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Virtual learning — Online classes’ popularity surges among Utah students

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Utah college students can hit the snooze button all they want.

Punctuality is a thing of the past and pajamas in class are no longer taboo with the increasing popularity of virtual classrooms.

With more than 2,000 courses now offered online through Utah state colleges and universities, students are signing up in droves for the convenience of online learning instead of traditional classrooms. Nearly 22,000 students across the state signed up for an online class this fall.

"It does help students balance their time schedule between work and school, it allows students to take that one extra course they might not be able to fit in their schedule and it decreases the time it takes to finish a degree," said Chuck Wight, assistant vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah.

At the U., the popularity of online classes has surged since 2000, with a 200 percent increase in the number of students taking courses this semester. Nearly 4,000 students enrolled in the roughly 100 courses offered online this year, which means students never have to meet with teachers and can submit assignments and tests via the Internet. Lectures and course materials are also accessible online, along with class discussion boards for virtual participation points.

The classes, which cost the same as standard tuition, are no different than a regular classroom, Wight said. Students still interact with one another via e-mail or chat groups, and the same material is covered.

The students, however, are able to set their own schedules for reading lectures, taking quizzes and doing their work, he said.

"It's accessible right off the bat. You're not schedule-driven," U. psychology professor Tom Malloy said. "Students want to be able to juggle other classes, have jobs and family time. The flexibility of scheduling online courses is a major advantage, students say over and over."

Malloy noted, however, that the online classroom can have its drawbacks, like less human interaction. Opting out of face-to-face with a professor isn't the answer for all students, he said.

But the online class can offer learning tools traditional classrooms lack, Malloy added. In a statistics class he designed, students are able to navigate through a virtual reality and must discover the laws of the fictional universe that have been preset by the professor.

"You can't really do that with just a textbook or even a lecture. The students get to be actual scientists attempting to discover the nature of the reality," he said.

Offering a college education via the Internet also makes a degree more accessible for nontraditional students, noted Gail Niklason, director of online education for Weber State University. Adult learners, for example, are flocking to the online classes and are often more capable of keeping track of getting the course done on time without a professor looking over their shoulder.

And while online education has garnered a stigma for lacking personal relations, Salt Lake Community College professor Karla Fisher said her best teacher-student relationships evolved out of virtual classrooms.

Instead of a massive class of faceless students, Fisher said she would be in constant touch with her students via e-mail. The anonymity of Internet discussion boards also encourages shy students to voice opinions and shed insecurities, she said.

"They don't experience the peer pressure of everyone around them, so they don't want to ask a question," Fisher said. "But online, no problem, they just let it out there."

Fisher added that many of her students have also bought into the other prevailing stereotype of online course work — it's easy. Each semester, many students drop the online edition of class once they realize that it's not going to be a breeze. The class, she said, is just like any other class with intensive reading and rigorous tests.

"Some students will get on and say, 'This isn't what I thought. I thought it was just getting online and reading a Web site. This is a real class and real work,' " she said.

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com