Learning large

December 9, 2013

Patricia Edelmann, 41, is a George Mason University graduate who embraced online courses and the challenges (and perks) of remote learning. (Teddy Wolff/For Express)

Joseph Rawls is a proud Hoya, even though he has to cheer on his basketball team from 900 miles away. The 37-year-old is an online graduate student in Georgetown’s family nurse practitioner program, but he lives in Florida.

Instead of hopping on Metro to get to class, Rawls uses his computer and webcam. The single dad and full-time nurse is among a growing cohort of students opting to pursue degrees through the flexibility of remote learning.

When he logs on, Rawls sees a screen littered with video feeds from his fellow students from around the country, in a manner reminiscent of the opening credits of “The Brady Bunch.” The experience is so real that Rawls, who expects to graduate in January, says that “when you give a presentation, your hands still sweat.”

Technology is ushering in a new era for the online classroom. What a decade ago was a solitary experience based primarily on email exchanges between the student and teacher is now a dynamic learning environment that allows students to interact much like they would in person. They can speak to one another during class through the course software, catch up in the virtual hallways of Facebook and Twitter, and organize small study groups in chat rooms.

Universities around the Beltway are responding to the rising popularity of online classes by expanding their online offerings and seeing record enrollment in programs such as the one Rawls is in — which just enrolled its 1,000th student since launching two years ago.

“We have seen a dramatic growth in the number of students enrolled online,” says Jeanne Matthews, chairwoman of Georgetown’s nursing department, who says her students tend to be working professionals. “Students have a lot more flexibility when they don’t have to travel to campus.”

George Mason University offers 25 online degree programs and certificates and is adding at least three more next year, including a new concentration in the online education master’s program and a graduate certificate in geospatial intelligence. The university is focusing on growth in subjects that pertain to Washington’s economy, such as homeland security and social entrepreneurship, says J. Goodlett McDaniel, GMU’s associate provost of online learning.

“We’re trying to not just create an online program for the sake of creating an online program,” McDaniel says.

Washington-area universities are also experimenting with the emerging technology of MOOCs — or massive open online courses — to expand their brand and reach globally. MOOC platforms such as Coursera and Udemy allow anyone, anywhere, to log on and enroll in an upcoming class, often for free. Teachers from prestigious universities and companies are seizing the opportunity to expand their audience and teach on an unprecedented scale.

The experience isn’t as personal as a traditional university course — a MOOC classroom may have tens of thousands of students enrolled in it — but students gain access to knowledge that has traditionally been available to few students at high costs.

Most nearby universities are dabbling with MOOCs at the undergraduate level. Georgetown launched a class on globalization in October. The University of Maryland also offered its first MOOC this year and is partnering with Vanderbilt University to teach a pair of programming classes through Coursera. George Mason University offers several MOOCs on economics and entrepreneurship.

None of those classes offer credit toward a degree. Some universities have started offering credit for MOOCs, but most are still sorting out the logistics of how to make that possible. The Parthenon Group, a global consultancy, recently surveyed 41 universities that offer MOOCs and found that nearly half planned to offer them for course credit within five years.

Theodore Moran, a School of Foreign Service professor who teaches Georgetown’s globalization MOOC to some 20,000 students, says he can imagine course credit being offered through a hybrid of online and in-person learning.

For example, Moran says a professor in Kazakhstan asked for permission to use Moran’s video lectures in a live credit-based course. Moran backs adapting online classes that way, saying: “You can extend real teaching rather than substitute real teaching.”

Facilitating conversation on such a mass scale requires some adjustments. Tests are often multiple choice or graded by the students themselves and then turned in for credit. “Office hours” take the form of a video recording that Moran posts each week, answering the most popular questions from students based on an online poll.

“Let’s not overstate it. This is not a personal course,” he says.

Still, online learning has come a long way, and it is starting to win over skeptics. Debra R. Sprague, associate professor of instructional technology at GMU, teaches online courses in the Master’s in Education program with a typical classroom size of 25 to 28 students. She remembers teaching online classes before those features existed and being turned off by technology’s limitations.

“The tools just weren’t there to do the level of interaction you wanted to do,” she says.

Sprague says technology has advanced so much that she now believes online courses promote interaction more than in-person ones do. She requires students to keep detailed blogs, saying it allows her to get to know them more personally, particularly those who are shy in the classroom. Sprague uses that knowledge to tailor the course.

“I can better differentiate students’ needs online. I create different assignments based on their comfort with technology,” she says.

Sprague still values in-person meetings with her students. Since they come on campus to take other classes, she offers office hours and asks students who are having difficulty in a course to visit her the old-fashioned way.

“If I’m sitting down with them face-to-face in an office, they tend to open up more,” she says.

Patricia Edelmann, 41, from Oaktown, Va., took Sprague’s class. She graduated in August and went on to become a third-grade teacher at the Potomac School in McLean, Va.

Edelmann, a 16-year veteran of corporate finance, enrolled at GMU full time to shift careers. While completing prerequisites, she opted to take online courses so that her days would be free for substitute teaching. She decided she liked the format.

“Online classrooms always put more independence and autonomy on you,” she says. “You don’t have that teacher right there, accessible and live.”

Online discussions aren’t a perfect substitute for the real thing, Edelmann says. Students can’t read one another’s body language, and audio lags can be distracting. “If it gets really quiet, you wonder, ‘Is anyone really listening?’ ” she says.

Her experience in online courses helped Edelmann add technology to her own lesson plans. “We saw the student side of it,” she says.

She is among the next generation of teachers rapidly embracing technology, helping ensure that the virtual classroom is here to stay. AMBREEN ALI (FOR EXPRESS)

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Marissa Payne | December 8, 2013