ó It was the sort of discussion that happens hundreds
of times a day in Americaís college classrooms ó an
English professor and her students grappled with Percy
Bysshe Shelleyís poem, "To a Skylark,"
trying to pry meaning from words written nearly two
conversation, though, had a decidedly 21st-century
twist. It was conducted in cyberspace, with the
professor, Sara Cordell of the University of Illinois at
Springfield, speaking over a chat room audio feed, and
the students typing their impressions into a text box.
the session lacked the intimacy of a face-to-face
exchange, it nonetheless seemed to produce the
illumination Cordell was after. As it ended, having
uncovered the poemís themes of joy, loss and the
limits of human existence, one student wrote, "I
see so much more than before."
think students learn a lot more in my field
online," Cordell said. "They have to take a
lot more responsibility for their learning. They canít
just sit there and stare at me and pretend that
literature is a spectator sport."
education at the college level has exploded over the
last decade, with one survey finding that about a third
of all students today take at least one class online.
The humanities, though, remain a relative rarity in the
online bachelorís degree programs offered by Illinois
universities focus on practical or professional
subjects, such as business, nursing or criminal justice.
The National Center for Education Statistics found that
only 14 percent of humanities majors take courses
online, compared with 27 percent of computer science
aided by a grant meant to further such studies, the
University of Illinois at Springfield designed online
degree programs in three fields ó English, history and
Chicago-area students enrolled in the courses say their
experiences have taught them that online education can
be far more than just a convenient substitute for
classes have really given me a voice, a strong
voice," said English major Anila Niaz, 22. "I
probably never would have the guts to make a comment in
Schroeder, director of the universityís Center for
Online Learning, Research and Service, said the programs
are structured so that students accumulate a year of
full-time credit before starting Internet-based classes
at the school.
said thatís partially for reasons of economy ó
Springfield offers no tuition break for online classes,
which can cost up to $387 per credit hour ó and
partially because administrators think there is value in
students making a "seamless" transition from
used to mean taking classes in a brick-and-mortar
classroom, he said, but increasingly, that is not the
technology has changed, the experience of the students
have changed, so I donít have a strong opinion as to
whether it should be face to face or not,"
major Nancy Nocera, 23, an aspiring teacher from
Mundelein, Ill., is one student who has conducted nearly
her entire college career online. She took a few
traditional courses at the College of Lake County after
she graduated high school but was uncomfortable speaking
in class, fearful her instructor or fellow students
would pick apart her comments.
she shifted to strictly online courses, earning an
associateís degree at the college before enrolling in
Springfieldís program in 2011. She said the classes,
which allow students to interact via Facebook-like
discussion boards, emphasize thoughtfulness rather than
always very quiet in class," she said. "I donít
want to get into a heated argument about something. Lots
of people are really quick to want to debate (a point)
with you. In discussion boards, I feel like I have a
voice because Iím able to express myself with
confidence. I can tell someone why I think Iím right,
or I can agree with someone and elaborate on their
Borucki, 34, of Naperville, Ill., turned to online
classes because she works full time as a radio station
audience development director. But Borucki, who attended
Lake Forestís now-defunct Barat College before
starting her career, said she thinks the Internet
provides a superior forum for studying literature.
classes kind of get a bad rap for being not as complete
as an in-person class, but I think you actually end up
learning more because youíre not wrapped up in a
conversation that changes five or 10 times," she
said. "In an online class, everyone has to stop and
think of what theyíre saying."
online instructors, like history professor Elizabeth
Kosmetatou, require a minimum level of participation on
discussion boards (her rule is three substantial posts
per week, she said). But when a class is really rolling,
the conversations go far beyond that.
my most successful class, we ended the semester with
4,000 messages," she said.
all professors are converts. Political science professor
Richard Gilman-Opalsky, whose department will soon allow
online students to minor in the subject, has no desire
to teach via the Internet, saying it canít match a
live classroom that engages students "in gestures
and emotions Ö to get people feeling, not just
views the rise of Internet classes as evidence of the
creeping privatization of higher education, in which
money and popularity, rather than scholarly importance,
drives academic decisions.
donít think the physical campus is going to disappear
anytime soon, but I do think the pressure (to teach
online classes) is getting greater, and a lot of it is
based on economics," he said.
for a humanities professor, thereís a flip side to
being exposed to the marketplace, as philosophy
professor John Barker can attest.
at this institution, thatís the only way weíll have
a viable philosophy major," he said. "We just
donít have that many students on the ground interested
in doing philosophy. Online, we have a much bigger
market. We can pull students in from all over."
how Niaz came to the school three years ago. She was
living in South Dakota and wanted to study something
other than the engineering classes offered by the local
a Chicagoan, she has been able to keep up with her
studies while working full time and moving from town to
town ó even while traveling to Turkey for a family
who is on track to graduate this year, said her online
classes have been just as rigorous as any she has taken
in person, requiring group projects, presentations,
close readings of poems and, of course, plenty of
were classes I probably got more out of than even an
on-campus class," said Niaz, who would like to
become a teacher. "Not all classes in which
students sit together can work as well as that."