Attendance is declining in some USM classes and the professors are encouraging the absentees.
The University is offering a number of classes over the Internet, allowing students to attend classes without coming to campus.
Professors are now able to hold Web classes by posting class notes, assignments, announcements, and quizzes on the Internet as a supplement to their live courses. In the past year, USM has begun to offer completely asynchronous courses, or courses which use only the Internet and video media, allowing students to do course work on their own schedule without setting foot on campus.
John Broida, an associate professor in the Psychology Department received a grant from Pew Charitable Trusts and the Center for Academic Transformation to institute asynchronous courses at the University. After making a trial run with his General Psychology I class in the spring of 2000, Broida began offering the online course as a regular option. Since then, several other professors have followed suit and asynchronous classes have been introduced to the English, Astronomy, Communication, and Education Departments.
Broida believes that Web and asynchronous classes are important as an option for students whose circumstances don’t allow them to attend classes. Distance learning offers increased flexibility for the University’s substantial population of non-traditional students as well as opening the door to students with physical handicaps who may not be able to travel to campus.
“The online or a-synch is not designed for a traditional student,” he explains. “If you have Tourette’s syndrome, do you want to come to class? If you have twins, do you want to come to class?”
Despite considerable benefits, asynchronous learning is not without drawbacks. Opponents suggest that online courses decrease interaction between students and professors and allow for the possibility of cheating.
Undeclared sophomore Brendan Augustine took Dr. Joseph Hearns’ General Psychology class in the spring of 2000 and got his assignments, quizzes, and exams online. Class time was scheduled, but with Dr. Hearns’ notes available online, attendance was often minimal. Augustine admits that he was among the absentee students, but appreciated the opportunity to see the professor when he had questions.
“I just need a teacher in front of me to talk to if I need to,” he says.
As for cheating, Augustine noted that quiz grades were easily manipulated. “There was a way you could cheat and give yourself a hundred on every one,” he says. Students were allowed to take quizzes more than once to improve their performance.
The problem, says Augustine, was that the questions were arranged in a different order, but did not change. Students could get the answers from the initial quiz and use them to ace the second. However, students took exams only once.
Professor Broida doubts that cheating is a significant problem. Though it is possible for a student to get someone else to do the work, Broida believes the amount of time and work required for Web and asynchronous classes makes it unlikely.
In response to the problem of multiple quizzing, Broida uses a Web site that generates questions randomly from a database, so questions are rarely, if ever, repeated.
He also disputes accusations that Internet learning undermines interaction.
“In a large class of 75 or more students, class discussions are generally dominated by one or two students. The use of the [online] forum eliminates the possibility of that kind of domination,” he says. In such an anonymous setting, students are often more comfortable expressing themselves. In online forums, students interact with each other, sharing opinions and citing references to support their positions. It is also an opportunity for those who don’t test well to demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter. “It’s another way of displaying what you know,” says Broida.
Students are also encouraged to interact with their instructors. Professors are available through email in asynchronous courses, and in Web classes, low attendance allows students to receive personal attention from professors.
Student response has been positive overall and the new asynchronous courses filled quickly this semester says Ann Clarey, the coordinator for distance education. Her office has been working with professors who are interested in offering asynchronous classes to translate their curriculum to the online format. She expects the roster to continue to grow and encourages interested professors to contact her for more information.
USM is not alone in embracing asynchronous learning. Universities around the country have begun to offer distance learning as an option. The New School University in New York began offering asynchronous courses in 1993, and the program has exploded in the years that followed. NSU has approximately 30,000 traditional students, and around 4,000 students enroll in asynchronous classes each year.
Stephen Anspacher, the associate provost of the New School Online University, is pleased.
“Overall, I would say our experience with the program has been excellent,” Anspacher says.
Even supporters such as Anspacher and Professor Broida recognize that Internet education has its limits. They agree that the social aspect of the campus experience can be an important part of student life.
“I don’t think online is necessarily the best way to do an entire undergrad degree,” says Anspacher.
The Internet may not be the perfect classroom for everyone, and many students will continue to shy away from these high-tech classes. For those students whose lives demand flexibility however, the expansion of asynchronous courses will offer some relief. Professor Broida is happy to oblige.
“Students can take the course as they have time, not when it’s convenient to me,” he says.
Staff writer Meghan Conley can be contacted at: [email protected]