CareerFocus: Online and Distance Learning

Career FocusBy Mary Ann Davis

There is more to distance learning than online courses. Distance learning includes a variety of options where learning happens off-site. At Carroll Community College, students can choose from online, hybrid and video conferencing distance learning courses.   

Given the convenience distance learning offers it has become increasingly popular. However, many confuse convenience with ease only to find distance learning courses are just as challenging as on-campus courses. Before registering for a distance learning course, it is critical to understand what is what is involved and if it is the best option for you.

Online courses involve total online instruction - course content, discussions and assignments all occur online - in which Carroll utilizes its online learning tool, Blackboard.

This spring, Carroll offers over 60 credit online courses ranging across all types of disciplines. They provide students with another option when on-campus sessions fill, as well as meeting the preferred learning style of many learners.

Continuing Education and Training (CET), Carroll's non-credit course area, recently started offering its more popular classroom computer courses online to better accommodate students. Courses can be offered more frequently via online than on-campus, and can run with as few as one student without having to meet the registered student minimum that on-campus courses require.

"Our online courses offer a convenient alternative to our full day and evening courses, " stated Matt Day, coordinator of technology training for CET. "The advantage of our online courses is their year-round availability; allowing students to complete the coursework anytime at their own convenience - day or night."

The online courses are nearly identical to the on-campus courses. "The online courses use the same textbooks and materials as the on-campus courses, and are even taught by the same instructors," stated Day.

CET currently offers MS Office, Introduction to Windows and QuickBooks online, and plans to offer comprehensive instruction, involving all levels, of Adobe Suite.

CET also provides online instructor-based training through two vendors - Ed2Go and Gatlin. Ed2Go offers short-term professional development and personal enrichment training, while Gatlin offers career preparation training leading students to a new career.

"Partnering with these vendors allows us to offer students a much wider selection of online courses and training programs that would be cost prohibitive to develop in-house," stated Karen Merkle, vice president of Continuing Education and Training. As such, nearly 300 Carroll students enrolled in Ed2Go and Gatlin courses last year.

High student satisfaction explains the 12-year relationship with Ed2Go and nearly 6-year relationship with Gatlin. "We chose to work with them because of their expertise and the quality instruction each provides," stated Helen Jones, director of career programs for CET. "It's important to us that our students receive the same quality of training as they would if they took an on-campus course."

Hybrid courses are a combination of online and on-campus learning. How much time is spent online and on-campus depends upon the course.

Hybrid courses are becoming more popular because they offer face-to-face interaction with online convenience. It can be an ideal solution for students who are not completely comfortable with total online instruction, but still looking for self-study convenience.

Carroll offers a variety of hybrid credit courses that meet degree requirements. CET's hybrid courses include computer training for A+ and Network+ certifications and software training on Word and Excel.

Video conferencing involves shared instruction between institutions. For example, another community college might offer a course not offered by Carroll. By partnering with the other college, Carroll's students come to the campus and watch as instruction is happening at the other college. It's convenient for students because they travel locally for the class and don't have to pay an out-of-county registration fee that the host college would charge.

Partnering with other institutions is becoming increasingly popular, because it allows institutions to provide courses and programs that each could not offer on their own.

One such opportunity CET has is with Hagerstown Community College. Hagerstown is a licensed CISCO Academy. Students register through Carroll, yet receive online CISCO instruction from Hagerstown.

CET also partners with Harford Community College for Real Estate and Small Business courses, and Carroll's Miller Entrepreneurial Institute partners with the Maryland Institute for Continuing Professional Education for Lawyers to provide online legal courses.

Maryland Online provides opportunities for Maryland community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities to collaborate and offer students access to credit and non-credit courses, certificates and programs through distance learning.

Before enrolling in a distance learning course, it's important to know if distance learning is the best option for you.

First, distance learning is not independent study. Weekly assignments are typically required by Carroll's instructors - largely as a means of keeping students on pace with the course.

"Probably the most common myth is that online and hybrid courses are easier than on-campus courses," said Susan Biro, director of distance learning.  "Although they are more convenient, they are not easier."

Students should be studying 7 - 12 hours per week for a 3-hour credit course. Studying may include reading and completing coursework online.

According to Biro, some students are surprised by the amount of self-study that is required. However, Carroll provides many measures to help them determine if online or hybrid learning is right for them.

Online tutorials are provided for Blackboard, Ed2Go and Gatlin courses. Blackboard is also demonstrated in the First Advising Session for credit students.

Credit online courses open a week before the semester starts to give students an opportunity to review the syllabus and get a jump start on their coursework. Ed2Go and Gatlin provide course outlines online for students to review and ask questions before registering.

Plus, students can take advantage of the online assessment tool on the college's website. "Students who are visual learners might find distance learning to be a better fit with their learning style, whereas students who prefer hands-on learning may be more comfortable in on-campus courses; although, they could try one online course first to see what it is like," stated Biro.

Distance learning students need to be highly disciplined, organized and dedicated to being successful. Students should log-in at least every other day, complete course work in quiet area, study at their peak time, and reach out to their instructor at the first sign of concern.

Carroll's instructors are very good at reaching out and being accessible to distance learning students. Instructors typically provide an assignment within the first week to encourage student engagement, respond to e-mails on a timely basis, and may offer online chat sessions during their office hours.

Students who have never taken an online course may find it helpful to first try a hybrid course. They experience online instruction while still having face-to-face interaction with the instructor.

Although students do not need to possess advanced computer skills, they do need to have experience with e-mail, Web browsing, uploading and downloading files, and word processing. "Students who have just bought their first computer or have little computer skills, may want to hold-off on taking an online or hybrid course until they have had time to familiarize themselves with their computer or gain more computer experience," stated Biro.

As a result of demand, distance learning course offerings have continued to grow. With the recession and unemployment, people are looking for career training to make themselves more marketable, yet they need training that provides convenience because they are busy working or seeking work, and often raising a family.

"Community colleges tend to be the leaders in distance learning because of the unique demands from the mix of students they serve," stated Biro.

Where only select courses were once offered through Ed2Go and Gatlin, CET now offers all the courses available from each vendor. Credit distance learning course offerings have continued to grow, with enrollments increasing 81 percent over the past five years.

For more information on Carroll's distance learning courses, call 410-386-8430 for credit courses and 410-386-8100 for non-credit courses.

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