NWC News Desk

Online classes: not what you think

Posted March 18, 2009

P O W E L L,  W y o. - Pick the activity that doesn't belong: 1)Working up a sweat on a two-mile run; 2)Analyzing data in a biology lab; 3)Watching a YouTube video; 4) Listening to an iPod; 5) Taking an online college class.

It's a trick question - they all belong because they're all activities students are engaging in this semester through online classes at Northwest College. If you think an online class means lots and lots of reading, followed by tests and more reading, or that the only reason to take a class over the Internet is because you can't make it to campus, it's time to rethink.

This spring, NWC students are taking Internet classes like "Principles of Biology" and an associated lab, "Rock & Roll - Its History & Culture," "Diet and Exercise," " Nursing IV" and "Beginning Digital Photography," just to name a few of the nearly 50 classes offered online.

Multi-media technology has upended the old notion that online classes can never be more than the "next best thing" to campus classes where students and faculty interact face to face. And according to Scott Horton, NWC's instructional technology coordinator, many of the technologies developed for online education are now being utilized in traditional lecture classes to enhance learning and improve student success.

"When faculty who teach online classes have a particular topic that is hard to convey in writing, we'll often make a video where we explain or demonstrate the topic," Horton said. "It's called a vodcast. Students can watch it on a computer anytime that's convenient for them or download it to their iPod or MP3 player and take it with them. What's interesting is that teachers in traditional classes are now vodcasting, too, so their students can review particularly tough concepts or lectures, even after they saw the original lecture in class. Students are telling us how much this practice is helping them with their comprehension."

The vodcast lectures have been especially well-received in math classes, both online and on campus. Podcasts (audio only) are another popular feature in both Internet and traditional classes. Many NWC students who are active on competitive teams (athletics, forensics, livestock judging) appreciate the ability to download lectures they've missed while traveling so they can be caught up when they return to class.

Multi-media technologies also allow faculty to take advantage of the tremendous educational resources available on YouTube and other online sources. "For example," Horton said, "I use a great YouTube video in my online digital photography class that explains depth of field and other concepts in a graphical way that would be hard for me to match."

But what about an online biology lab? That's where John Campbell, an NWC professor of biological sciences, goes in the opposite direction of technology - back to basic materials that can be found in almost any home.

"The biology class I teach online is for non-majors," Campbell said. "These students don't need to learn lab skills (like how to precisely measure one milliliter of liquid) for use in future lab classes, but they need to employ the same critical thinking process as in an on-campus lab. My online students still gather, look at and analyze data, interpret patterns and use logic, but they do it using simple things and household materials."

Campbell, who was skeptical at first of the efficacy of online instruction, was surprised to find that participation levels are actually higher in online discussion sessions. He believes many students who would be too shy to participate vocally in a typical classroom setting are less inhibited in an online venue. Campbell was also surprised to find that he gets to know his students better in the online setting than in traditional on-campus classes.  He's found that most of his students tend to be active in their online class between 6-11 p.m., so he's adjusted his schedule to be online during that time in order to give students immediate feedback to questions and discussions.

Scott Feyhl, a retired professor of health, outdoor, and physical education at NWC, now teaches "Fitness Walking" and several sections of "Diet and Exercise" online from his home in Red Lodge, Mont. He says his online students get the same content as on-campus classes, plus in most cases, a lot more individualized help. Like Campbell, he's noticed that he gets to know his students on a much more personal level in the online setting.

Many NWC students are telling their teachers they find online classes as enjoyable as going to a class on campus. And for many site-bound students, the online classes and blended classes (campus-based classes that utilize online technology) offer the only way to stay in school and work toward a degree.

Follow the "Class Schedule" link to find a list of all the Internet classes offered at Northwest College.