Online courses growing more popular at CSUN

Jeremy Foster

Close to 300 fully online or partially online courses were added to the CSUN curriculum in the past year, according to the Office of Online Instruction at CSUN.

“Online courses are contagious,” said Professor Randal Cummings, director of the Online Instruction program. “I’d say online courses are growing at a rate from 20-25 percent a year. In the past years it was step-by-step with 40 a year to now 300.”

Cummings said eventually some whole academic programs will be offered online. The liberal studies department, for example, is considering putting the entire General Studies option (non-teaching track) online.

“We hope to offer the program beginning Fall 2008, if the program is deemed feasible,” said Fariba Farzan-Schmitt, special programs director of the liberal studies department, in an email. “Many of our General Studies Option courses are already being offered online and we highly encourage our students to enroll in these online classes.”

The growing popularity of online courses is primarily a result of CSUN being a commuter-school with a “very strong working-class demographic,” Cummings said.

CSUN senior Tamara Johnson is currently taking an English course and a geography course fully online. She said taking courses online is a matter of convenience because they let her skirt the hassle of driving to CSUN but she insisted that online courses are no less challenging than traditional classroom courses.

“I think online courses require more work than traditional lecture classes because of the fact that you have to keep up with your reading materials to be able to participate in discussion boards or chat sessions,” she said. “Your grade is dependent upon your participation, whereas in a lecture you can just blend into the class and not participate at all.”

Johnson’s English class meets up once a week in a live chat room and her geography class communicates through a bulletin board provided by WebCT.

WebCT, in use by CSUN since 1999, is a password-protected online resource that allows professors to use chat rooms, bulletin boards, and storage areas for course content to conduct a class online.

CSUN kicked up the online course technology several notches last year when it began using Elluminate, which is an online interactive classroom that allows for application sharing, whiteboard, video sharing, voice-over Internet, and chat room closed-captioning for the hearing impaired.

Cummings said not all online courses use the same format.

“Generally there are two modes of online delivery,” he said. “Synchronous online courses will have a portion of the class to meet in real time. Now that we have Elluminate, increasingly faculty will be using that. With asynchronous courses, class communication takes place on bulletin board. They participate in forums but the communication isn’t done in real time.”

Cummings was one of the first instructors to teach an online course back in 1997. He taught a few “hybrid” courses, which were a mix of online and in-person courses, before he transitioned into his first fully online course in 1998.

“When I first did it, I think I was a bit frightened about the possibility of engaging students,” he said. “I was afraid of how (I would) catch their attention if they didn’t catch my jokes. Teaching in a classroom is sometimes like squirrel juggling. You have to grapple for the attention of everyone. But I found that it was one of the deepest, most rewarding experiences I’ve had.

“The online students in 1998 were themselves very progressive technologically. They were all self-starters and motivated and were very hungry for the material. So the Internet becomes a great place because it’s so information-rich. Your students are actually bringing back as much information as you can dish out,” Cummings said.

Some professors express ambivalence about the educational quality of online courses. Professor Michael Swift, who teaches Geography 101 online, is one of them.

“From my somewhat limited experience, online courses as opposed to lecture courses are much more limiting to one’s overall educational experience because there’s limited personal communication between student and teacher and a constant environment of misunderstanding,” he said. “It has also been my experience that most students enrolled in online courses lack self-motivation or are unable to learn independently. I’m constantly surprised by how infrequently some of my students actually log-on to the class homepage. I suppose this is the online equivalent of missing a class.”

Bruno Osorno, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said he finds that some of his students respond better to online courses, while others prefer in-person.

“We have different learning styles and for some students, online learning is good, while for others it is not,” he said. “I have received comments from my graduate students that they prefer the in-person lectures, but since most of them work and travel sometimes, online teaching is more convenient.”

Bruno said many engineering courses used to broadcast their lectures via a microwave link and Elluminate provides the same experience but at a better quality and at a more affordable cost.

Alumna Catalina Fillipakis took eight online courses in her last semester at CSUN.

“My last year at CSUN was a more ideal time to take online courses. Parking was horrible and online courses just seemed very flexible,” she said. “But in the beginning I thought it was important to go to school and make connections and meet the professors. You need that interaction to succeed.”

Cummings speculated that advancing technology, particularly mobile devices, will continue to change the face of online courses.

“I think we’re going to see a huge move toward podcasting and handheld devices where you can take the material on the go,” he said. “Podcasting means you have these feeds that you can download from a podcast subscription onto you iPod. You’ll be able to listen to the lecture materials while you’re riding your exercise bike in the gym.”