Online summer classes see more students

More students than ever took online classes through GW this summer, as the University tries to steady its footing in the virtual classroom.

The University counted 6 percent more undergraduate and graduate enrollments in the University’s growing slate of online courses, according to unofficial data from the Office of Summer Sessions. Most paid about $3,800 for three-credit courses in which students wrote blogs as homework and watched narrated PowerPoint lectures on their personal computers.

The increase in online enrollment surpassed the 2.4 percent growth in summer credit hours overall – showing robust growth for the University’s decade-old summer course program at a time when GW is considering how to develop its virtual future.

“What we’re seeing this year across the board is more courses coming from different disciplines, different schools and more graduate students participating,” said Georgette Edmondson-Wright, director of the Office of Summer Sessions.

For students, the online format allows unmatched flexibility for study location, but little help from the financial aid office. Only students who qualify for federal loans, like the Stafford program, can access aid for summer classes. While the University has mostly focused on expanding online options for graduate students during the year, summer is just about the only time undergraduates can take an online course.

Erin Hunzeker, a sophomore international affairs major, traveled from her San Diego home to visit her father in Salt Lake City and her grandparents in Los Angeles while taking her introduction to world history online course this summer.

“It’s kind of a trade-off,” she said. “If you’re taking a class in a classroom setting, you’re getting more from the teacher and the class discussions. But if you’re taking it [in the] summer online, there’s a lot more flexibility.”

As top U.S. universities tinker with online courses – locked in a debate over whether to offer free, open online courses or double down on pricier options – the University is mostly leaning toward expanding online options for students paying for a degree.

The Board of Trustees funneled $2.3 million into expanding programs using online and hybrid models two years ago. The cost-saving Innovation Task Force has also recommended converting 35 graduate programs to hybrid courses over the next five years to increase enrollment and tuition dollars flowing into a University that is dealing a city-imposed enrollment cap.

“The conversation [about online courses] is going rapidly way beyond summer [classes],” Edmondson-Wright said. “What I would say is, we’re still trying to figure it out.”

The University is also adding staff in the office that helps organize and design online courses, the Online Learning Initiative – part of the Teaching and Learning Collaborative. The OLI is searching for a new assistant director this year and recently added a new instructional designer, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Stephen Ehrmann said.

Ehrmann said the University has gradually improved the quality of online courses, mostly using threaded discussions and email assignments from older online courses and now encouraging collaboration via BlackBoard and Skype.

Professors are noticing an increase in interest for online summer courses, too. Political science professor Christopher Deering said this was the first time in his four years of teaching online summer courses that his Introduction to American Politics class filled up.

But he said, while the courses have proven popular for professors and students because of their portability, they can sometimes cause headaches. He said there’s more room for students to use “travel snafus” as excuses, and the BlackBoard system often is “clunky.”

“I don’t know too many people who like BlackBoard very much,” Deering said. “Depending on your level of creativity and facility with technology gizmos, there’s a limit of what you can do there to keep students engaged and entertain them at the same time.”

But, he added, “It works for me. It works for students. My evaluations in this course are better [than] in the live course.”

If students can accept some lagging technology and expensive credit hours, online courses are worth it, senior Amanda Eichner said.

Eichner, a student in the GW School of Business, has taken seven online courses at GW, using summers back home in Los Angeles to rack up requirements that will allow her to graduate a year early.

“Online classes are a bit more expensive than during the year, but it saves a lot from living expenses. D.C. is so expensive, and rent [prices] are ridiculous,” Eichner said. “I love coming home in the summer and seeing all my friends and family, so at first it was, ‘Let me get some classes out of the way and give me some leeway,’ and that led into graduating in three years.”

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