— Learning online might be a way of attending class in
your pajamas. But for students like Maria Treto-French,
it means listening to a lecture while watching your
daughter’s volleyball game.
hardest part was making sure I had Internet
access," Treto-French said with a laugh about
juggling working full time, earning her graduate degree
at Northern Illinois University and hustling between
after-school activities of her three children.
is part of a growing number of students — 7.1 million,
according to a January study by the Babson Survey
Research Group — who snap open their devices and log
on to learn. Babson also reported that about 34 percent,
an all-time high, of higher education students take at
least one course online.
is how most online courses work: Students connect to a
website used by the school that allows them access to a
variety of class materials, including but not limited to
readings, lectures, group project plans and questions
for their professor. Most classes are asynchronous —
students aren’t present or doing work at the exact
same time — though techniques and schedules also vary
from school to school. Synchronous programs also exist
but can be more difficult for students with fluctuating
Treto-French attended graduate classes at the School of
Business Management, it was almost old hat to her.
2011, when Treto-French went back to school, she studied
at the largest university in the U.S., the University of
Phoenix. Treto-French sailed through in less than three
years, getting her degree and a certification for
businesspeople overseeing technology in schools — a
move that resulted in a promotion.
many of the students of online courses, Treto-French
said she feels she is achieving not just for herself,
but to be an example.
didn’t want my daughters to see their lives with
limitations," she said.
roots of online learning might be in "distance
learning," a concept that harks back to 1840, when
the Englishman Isaac Pitman created a way for people to
learn shorthand through the mail.
forward through time, distance learning ran parallel to
technology: As methods of communication evolved, so did
the ability to educate huge numbers of people online.
the fiber-optic cables to the present day, and learning
online has exploded: The largest for-profit university
in the U.S., the University of Phoenix, is exclusively
online with more than 300,000 students worldwide.
there is some pushback about the challenges involved in
learning online, huge swaths of people spread out across
the world have been able to learn everything from
business technology to advanced particle physics because
of online courses.
boom has also meant good news to students who hold
ubiquity of online programs has boosted the value of
online diplomas. A Gallup poll released in April showed
that 37 percent of Americans believe online degrees are
as trustworthy as traditional degrees, up from 30
percent in 2011, the first year Gallup posed the
study by the Pew Research Center showed that 51 percent
of college presidents valued online learning equally to
courses taken in a classroom.
general public is more difficult to convince, though —
just 29 percent in that same study said they believe
online learning imparts the same kind of wisdom.
it has just opened up a lot of flexibility for
people," said Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder
of InsideHigherEd.com. "One of the biggest-growing
groups is students who are enrolled at a campus
means that even students paying for real-life face time
with professors are opting for the online class model as
said that especially for professors of MOOCS — Massive
Open Online Courses, offered to many thousands of
students at once — the classes can stretch a professor’s
resources and a university’s campus services to their
is a generation of students that expects an email
(response)," he said. But that is good news for
professors: as tenure-track positions disappear and
universities face funding cutbacks, online positions can
be ideal for professors teaching at universities across
the country to add to their portfolio.
know a lot of adjuncts who are thrilled with online
education — it can open up a lot of opportunities to
them," Jaschik said.
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Joel Shapiro, an associate dean and professor at
Northwestern University, teaching online is a way of
engaging students who might be too timid to raise their
hands in a traditional classroom setting.
a classroom, people sit in the back and don’t talk,
and we’re very accustomed to saying ‘Oh, we’re
sure they’re listening,’ but we don’t really
know," he said. With the variety of tools available
and the many ways for students to engage, he says it’s
easier to tell if the lessons are working for a
many ways, I do prefer teaching online because it’s
easier to get more information about students,"
Shapiro said. "The thing about teaching online that
I love is that we have lots of different technologies
that are specifically built to engage students and so
many ways to appeal to students’ different styles of
technology — from chat windows to discussion boards
— can serve students that might be unreachable or wary
of being put on the spot in a classroom setting, Shapiro
said. "In many ways, we haven’t reached that in a
traditional environment," he said.
Patrick Daubenmire has had a similar experience teaching
his online classes at Loyola University Chicago, where
he is a tenured professor in the chemistry department.
"You may call it ‘distance learning,’ but I
found that in the online environment, students were much
more present and right there," he said.
said he’s looking forward to teaching his usual
Chemistry 101 class online this summer, co-teaching with
another professor online.
a typical lecture hall, Daubenmire said, students are in
a large group of 80 to 100 students, while online
classes are capped by the university at around 30
students. In Daubenmire’s experience, teaching
techniques he enjoys using like small group discussions
are easy to integrate online, as well.
not perfect, but I can assess better the multiple
struggling areas (for students) at the same time"
as he’s teaching, he said.
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Chris Burken, the diploma she’s collecting on May 9 is
about survival. Burken was poised to return to school
eight years ago when she was diagnosed with stage 3
colon cancer at 39.
was the time I wanted to get back into a career,"
she said. "I had to postpone the things I wanted to
classes Burken attended in educational technology may
not have been in person, but her excitement is palpable.
Burken lights up when talking about the cap and gown she
will wear at Northern Illinois University’s
commencement next month as her husband and four children
cheer her on.
lot of people can’t believe I am so into technology at
my age," she said. "It’s really not true
that age has anything to do with it. I think my kids are
really proud of me."
like Treto-French, said taking the classes online was
the only way they were going to happen for her. But the
biggest similarity between the two is not what they
learned or how, it is why. Like so many online students,
the degrees they worked toward were imbued with meaning.
kind of example am I going to be for my kids?"
Treto-French said she asked herself before beginning.
"I made a commitment not only to myself but to be a
good role model to my daughters. I saw other women in
professional roles. I saw them and I said, ‘Why not