USM online course offerings continue to grow

Patrick Higgins

Posted on October 22, 2013 in News
By Kirsten Sylvain

Patrick Higgins

USM has ramped up its online class offerings over the past few years in the face of a system-wide push for more online credit hours.

Because they are the two largest branches of the University of Maine System, USM and the University of Maine at Orono will account for much of the change in a system effort set last January to offer 20 percent of the total system credit hours online by 2015.

At USM, the number of students enrolled in fully-online degree programs has increased from 52 majors in Spring 2012 to the current number, 237––an over 400 percent increase over four semesters. However, USM still ranks as having the third lowest percentage of online credit hours in the system, coming in at 11.5 percent of its total credit hours.

The current percentage of system credit hours online is 13.6 percent, with two lowest contributors, UMaine at 7.2 percent, the University of Maine at Farmington at 0.5 percent. Because of their sheer size and low rankings, if USM and UMaine do not increase their online offerings, the system will fail to reach the goal, said University of Maine at Augusta President Allyson Handley.

Handley, also a member of Governor LePage’s Broadband Capacity Building Task Force, created in 2011, said that in an upcoming report the governor will call for up to 25 percent of all UMS credit hours to be offered online.

“I think we need to get to the 20 percent threshold, and we’ve got a little bit of time to do that,” Handley said. “We’re still seeing growth.”

Amy Gieseke, USM associate director of online program management and advising, believes that USM’s large non-traditional student population would support an even greater increase in online course offerings because, she said, 80 percent of USM students completing an online degree are non-traditional.

The 237 students completing a fully online major are only a small piece of the pie, Gieseke explained. She estimated that an additional 1,200 to 1,500 more USM students are enrolled in at least one online class. What many students look for, she said, is options––online, on campus or blended.

Part of the challenge at USM is, she said, appealing to the incredibly diverse student body. Beyond that, students have a vast range of options. USM’s non-traditional students especially, she said, tend to chose alternative forms of education for their flexibility and convenience. The competition in the realm of online education, she said, is likely a factor in USM’s dropping enrollment numbers.

“They’re not just going to pick USM because it’s in their backyard anymore,” she said. “So I think to compete with the other online schools we just have to be doing it [online classes]. If we’re going to be doing it, we have to make sure it’s high quality so that we stand out.”

Professor of linguistics Wayne Cowart has been teaching the same introductory level course since the 1990s. From his experience, the online experience can be just as effective and enriching for the student if not more, but that doing it well is time consuming and difficult.

“More generally with respect to quality, I think it’s a case by case basis,” he said. “There are dreadful online courses, and there are dreadful live courses.”

According to Cowart, the issue of quality is in many ways a question of how well both instructors and students use the tools and resources available to them. Most instructors, he admitted, are still not comfortable with the online format.

“Right now it’s like semester to semester, the world has changed,” he said.

History Professor Libby Bischof said that the history department is offering five online courses this semester––more than it has ever offered, but the online growth they’ve been experiencing in recent years, she said, has not been a direct response to the system goal. The change, she said, has been a natural development, due to student demand and the history department’s retirement of four tenured professors in the last six years who have not been replaced.

Bischof recently decided to do an experiment. She’s long been interested in the role of the online element in higher education. Last summer, she taught her first online course, the History of American Popular Culture. Overall, she said, she was surprised to find that students showed a higher level of engagement with assigned readings.

“It was a challenge for me,” she said. “Can I deliver a high quality, vigorous, content rich experience, [like] I strive for in my face to face classes, in an online environment?”

She did, and the course evaluations support that, she said. “I have to say that I enjoyed the online teaching experience far more than I initially thought I would.”

Qianru Zhu, a freshman marketing major has taken two online courses at USM. She said that when she first came to USM taking classes face to face was easier for her. Before she traveled to the U.S. from China to study, she said, she didn’t use a computer, so when she had no choice but to take an online class to fulfill a requirement, she was not pleased.

Having now become more accustomed to the technology, Zhu admits that she would actually like more online options, especially in the summer. “If it’s online, maybe I can take more,” she said. “I’m in a hurry.”

Iyann Mohamed, a senior human biology major, feels that the quality of the education she has received from her online classes has been equal to the education she has gotten from her face to face classes. She was, however, extremely frustrated with a lack of responsiveness from her professor when she asked for help.

Handley is confident that the quality an online education can be equal, if not superior to, face to face teaching if it is done carefully and thoughtfully. “The reality is that the technology is here to stay,” Handley said.