Classrooms To Go

Students and teachers alike say that learning online can be livelier than in some traditional classes

When Chandra Cherry enrolled at a Long Island community college in 1987, she was enthralled by the possibilities of campus life. But almost from the start, she realized she wasn't ready for college. It was a decade before she took another stab at higher education. By then she was a single mom with a 2-year-old daughter and a demanding job as a computer trainer. Traditional class schedules still proved too difficult to manage.

Then, in the summer of 2006, she got a flier in the mail announcing the CUNY Online Baccalaureate, a new program designed for students who had "stopped out" of college and wanted an opportunity to complete their degree online. Now at age 38, Cherry finally has her eye on the prize: In December, she expects to receive her Bachelor of Arts in Commu-nication and Culture through the University's Online Baccalaureate program, part of a burgeoning trend in online higher education nationwide.

Online learning gets high marks from students and teachers alike, and it's easy to see why.

More than 90 percent of CUNY students surveyed by the Graduate Center's Center for the Advanced Study in Education said online courses are as good as or better than traditional courses and more than 60 percent found them better -- largely because of the higher levels of interaction with faculty and fellow students.

About half the faculty is involved in online instruction, including Web-enhanced courses; "hybrid" courses, in which at least half of the class activities are completed online; and "asynchronous" courses, which are conducted almost entirely online. While online classes tend to be more rigorous than face-to-face classroom experiences, they're also more interactive, honing students' writing and other communication skills over the Internet. And though students and teachers rarely meet, both groups say their interactions over the Web can engender deeply personal bonds.

"The relationship with the faculty is intense," says John Mogulescu, Senior University Dean for Academic Affairs and Dean of the School of Professional Studies. "You can't be invisible in the program. It's likely you will get to know your professors better than in almost any classroom, except, perhaps, a seminar."

Robert Whittaker, a professor of journalism and theater arts as well as Acting Associate Provost of Undergraduate Studies and Online Education at Lehman College, agrees. "Imagine having 20 parallel tutorials," he says. At the same time, faculty members take on a different kind of role: "You're more of a manager rather than a deliverer of knowledge. You do not lecture; you set up materials for students to respond. The students are much more engaged and spend more time on task."

"I'm better here than in a classroom setting," says Chandra Cherry, whose courses have ranged from The History of the Black Civil Rights Movement to Analyzing Organizational Structures. While online interaction is more time-consuming, it forces her to pay more attention to how she participates and communicates with others. "If people ask you to respond to a posting," she says, "you have to follow up, back it up—not just say, 'I agree'."

Although Cherry rarely meets fellow onliners, she says she has gotten to know many better than she normally would. "In online class, you get to know a person based on name; it's burned into your brain, even if you don't see them. You get to know who you're dealing with better [than in most traditional classes]. "Some of the deeply personal experiences I get to hear—I don't think anyone's ever shared that in my classrooms," says Cherry. "Behind a keyboard, people tend to be more open."

Barbara Walters, associate professor of sociology at Kingsborough Community College, spurs interaction by creating online team projects. "The goal is to teach students how to divide work so they're interdependent," she says. "They must share so they have a successful individual and collective project. It's a real integrative learning experience…. The students end up being more concerned about others not participating than the faculty are. There's a lot of peer pressure—and I think that's good." She also notes: "In an online environment, students cannot sit in the back row of the class; either they're fully present or they're absent." So when she goes back into the classroom, she is more aware of these back-row stragglers: "You get much better at tactfully drawing them into class, not allowing that [lack of participation] to happen."

Walters, who began teaching hybrid courses at Kingsborough in 1999, is on the Consortial Faculty for the Online Baccalaureate, providing services such as helping to convert traditional classroom curricula. Her online courses, such as Studies in Communication and Cultural Change, often involve individual weekly assignments and wikis (collective discussion groups) where students comment on each other's work as well as team research projects.

The University provides continuous training for online instructors, who also can share ideas and issues on university websites devoted to the same courses or disciplines, notes George Otte, Academic Director of the Online Baccalaureate and Director of Instructional Technology. "Teaching with technology is an ever-changing proposition," Otte says. "We have found that things like wikis and blogs have become a much more integral part of instruction; they're not just bells and whistles."

While several other universities offer online degree programs, "We're one of the few just for degree-completers," says Brian Peterson, Associate Dean of the School of Professional Studies, which administers CUNY's Online Baccalaureate. Candidates must already have at least 30 college credits to enter the program, "but many are coming in with 65 or more credits," Peterson says. "They're highly motivated."

Peterson and others point out that Online Baccalaureate students tend to be older than traditional transfer students—almost 90 percent are over 25, compared to less than 30 percent of other CUNY students. More than 70 percent are women. These students "stopped out" not because they couldn't do the work. "Mainly, something came up in life—family commitments or an advancement in the workplace," Peterson says. Some of these students returned because they've found themselves facing "an educational glass ceiling" at work, he adds.

While online education has often been dubbed "distance learning," CUNY has discovered that the key concern for students is time, not distance from campus. Many students work full time and have substantial family obligations, so the major barrier is finding flexible ways to fit classes into their schedule. And despite such heavy outside obligations, many Online Baccalaureate students have impressed their teachers with unusually strong academic performances. "One of the biggest surprises is how outstanding these students are," says Otte. "Half of them make the Dean's List."

Most CUNY online students are from New York, but there's a sprinkling from other states as well as a few from abroad. Recently, Peterson received an e-mail from a student in Japan who is going to Kenya for four months and needed to make sure her books were shipped to Africa.

In three years the program has almost tripled in size, from 239 students to a projected 700 students this fall. In addition to a B.A. in Communication and Culture, today's students can earn a Bachelor of Science in Business.

"We want to have steady growth in online degree programs," Mogulescu said. "We hope to be up to about 1,500 students within three years."

It's this kind of faculty and staff support that has captivated pioneering students like Crispin Goytia. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Goytia first tried college in 1997, with a full scholarship from a private university. After her son was born in 1998, she went to school on and off for three years, then stopped.

"I was the second person in my family to go to college," says Goytia, now 28. "Everyone else went to high school, became a city employee and that was the end of it." Goytia made two more attempts at college before she discovered the CUNY Online Baccalaureate two years ago. "The administration has been very supportive and advisement is always available," Goytia says. "If I had this opportunity 10 years ago, I would have finished on time."

Goytia, who now has a young daughter as well as a 10-year-old son, works full-time as a senior clinical research coordinator at the Department of Personlized Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Like Chandra Cherry, she expects to graduate in December with a B.A. in Communication and Culture. (Her husband, Julian Baez, an emergency medical technician, is also enrolled in the online program.)

Crispin Goytia affirms that the online degree is "much more challenging" than the traditional in-class environment. "But you never feel like you're sitting in front of a computer alone," she says. "There are always classmates at the other end who make the classroom alive."