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Point-and-Click Learning

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the last 11 years, Patricia Delkhaste has wanted to take a class at Moorpark College. She can, after all, see the school from her backyard.

But the schedule of a single working mother doesn’t always allow for college course work.

That changed for her last year, however, when Delkhaste found out that the college was offering a spring semester course on the Internet.

“You just walk over to your computer and turn it on,” she said.

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She is now enrolled in the first online class to be offered by the Ventura County Community College District, or any other institution of higher learning within the county. The successful delivery of a point-and-click course is likely to mean more Internet instruction in the future.

Skeptics of Internet learning programs, however, worry that an electronic education could be too virtual and undermine the quality of higher education.

For now, county educators are keeping a close eye on the inaugural online course, Introduction to Business and Economics. But Gary Izumo, a professor of business, intends to make the online course a hit with both students and colleagues.

In many ways, Internet courses are much like television courses, which colleges have offered for decades.

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In both cases, students take lessons independently, from their own homes. They follow a syllabus--available on the Internet with the online course--and get assigned readings and papers. Although most of the work is completed electronically, the online class--like students in TV courses--meets in person three times before the end of the semester.

With television courses, those meetings provide the only chance for students to communicate among themselves or with their teacher.

But in an online class, students and teacher meet in cyberspace once a week for discussion--in an online chat room, rather than a classroom on campus. For an hour, Izumo fields questions, and students type in their opinions of the week’s lesson.

Because of the relative anonymity, many of the 11 students in the class are more willing to participate.

“I think there are a lot of cultural and social issues that come into the classroom with each student, and the boundaries aren’t there when you’re online,” said Mark Byram, who is taking the online course and two traditional classes at Moorpark College.

Online class assignments are due almost every day of the week. The small papers are posted on the course Web site, where students can read each other’s work. An electronic time stamp on the papers shows when they are turned in.

Izumo requires students to give feedback to their classmates and post written responses.

“That’s how the whole class is set up, so everyone can learn from each other,” said student Keta Roberts, also a working mother.

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The operation of the class itself has been a learning experience. Early in the semester, Izumo spent hours teaching students how to get into the World Wide Web and download information they would need to keep up with the course work. Malfunctioning e-mail was also a hurdle Izumo and his students had to contend with.

But after a few weeks, they worked out most of the kinks.

“It hasn’t been without its prices and some challenges,” Izumo said. “But today, I think it is working. And I am hoping that we will continue progressing, and at the end of the course, I think we’ll be able to say . . . we did cover the content of the course.”

Moorpark College faculty members remain cautiously optimistic, waiting to see what happens with Izumo’s class before recommending an expansion of the online curriculum.

For academics, there is still uncertainty about the effectiveness of online instruction.

“How do you evaluate them? How do you know that they are just as effective as a regular content course?” said Elton Hall, president of the faculty senate. “The opinions in the senate ranged from, ‘Sure we should give anything a try,’ to a real concern and worry to, ‘Let’s not give anything a try.’ ”

Dishonesty is another concern. Some educators and officials fear that students who rarely see teachers and submit all their work electronically will have more of an opportunity to cheat.

Students in Izumo’s class take issue with that notion.

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“I’m sure that anyone could take advantage of any situation,” Roberts said.

Moorpark College isn’t the only campus sorting through Internet learning issues. Statewide, more than 1,000 Internet courses are offered through community colleges and four-year universities. They can be accessed through California Virtual University, a consortium of schools offering online instruction.

While Moorpark College is still experimenting, some schools offer as many as 60 online classes, said Larry Toy, a member of the board of directors for the California Virtual University and the president of the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

“We are noticing that it is growing by several hundred courses a year,” Toy said.

Just as troubles with technology needed to be worked out in Izumo’s class, state educators are trying to figure out how to make Internet learning effective.

Accreditation, which certifies that a school is meeting academic standards set by a regional association, is one key stumbling block. It is still not clear how the role of accreditation will change with online instruction delivery. Some experts would like assessors to measure both class procedures and student performance when accrediting a course, which could be troublesome when it involves online students.

At the moment, the faculty senates at each college and university in the state are deciding whether to approve Internet classes. This has kept faculty members involved in a process they fear could be taken away from them, Toy said.

There is still plenty of room for growth and change in the area of online instruction. Just a few years ago, educators and legislators hoped Internet classes would be a major source of income. Having hundreds of students enrolled in online classes would lessen the demand on campus facilities. That could bring in big bucks for a public school system that always seems to be facing financial hardship.

“I think that was a hope rather than based on reality,” Toy said. “At this point, I think people are finding that even though there is a long-term savings in capital expenses . . . the operational cost of an online course could be more expensive or at least as expensive.”

Educators had also hoped that more Internet learning programs would help alleviate the wave of students expected to flood California’s universities in the next decade.

“At this point, it is only a very very small part of the whole solution,” Toy said.

But don’t underestimate the impact that Internet learning programs will have on institutions of higher learning, experts say. The new courses are expected to draw students, like Delkhaste and Roberts, who wouldn’t normally be able to go back to school to improve job skills.

“It’s the first major change in how we do the business of higher education that has come along in a long time,” said Patrick Callan, president of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “Those who want to dismiss this are not very realistic, and those who say this is going to solve our problems are also a little off kilter.”

Despite the concerns at Moorpark College, faculty members and administrators generally seem increasingly willing to expand Internet instruction. “I definitely believe we are going to be offering more online classes,” said Eva Conrad, executive vice president of student learning at Moorpark College.

Many agree that such courses could turn out to be just another way to teach--the bottom-line goal of every school.

“What people are beginning to discover is online doesn’t mean some mass force of education,” Hall said. “It means an alternative way of educating people very intensely. If that turns out to be true, that’s very good because it means we have additional ways of educating people.”


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