Online learning comes into its own at SNHU

If public speaking can be taught online, it stands to reason that most anything can

Of all the online courses offered by Southern New Hampshire University, public speaking may seem least suited to the virtual realm. But Trisha Dionne, the instructor who teaches students from New England to Germany to Bahrain on how to talk to a crowd, says the class works well online because her students bring perspectives from around the globe.

In the class, students are asked to research a different culture and write speeches based on their findings, which has found one student investigating why the kitchen in his Italian apartment was unfurnished when he moved in and military students studying the areas where they’re posted, says Dionne.

“We all start learning more about those cultures,” she says. And there is still a public speaking aspect – students are required to find a group of people in their respective region to whom they deliver a speech, which is recorded and played back online.

If public speaking can be taught online, it stands to reason that most anything can, which may explain why more colleges and universities are tapping into the online market that has continued to grow despite – and because of – the recession.

“For the past six years, online enrollments have been growing substantially faster than overall higher education enrollments,” says a 2009 study on online education supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.In the study, 73 percent of more than 2,500 institutions reported increased demand for online classes because of the economic downturn.

“Bad economic times have historically been good for higher education enrollments,” according to the study, “either because the decreased availability of good jobs encourages more people to seek education, or because those currently employed seek to improve their chances for advancement by advancing their education.”

Quality concerns

SNHU is a veteran in online academics, with roots extending far beyond southern New Hampshire. Since its online launch in 1996 with 10 classes, the university now offers more than 50 online undergraduate and graduate programs, with more than 400 online faculty members.

Enrolled in the undergraduate online program are students from every state and 22 countries, though 54 percent are from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine. When considering online classes, students’ biggest concern is the quality of education, says Anne Hammer, manager of faculty support at SNHU online.

“The perceived quality for online programs isn’t fantastic across the board,” she says, which she attributes to for-profit schools that “may not concentrate on delivering quality courses for their students.”

So when schools like Harvard and Penn State move to offer courses online, it’s beneficial to SNHU because it gives the medium more credibility, says Gregg Mazzola, director of communications and marketing at the school.

Despite any negative perceptions, a 2009 U.S. Department of Education study found online learning to be more effective than classroom instruction, with students who took all or part of their class online performing “better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction,” according to the study.

Developing quality academic content has been a focus of SNHU’s online office in the Manchester Millyard, where professors work with instructional designers to turn classes and lesson plans into viable online curricula.

First, they identify course objectives – essentially what students need to learn by course end. Then, to meet these objectives, they break the course into modules, which can include lectures, further reading, assignments, discussion topics, supplementary videos and more. Each week there is a new module for students to complete.

“It’s like walking into a classroom,” says Plano, Texas-based finance professor Russell Bellemare. “Once you log in, you’re in the class. Everything you need is there.”

Part of the module system requires students to post to the class discussion board three times per week, which keeps them on track and forces everyone to participate.

“In (traditional classes), there’s a handful of students who take up the 2-1/2, three hours of class. Other people sit by quietly,” says Bellemare. But online, “students have the opportunity to think of what they want to say … it contributes to a more engaging, more meaningful exchange.”

Flexible schedule

Another benefit of the discussion boards is the wealth of experience students can bring to the conversation. Because online students typically have more work experience and are older than traditional college students – at SNHU online, the average age of a graduate student is 35 – they can often contribute more than their younger counterparts.

“People bring out their own experiences,” says Bellemare. “They’ll learn as much from each other as they can learn from me, as far as real-world application.”

Jennifer Allen, who is one year into her Global MBA, calls these practical examples “really informational and inspiring.”

Because Allen, 32, works long hours at a nonprofit in Mexico City and travels often for work, the flexible online program suits her schedule. SNHU’s online classes are asynchronous, meaning students never need to log in at a specific time —they can access material anywhere from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., which is why it has appealed so much to parents and people who work full-time.

But it’s this same flexibility that can be the unmotivated student’s downfall. Online education is not for everyone, says Hammer. It takes a certain kind of student – namely, an organized self-starter with a tendency not to procrastinate – to excel.

Texas native Mark Johnson is one of those students. He first found SNHU when researching online universities in 2005. Since beginning his first class there in June 2006, he has completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree in marketing, a masters in international business and is weeks away from completing his Global MBA. Next, he plans to pursue his doctorate online and perhaps become an online instructor himself.

For online professors to be good, he says they must be accessible, organized, good communicators and quick to respond. While traditional classes may meet once or twice a week, online education is around-the-clock.

Teacher engagement can be a major factor in whether a class is successful. As at any school, Allen says some professors are better than others, but it doesn’t take long for the online office to hear about an instructor’s weaknesses.

“We have very vocal students,” says Hammer.

“As we’ve progressed, the piece that we have been working on is standardizing,” says instructional designer Denise Littlefield, meaning all classes look the same whether they’re sociology or advanced algebra. That also helps to ensure all students learn the same material regardless of who teaches the course, says Mazzola.

While this may seem to take away a professor’s ability to suit a class to their individual teaching style, Johnson says good professors are able to overcome shortcomings of the modular system by adding their own supplementary content.

“An instructor might not like to have to present all that content, but if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be offering a good course because they’d be leaving out a lot of material,” says Hammer.

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