By Lara Korte, Statesman
Joseph TenBarge, the University of Texas’ assistant dean for instructional technology and facilities, runs something similar to a live TV studio. There are cameras, producers and even sometimes a “live studio audience.”
But when the lights switch on and the camera starts rolling, it’s not a host who does the talking — it’s a professor, broadcasting a lesson to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students watching from their computers.
Nearly a quarter of UT students took an online class in 2018, up more than 80% from 2015. It’s a big leap for the school, but it’s not alone: across the country, hundreds of colleges are increasing their offering of online courses, encouraging students to take advantage of the convenience and flexibility that comes with “distance education.” Recently released federal data show 34.7% of all college students in the country took at least one online class in the fall of 2018.
“In 2015, we still only had a couple courses,” TenBarge said of the studio where professors can broadcast lectures, record podcasts and host virtual office hours. “Now, we’ve grown to providing over 5% of the university’s undergraduate credit hours.”
While it’s unclear what proportion of all Texas students are enrolled in an online class, data from individual institutions show that number is growing. At some Texas universities, more than half of all students are enrolled in an online class.
Austin-area universities also have seen a significant boom in online enrollment in the past several years. Along with UT, Texas State University, Concordia University Texas and Huston-Tillotson University have seen more than a 50% increase in online enrollment since 2015.
“I think more and more institutions are becoming aware of the need for online instruction to meet the work and family-life balance,” said Vedaraman Sriraman, associate vice president for academic affairs at Texas State. Since 2015, the school’s online enrollment has increased nearly 86%.
Sriraman attributes the boost, in part, to the fact that the school has worked to match its degree programs to the demands of the Texas workforce. Current online offerings include a Master of Science degree in data, analytics and information technology.
“A great majority of students will want a face-to-face interaction,” Sriraman said. “However, you always run into students who either their family life or their work life will not allow them to partake in face-to-face.”
For traditional undergraduate students, Texas State offers required core curriculum classes, like history and political science, online. While the price of online classes is on par with real ones at most universities, costs do vary depending on the course. At Texas State, for example, some courses include a distance learning fee of about $50 per credit hour, Sriraman said.
Learning technology has developed rapidly in recent years and is still going strong, said Drew Scheberle, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce senior vice president of talent development. The evolution of tech in education has meant more people have greater access to higher education, Scheberle said.
“It’s happening in Austin, and, like a lot of things, it’s happening more quickly,” he said.
It has taken a few years for universities to hop on the online learning bandwagon. Clarissa Rosas, a Concordia University associate professor, remembers in 2000 when she proposed the first online class at a small Ohio university.
“They kind of thought I was nuts,” she said. “But I had a lot of mothers that were coming to my classes, and they were having a hard, hard, time with the 5 o’clock to 8 o’clock classes.”
Now, at Concordia, Rosas teaches the majority of her doctorate and master’s level classes online. But, even with the evolution of technology, some still aren’t believers. A 2017 study from researchers at Stanford University found online courses can improve access, yet they also are challenging, especially for students considered less prepared for college.
For such students, taking an online class increased the likelihood of dropping out the next semester, the researchers found.
Professors like Rosas say technology and accrediting processes have become more robust in past years, making online classes just as valuable as in-person ones.
At Concordia, online enrollment has risen about 57% since 2015.
For students like Matthew Melendez, a 32-year-old father of two with a part-time job, a college education wouldn’t be possible without online classes. He’s about four months away from graduating, and said he earned more than 90% of his credit online.
“To see that I can work school in and have my life at the same time, that was one of the major factors I was looking for,” Melendez said. “Being the main caretaker for my kids while my wife worked, I had to be able to make sure I could focus on kids and focus on work and still do what I needed to do.”
Many local universities said they plan to expand online courses in the future. As technology becomes more sophisticated, educators expect to see more universities and students embrace online learning.
“I think it’s just going to continue to grow,” Rosas said. “It’s not going away.”