CLARKDALE - Imagine an empty college classroom lit with the vapor glow of a lone computer.
While this scenario is not likely anytime soon, the trend is undeniable: Online enrollment at Yavapai College has risen 100 percent over the past five years, with 30 percent of students never setting foot in a classroom.
These figures came from Stacey Hilton, dean, computer technologies and instructional support at Yavapai College during her presentation at the Verde Valley Board Advisory Committee on August 19.
In Hilton's experience, it's a blend of delivering information through technology while at the same time supporting the learning process through face-time that delivers the most effective education.
"Face-to-face classes have an eight percent higher retention rate than online classes," said Hilton. "A survey showed 80 percent of online students have jobs or family concerns. So they miss due dates and figure, 'I can't catch-up so I'll just drop the course.'"
In 2011, Yavapai College received approval to offer degree and certificate programs 100 percent online.
The college now offers nine online degree and 17 online certificate programs, as well as two programs that directly transfer to a four-year institution.
And with all the various delivery options available for taking college courses (see Terms below), the number of students learning purely from inside an actual Yavapai College classroom-and nowhere else-stands at barely over half the total enrollment (a drop of fifteen percent in the past five years).
"In a 2013 study, 25 million potential students are working adults or caregivers who have schedules and responsibilities incompatible with in-class instruction," Hilton said.
And while the jury is still out on the effectiveness of a 100 percent online environment, even employers are weighing-in on the subject.
"An ASU survey when I was dean there found corporations favored young people with online degrees because they don't need supervision," said Albert Filardo, advisory committee member.
While distant education may include online learning, "distant" refers to location while "online" refers to method.
A "synchronous" class has the instructor and students online simultaneously (such as Skype), while an "asynchronous" class has the instructor and students online at different times, at their own convenience.
Meanwhile, a "blended" or "hybrid" class offers online instruction coupled with classroom instruction.
This type of delivery works especially well with students who may otherwise struggle on their own.
"Prescott Valley uses hybrid delivery well," said Hilton.
Challenges facing distant learners
Some of the challenges facing distant learners include lack of adequate computer equipment, lack of broadband internet and a lower retention.
While the college may not be able to solve the first two challenges, what it can do is offer support so students complete their classes.
"Orientation classes, digital literacy classes and providing multiple forms of assessment are some ways we can overcome these challenges," said Hilton.
Too, an isolated online learning experience may cheat students of the synergy of a live classroom experience and the support of fellow classmates.
"They could be skipping discussion boards and missing student-to-student interactions," Hilton said.
Other challenges involve class schedules.
"In many cases you might lose students due to gaps in classes. You have to provide certain pathway for students so they don't lose interest and drop-out when classes are not available.
At Rio Salado College, they have start dates for the same class 50 times a year," Hilton said.
A place where online technology seems to be winning favor with both instructors and students are applications such as "Canvas."
"Canvas" is a web-based Learning Management System (LMS) that allows documents such as course syllabus, handouts, assignments and even posted grades to be stored online by instructors for later retrieval by students.
"This puts the responsibility back on the student," Hilton said.
This type of technology can be found even in traditional classroom settings.
Another way technology can assist the college are "ITTV" classes. In this way, a two-way, three-way or four-way televised class can enable face-time with the instructor, as well as fellow students, with the added advantage of later retrieving a recording of the class via the Internet.
The future may be online, but face time is here to stay
When the advisory committee presented to the county supervisors on Aug. 17, Paul Chevalier, advisory committee chair, noted that online classes, while opening access to many, may not be the "be-all" solution to granting a degree.
"You can do online to some extent, but when someone wants to be a welder or a nurse, at some point, you have to be there," said Chevalier.