Traditional Colleges Embrace Online Classrooms

by Eric Francis  on Monday, Jun. 25, 2012 12:00 am  

Perched on top of a ridge in North Little Rock, Pulaski Technical College was fit to burst its seams last fall with an enrollment of nearly 12,000 students.

The thing is, a fifth of those students might not even set foot on campus during their two-year pursuit of an associate's degree.

Pulaski Tech had 2,554 students taking only online courses last fall, and that number increased by almost 100 for the spring semester of this year.

"Accessibility is one of the paramount priorities for a community college, and I think the distance education is a very important part of that," said Tim Jones, the director of public relations for the school. "You don't get much more accessible than being able to do your coursework with a laptop at midnight."

Considering that Pulaski Tech is the state's largest and fastest-growing two-year college, being able to teach students online instead of trying to find space in a classroom seems like a cost-saving measure. But online education is growing in Arkansas, as it is around the nation, and the nature of education in the Internet age is rapidly changing.

Mike DeLong, the executive vice president and provost of Pulaski Tech, knows this pretty well, considering he did his doctoral dissertation on online education. But that was during, you know, the dark ages - way back in 2000.

"Nowadays, you can pretty much provide the same kind of resources as for a traditional student - as far as videos, extra work - to ensure the concepts sink in, if the class is put together right," said DeLong. "Not to say there aren't some schools that don't try to make [online learning] a fancy correspondence course. But if it's done right and the instructor is engaged as they should be, it's just as good as a classroom course."

Just as good? That's a pretty powerful statement. But it's one that's being echoed by educators and administrators all over the state, from community colleges to the boss of the University of Arkansas System, President Donald R. Bobbitt.
Bobbitt, who arrived in November, is a familiar face to advocates of online education.

He's plugged it at many appearances, including the UA Distance Learning Symposium held in April at UALR. There, Bobbitt talked about the changing face of the educational landscape versus the static nature of university education.

‘Disruptive Innovation'

"Our traditional universities are designed around a system that's been in place for hundreds of years," he said, harking back to the medieval roots of universities like Oxford. "As quickly as society is changing ... [we should ask], is this structure appropriate for this period we're about to enter?"

The Internet is a "disruptive innovation" to the education system, Bobbitt said, borrowing a term used by Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, and part of the disruption is coming from for-profit educational institutions that are "playing in our sandbox."



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