Four years after first offering courses completely through the Internet, Howard Community College is trying out a hybrid: classes run partly on the Web and partly on campus.
It's an idea that's quietly gaining momentum among colleges in the state, as more and more instructors are seeing the Internet as a tool to enhance classes.
Officials at HCC will offer five classes in the fall semester that are taught half on campus and half online, a format they call "CampusWeb."On the schedule are one class each in economics, composition and public speaking, and two in computers.
Administrators figure they'll attract students who enjoy computer-aided learning but also want face-to-face class time.
"We think it's a terrific option, particularly for the student who wants to come to campus anyway," said Virginia Kirk, director of distance learning for HCC. "It combines the best of both worlds."
Students who sign up for courses taught completely online usually are attracted to the convenience and flexibility. The classes offer students instruction at whatever time suits them.
Teachers often flavor the lessons with video selections, animation or other audiovisual learning aids. Students, meanwhile, can carry on class discussions through the Internet.
But the potential exists for feeling isolated, said Barbara Kaplan, executive director of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Assessment at the University of Maryland University College.
UMUC caters to students worldwide who want distance learning, and half of its classes are taught completely through the Web.
"If you're learning online, it takes an awful lot of self-discipline to stick with it," she said. "Across the board, the attrition rate of students can be a little higher than in the traditional [format]."
Online education has grown in popularity at HCC, which first offered such courses about four years ago and last semester had an enrollmentof 619in those classes.
It's one of several community colleges in Maryland where students can earn some associate degrees completely online.
Kaplan sees the hybrid - classes with instruction through both the Internet and the classroom - as "ideal" for certain students.
It's becoming a trend nationwide, she said.
A number of Maryland community college systems - including those in Baltimore, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties - are offering hybrid courses.
Most University System of Maryland institutions either are on the bandwagon or looking to get on, said John Fritz, coordinator of Web development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"The temperature reading right now is that the hybrid is probably the most popular - and growing - form of online learning," Fritz said. "Community colleges are getting into this really big."
Kaplan said such courses make sense for campuses that want to offer extra classes but are cramped for space - as is HCC.
"It really is cost-efficient," she said. "You can get double use out of a classroom."
Kirk thinks CampusWeb courses have a lot of potential, but HCC officials had to drop the two courses they hoped to pilot last semester after too few students signed up. Kirk attributes that to insufficient publicity. But now officials have the entire summer to get the word out to students.
"We're really putting more emphasis on them this time," she said.