associate degree in Computer Networking, said that while the classes have been, at times, more challenging and time-consuming than he anticipated, the flexibility made it all worth it. The interface itself was "pretty smooth," and he had no trouble adapting to receiving and submitting work online that he traditionally would exchange in the classroom.
"You have to set a schedule and stay on the schedule, but as long as you're proactive, it's a good option," he said.
Another Computer Studies student, 2014 graduate Aubrey Fletcher of West Warwick, who is working in information technology at a loan agency, was a new father when he was wrapping up his degree at the college. Taking online classes helped him complete that process quickly.
"I absolutely would recommend online classes to other students," he said. "You have to have the drive and the passion to do it. It's a big commitment. The time it took varied per lesson; sometimes I could go through a lesson quickly and sometimes it would take more time. But you can always drop an email to your professor and you'll get a response quickly if you have questions."
Distance learning options are available in a variety of departments, and professors are given the freedom to design their courses as they see fit, said Burke. Professor of English Robyn Younkin has been teaching online courses in addition to classes at the Newport County Campus since the college used its snail mail distance learning system.
While some classes are less discussion-based, Younkin and her counterparts in the liberal arts disciplines work to foster the kind of closeness in their Blackboard discussions that you would see in a traditional classroom.
In fact, Younkin said, students may be more likely to participate online: "You're really freed up from the image of the teacher up there with the red pen. People are less shy about opening up; it's very anonymous. You'll find that students might share things they wouldn't in a regular classroom."
Burke pointed out that there are advantages for faculty, too. "Any time you reflect on pedagogy and have to rip it apart and rebuild it in a new way, it's going to be advantageous to you as a teacher," she said.
Younkin concurred: "As with any type of teaching, I learn just as much from my students as they do from me. The distance learning environment has challenged me to rethink how to present information and interact with my students. The exchanges that take place online can be just as reciprocally productive, rewarding and personal as any that one might find in a traditional classroom setting."
Professor of English Jim Glickman said he requires students to discuss class material weekly. "Everyone in an online class is communicating and interacting," he said.
When Renee Bolduc of Warren took a composition class this summer with Younkin, she found that Younkin's responsiveness made her feel just as supported as in a classroom. "She was extremely available," she said.
Bolduc is taking a full course load in addition to working at the CCRI Bookstore part time and said she has learned to juggle her responsibilities better and better as time has gone on. In fact, she had such a good experience in Younkin's online course that she's taking Introduction to Literature with her on campus this semester.
Learn more about distance learning at CCRI.
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