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PHCC expands distance learning

Responding to students' hectic schedules, the college offers four required introductory classes online. All A.A. degree classes may eventually be available from home.

By RYAN DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


Pasco-Hernando Community College student Krista Wiel-Buker will take this week's psychology class test in her family room.

She will probably take it in the morning, even if one of her children catches the flu bug that is going around.

"I can take the test while they're sick in bed," said Wiel-Buker, 29. "I've set my own schedule."

Wiel-Buker is the kind of student PHCC hopes to start reaching. It is hard for her to get to campus, so she takes her PHCC classes on the Internet.

The college plans to have the core classes required for a two-year degree available by Internet, video or television within three years, said Paul Szuch, vice president for educational services.

Not long after that, Szuch said, he wants students to be able to earn their entire associate of arts degree without attending a single traditional class.

"We're trying to deliver people what they need, when they need it, where they want it," he said.

This semester, the college took a major step toward catering to stay-at-home students.

For the first time, PHCC is offering online classes designed by its faculty: four required introductory classes. Those four classes are in addition to a fifth statewide online class, Introduction to Internet Research, which has been offerred through PHCC since fall of 1999.

Another six classes are available on television through WEDU. Florida junior colleges have been offering television courses, where students watch the classes at home but come to school to take the tests, for more than 20 years, Szuch said.

Five more online classes should be available this fall, Szuch said. The classes cost the same as traditional credit classes.

The growth isn't limited to college-level classes. PHCC is offering online continuing-education classes for the first time this semester. Twenty-five are available, ranging from computer training to debt-elimination techniques, said Anne Arto, PHCC's district coordinator for continuing education.

By summer, the school will offer nearly 1,000 more continuing education computer training classes online, Szuch said. They will be offered through two companies that sell classes across the country.

A consortium of Florida community colleges received state funding this year to supply the classes, Szuch said. PHCC's share is $27,000.

PHCC has not yet determined whether the students in its online classes were attending the college anyway, Szuch said. He said he does not intend for the computer to replace the campus. He expects the online classes will draw students who could not have otherwise taken a class.

Making classes available at home is especially important at a school where the average student age is 26.5. Some students, such as Wiel-Buker, have kids. Many students have jobs, Szuch said.

"If you're working all day Monday through Friday, when can you take a class?" Szuch said.

A week of class for an online student -- much like a student in a traditional class -- depends on the teacher.

Each week the students in Prof. Gary Oesch's Introduction to Psychology class must log onto one of two online discussion sections, take an online quiz that is instantly graded, read a chapter in the textbook and view a CD-ROM lecture, which is essentially a video-enhanced presentation of the class notes.

They must also periodically read articles and e-mail their professor a review.

"They're probably spending about the same amount of time as a student in a regular class," said Oesch, who has been teaching at PHCC for 16 years.

The advantages: They get more practice quizzes, and they have easier access to their professor. Oesch has an e-mail address dedicated solely to the class.

The new technology comes at a cost. Over the past few years, PHCC has spent tens of thousands of dollars on training, employee time and equipment. Though most of it was not spent specifically to get classes on the Internet, the online classes have grown from the expenditure, Szuch said.

The only clear dollar figures: Faculty were paid $1,296 to develop each class and will earn $1,296 to teach them, Szuch said.

The new way of teaching has also brought about new challenges such as how to test, how to promptly answer student questions and how to develop a student/professor relationship.

PHCC wants its online classes to teach as much or more than traditional classes, Szuch said.

"We don't want it to be lecture notes on a screen for someone to read, take a test and pass," Szuch said.

Providing a personality is Floyd Ballard's job. Ballard took a newly created post, director of instructional technology, in fall of 1999.

He teaches the teachers how to teach.

He pushes professors to have instructions available for students unfamiliar with technology. Even the little touches, such as putting a video introduction from the professor online, can help create a better learning environment in this classroom known as the Internet.

"That takes the distance out of distance learning," Ballard said.

Wiel-Buker, who also is taking English Composition I by computer this semester, said the Internet classes are actually more personable than the traditional classes she used to take.

"You have no choice but to have one-on-one," she said. "If I e-mail the teacher, he has to e-mail me back, not the whole class.

"You don't have to set up a time to talk to him, and you don't have to set up a time to go see him.

"I can cook dinner while I'm having a discussion."

- Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached at 800-333-7505 ext. 3452 or by e-mail at rdavis@sptimes.com. Discuss this and other issues in our forum at www.sptimes.com/pascoforum.

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