Frostburg State offers an online example

Courses: The state university system may look to teaching over the Internet to serve more students.

July 25, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

FROSTBURG - Lauren Pecoraro was four classes short of graduating from Frostburg State University, but she didn't want to go back to the distant Western Maryland campus for summer school.

"I like living at school and doing the whole college thing. During the semesters at school, it's a hopping place," said Pecoraro, who lives in Montgomery County. "But, when everyone leaves, there's nothing to do."

So Pecoraro signed up for Frostburg's online summer courses, which she can take from her home in Damascus while she works as a waitress. She has finished two courses and is taking two more, putting her on schedule to graduate this winter. "It's convenient, and it means I graduate faster, so it's been great," she said.

Pecoraro's approach could be a look into the future. The 13-school University System of Maryland has trouble accommodating its nearly 126,000 students, and the crunch is bound to get worse. Officials estimate that 40,000 more students, part of what's known as a "baby boom echo," will be admitted into the system over the next decade.

Online courses could ease the burden on classrooms and dorms while enticing students to graduate faster by offering them a convenient way to take classes during their breaks.

Starting point

University regents are considering a systemwide Internet learning policy, and one proposal would require students to take a certain percentage of their courses online. Frostburg's model, which offers online classes during the summer and winter breaks, could serve as a starting point.

"Frostburg has been quick to take advantage of the technology," said Patricia S. Florestano, a regent who leads the educational policy committee. "Others will be following."

Frostburg began building its online program almost four years ago, when it received a grant of nearly $260,000 from the state to train its professors and plan courses. The university has since spent an additional $260,000 in grants and its own funds on Internet classes.

Frostburg began offering courses last summer, when it had 17 courses and nearly 270 students. This summer, about 400 students are enrolled in 32 classes. More courses are expected to be added next year.

Students are eligible to take courses from other institutions and transfer the credits, but Frostburg summer school is a better option, many say.

"You don't have to transfer the credit, and the students know the faculty," said John F. Bowman, the university's associate provost, who oversees the online programs.

Faculty are trained for several months before they design their courses. Most classes have assignments every few days, and the professor holds office hours in chat rooms.

In a music appreciation class, students purchase CDs before the class begins. During the semester, the students can download video of their teacher discussing the music, then listen to the CD and discuss it with other class members in a chat room.

Students are also graded on their participation in online chats. "A person could be lost for a whole semester in traditional class, but online, they have to produce," said Oma Gail Simmons, an assistant professor of education.

Undergraduate classes cost about $587, and graduate programs cost about $752.

Students like the classes because they don't have to attend at a specific time or place. That means Pecoraro can do her assignments when she comes home from her job as a waitress late at night or roll out of bed to take a class in her pajamas. "It doesn't take long to get ready," she said.

Financial help

The classes can also help the student financially. Pecoraro can work in Damascus and stay with her family, saving rent and food expenses. Students have taken the courses from as far away as Loudoun County, Va., and even Adak, Alaska.

Brett McIntyre, who will be a junior this fall, opted to take three online courses this fall, even though he lives in nearby Cumberland and could have taken traditional classes that meet in the day or evening.

"But I wouldn't have been able to work," said McIntyre, who logs 35 hours a week at a KFC restaurant, teaches clarinet and does landscaping to help pay tuition.

The online courses also represent a shift in Frostburg's approach to summer school. The campus is beautiful but remote, and it is difficult for students to find summer jobs or internships. "They're not trying to lure people out to Frostburg, which can be hard," Florestano said.

"All in all, it's really quiet," said Matt Pennington, a senior living in Frostburg because his girlfriend lives in the area and he plays in a local band.

Frostburg's model could become part of systemwide policy. Some regents suggest that students be required to take up to 10 percent of their classes over the Internet, although a formal program would not be adopted for at least several months.

Traditionally, schools were left to decide their own Internet programs, but many regents say the system needs a policy to encourage students to graduate quickly because of the expected enrollment spike.

"Now that we have this baby boom echo," said Richard E. Hug, a system regent, "it's time to rethink this strategy."

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