Learning Curve: UT Distance Education Sees Huge Growth in Past Decade

 

KNOXVILLE — Jessica Waugh spends her days working as a librarian in the Chesterfield County Public Library in Richmond, Va. At night, she attends classes at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she is completing her master’s of science degree in information science and working on her thesis.

She’s not racking up miles on her car, though. She’s merely logging hours on her computer.

Waugh is among the growing number of students completing their advanced degrees at UT Knoxville via distance education.

The growth of UT Knoxville’s distance education program in the past 10 years has been dramatic. In the 2000-2001 academic year, there were 514 enrollments in distance education; in 2008-2009, there were 2,613. And this fall’s enrollment is up 328 over last fall. (The size is measured in enrollment, rather than students, because one student could be taking multiple classes.)

Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek said he sees distance education as one way of expanding access to the university.

“We are a land-grant institution and we have a mission to serve all of the residents of Tennessee,” Cheek said. “Distance education helps us fulfill that mission.”

It also advances several of the strategic priorities he’s set for the UT Knoxville campus, including enhancing the educational experience for students and expanding outreach services.

Why is distance education becoming more popular?

George Hoemann, assistant dean for distance education and independent study, said the increase in online learning can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the increase in nontraditional students who want to pursue college degrees, the technology of high-speed Internet and the increase in home computer ownership. But the biggest factor, Hoemann believes, is convenience.

“Convenience is not a dirty word,” he said, “as long as convenience is coupled with quality.”

Distance education evolution

Hoemann has watched distance education evolve at UT Knoxville.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in history, Hoemann went to work as a research historian, coming to UT Knoxville in 1988 as associate editor of the Andrew Jackson Papers Project. When he decided to get his master’s degree in library science, he quit his job and attended UT Knoxville full-time for two years. After graduating he was recruited to manage continuing education — and later distance education — for the School of Information Sciences.

Distance education has been around at UT Knoxville for 20 years or more, Hoemann said. Over the years, it has involved paper-based “correspondence course,” videotapes that were shipped to students and “satellite campuses” where students gathered to hear faculty members lecture in person or via teleconference. Today, most distance education courses are offered online.

The School of Information Sciences, which offers the largest number of courses through distance education and currently has 155 people enrolled in those courses, is a good example of how distance education has changed over the years. The school began its distance education program in 1996 using video instruction at four sites in Virginia (Charlottesville, Roanoke, Falls Church and Virginia Beach) and four sites across Tennessee (Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Kingsport). Students would have to travel to one of those satellite classrooms, where they would participate in a live video conference. Exams were taken at the remote site and were mailed to Knoxville.

If the technology failed, a videotape of the lecture would be mailed to the students.

The School of Information Sciences offered its first complete course over the Internet in 1999 and, in 2000, admitted the first cohort of students into a fully Web-based distance education degree program.

Today, across UT Knoxville, 21 programs that lead to a degree or certificate are offered via distance education and, at present, all but one is at the graduate level. The undergraduate program is one that registered nurses take as they seek to earn their BSN, although there are ongoing discussions about adding more undergraduate-level programming to the distance education lineup.

“Distance education is not for everyone and not for every program,” Hoemann said, although he said technology may evolve to the point that anything may be possible — if faculty and students are comfortable with it.

At UT Knoxville, degree programs and courses offered via distance education are the same as the degree programs on campus, taught by the same faculty and governed by the same academic standards and regulations.

‘New-fashioned way’

In many respects, Waugh is the classic online student.

She’s 47, works full-time and is working on a degree to help her advance in her career.

“This is not my first rodeo,” Waugh said, adding that she earned her first master’s degree, in medical ethics, “the old-fashioned way”: She commuted to the University of Virginia.

The master’s degree she’s working on now, because it builds on what she’s already doing, is perfect for her to do online. In fact, she said, “I’m best served if working because my employment experience augments my educational experience.”

Waugh is hoping the specialized training this new degree provides will help her fulfill her dream of becoming a consumer health librarian. Her goal is to start her own business or work in a cancer center.

She’s taken two courses per semester since the fall of 2007 and is on target to graduate in December 2009.

How it works

To go to class, Waugh logs onto her computer at 6:30 p.m. three times a week. Each night, she spends three hours of live “synchronous learning” via a software program called Centra.

Waugh and her classmates around the country and around the world — one of Waugh’s classmates is in India — watch on-screen presentations and hear their instructor lecture via the computer speakers. They are able to “raise their hands” with a mouse click and speak to each other through their computer microphone. They can even react to what’s said with “emoticons,” computer symbol faces with smiles, frowns and other expressions.

Waugh’s thesis is going to be titled “Cooperation in the Commonwealth,” and it will focus on partnerships formed between medical libraries and public libraries to provide the general public with access to cutting-edge health information. She will come to the UT Knoxville campus to defend her thesis. Other than that, the work will be done online.

Associate Professor Suzie Allard is her adviser and they converse frequently via e-mail and phone.

Allard said faculty in the School of Information Sciences usually teach at least one online class as part of their regular course load.

When they first begin online instruction, instructors have the same apprehension as students, she said.

“I wondered if I could teach without students in front of me,” Allard said. “Once you do one class, though, you get the hang of it. It’s very intuitive. It’s amazing.”

One big benefit, Allard said, is that she’s able to continue teaching even when she’s traveling. She just logs on to her computer from her hotel room and teaches like usual.

Waugh, who had to upgrade from dial-up to broadband when she started her online degree, said she’s had no problems accessing her distance education courses — except for the time her cat jumped on her lap during a class and clicked off her microphone.

“Call that ‘user error,'” she said.

But it’s not just the technology that has made Waugh’s experience so good.

“I have been blown away by the quality of instruction I have gotten from this department,” she said. “Every professor I’ve had has challenged me to think outside the box.

“I just so appreciate the convenience and the quality. You usually have to sacrifice something. But this program seems to have it all.”

For more about distance education at UT, see http://distance.utk.edu.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely, (865-974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu)

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