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Alicia Swanson, assistant professor of nursing at Minnesota State University Moorhead, demonstrates a videoconferencing tool available to online students such as Tina Trittin (on screen). IMAGE: NICK NELSON/FORUM NEWS SERVICE

Online passes test of time: Local colleges are making online education work

Consider the Kindle. Wait, scratch that: Consider the Rocket eBook, an earlier handheld e-reader, released by NuvoMedia in 1998.

Never heard of it?

Neither had we. And that’s the point.

In 1998, the technology just wasn’t there, so the $499 Rocket never caught on. You had to first download Rocket software onto your PC, then register and get a password, then buy your e-book and download it onto your PC, then transfer that e-book to your Rocket. No wonder the gadget has been forgotten.

But the Kindle’s release in 2007 showed that Amazon had solved the Rocket’s problems. That’s why the company has sold more than 50 million Kindles and related e-readers since then.

And that’s why online education is here to stay: because educators have solved many of the problems that afflicted earlier distance-learning efforts.

This writer recalls taking Introduction to Psychology as a correspondence course in 1980. The shipments back and forth by U.S. mail, the lack of personal contact with the professor or other students and the basing of the course entirely in text – no lectures, no movies, no tapes – made for a very bland and isolating experience.

In contrast, only 33 percent of Bismarck State College students today are entirely face to face, said Bruce Emmil, dean of BSC’s National Energy Center of Excellence.

The other 67 percent take some or all of their classes online.

And once you learn more about BSC and other colleges’ extensive online offerings, you’ll understand why.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s an animation worth?” Emmil said.

“For our technical classes these days, we use animations and simulations, which means the students can go into their computers and manipulate these control systems like you would do in a utility environment.

“It’s got the same look and feel, the same sounds. We try to make it just like you see in a real plant.”

True, online wind-energy technician students (among others) still come to BSC for some hands-on training, Emmil said. “When they come here, that’s when they actually put a harness on. They’re doing the climbing up a wind tower, doing the descending.

“But as far as learning how a turbine works, we bring that to life online.” And as a result, BSC now has graduates in all 50 states, plus a national brand vs. the regional one that it had in its on-campus-only days, he said.

At college after college in the Dakotas and Minnesota, other educators agree. Online classes, they say, now are a major part of the colleges’ core functions, because the classes serve the students, the colleges and the communities alike.

Enrollment trends

For example, there simply aren’t as many 18-year-olds as there used to be, said Julie Zaloudek, dean of online and extended learning at Minnesota State University Moorhead. That’s a big reason why enrollment of traditional students is down nationwide.

But at the same time, demand for online education continues to grow. There’s a huge population of adults who’d been underserved, and who now relish the chance to take online classes and pursue online degrees.

Tina Trittin is one. A registered nurse with a two-year degree, Trittin now is a student in MSUM’s RN-to-BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) program. It’s conducted entirely online except for certain clinical components.

“I work full-time and I have family commitments, so the flexibility is awesome,” Trittin said.

“I have many friends who’ve completed the program, and I’ve never heard a bad thing.” Trittin is on track to get her BSN in May.

Now, here’s a key: Employers won’t know the online nature of Trittin’s degree. That’s because the degree is identical to the degree an on-campus student gets.

That’s vital, because it shows how online learning has earned society’s trust, said Rachael Brash, executive director of University of Mary Worldwide in Bismarck, N.D.

“I used to have a lot of conversations with students about the validity of online education,” Brash said.

“I don’t have those conversations any more. Online is seen as a very valid way to offer education, period.”

Several factors have boosted this confidence. One is the use of interactive tools such as the animations and simulations at BSC.

Another is the fact that online students see and talk with their professors these days. “We post office hours, we are available via Adobe Connect, we can Skype with our students, we use other conferencing tools,” said Alicia Swanson, assistant professor of nursing at MSUM.

“It’s a virtual environment, but we do make those connections and establish those relationships. I feel like I’m engaged with and have a very good pulse on my students.”

Online classtime

Still another is the fact that online students engage with other students, too. In fact, when we asked Jeffrey Holm about the difference between teaching online and on-campus classes, the professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of North Dakota responded this way:

“In general, I don’t find a lot of difference,” he said.

“By now, most of us have ‘flipped the classroom,’ as we say. So, I provide narrated or video lectures with a PowerPoint accompaniment online for students to watch before class.

“Then when the students come into class – either in person or online – we have group interactions: working on papers together, exploring a topic, giving opinions.”

In short, aside from not seeing the online students in the flesh, “it’s pretty much the same,” he said.

These days, nearly a quarter of all credits offered by Minnesota State are mostly or completely online. The University of Mary has more than 30 degree programs online; at the University of North Dakota, online students can choose from 50-plus graduate certificates, bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees.  

“In higher education, we have to be responsive,” said Brash of the University of Mary.

“We have to be able to meet the needs of the workforce. Our goal is always to be proactive rather than reactive, and the key to successful higher education is your ability to do that well.”