University City

Lower costs and convenience drive rise in online classes

Lately, more and more college students roll out of bed a few minutes before class, pour a cup of coffee and travel only as far as their computers to begin learning.

Once offered only in scant numbers and with limited subjects, online classes today have become more popular than ever at colleges and universities, offering students an alternative to the face-to-face style of traditional classes.

According to a 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, 5.6 million college and university students nationwide were enrolled in at least one online course in the fall 2009 term.

Those numbers have grown considerably each year. In 2008, 4.6 million students signed up for at least one course. In 2007, 3.9 million students did so.

"They're more popular, and (the university is) adding online classes every semester," Catherine Duncan, a graduate assistant at the UNC Charlotte University Center for Academic Excellence, said of UNCC's online course offerings.

Duncan teaches workshops for students interested in learning more about online classes. The next workshop will be offered 2 p.m. Nov. 9 on the third floor of the Fretwell Building.

"Not having to commute, not having to manage getting to class, the prices of parking permits - I think that's a draw for some of the students," said Duncan.

Taking online classes eliminates most of the fees students who attend traditional classes must pay. For example, a semester of 12 or more credit hours taken through online courses would cost $1,320 in tuition; adding fees, the total would come to $1,500.50.

But a semester of 12 credit hours of traditional classes on the main campus would be $1,620 in tuition, for a total of $2,720 including fees.

Online courses benefit more than just the wallet. A report from the U.S. Department of Education determined students who learn online outperform their peers.

Those who mix a combination of both, what's called hybrid classes, do even better, according to the report.

"A hybrid class can be various formats," said Duncan. "There are requirements that need to be fulfilled online outside of class, such as homework, tests, even virtual classes, but complemented with in-person, face-to-face classroom time."

Most courses at UNCC, Duncan said, are hybrids.

"Professors really like them," she said. "I would say 90 (percent) to 95 percent of classes at UNCC use Moodle, which creates that hybrid element to any traditional classes."

Moodle is a computer program that helps professors create Internet-based courses. Professors like it, Duncan said, because it cuts down on their paperwork. For example, the software automatically grades multiple-choice tests created through Moodle, and Moodle is accessible 24 hours a day.

Although hybrid learning has become the norm at UNCC, Duncan warns students to think carefully before signing up for a strictly online learning course.

"Students at first like the appeal of not having to go to class," she said. "But sometimes they can get themselves into trouble for this very reason."