SALT LAKE CITY — Students at Utah's colleges and universities will find more educational options than ever when they return this fall as schools increase the number of online and hybrid courses being offered.
They're benefitting from the growth of distance education, which includes online classes, interactive video conferencing (IVC), and hybrid courses that blend a classroom setting with a strong online component.
"Whether (distance education) is their first choice or their last choice it's another option," said Dan Clark, senior director of Distance Education at Utah Valley University, where the program has grown to keep up with the press of students seeking an education at the school.
Utah Valley University has roughly 33,000 students, Clarke said. Last fall, 38 percent of students participated in some form of distance learning and this year that number is expected to top 40 percent.
Cory Stokes, director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Utah, said online enrollment has grown exponentially in the past five years.
"In 2001 we had about 1,200 students in online classes," he said. "This fall we expect to have 12,000."
Stokes said there are relatively few students at the university, roughly 200, who solely take online courses. The vast majority, he said, will register for one or two courses online to augment their campus schedules. The university currently offers 315 courses online and 10 to 15 are added each year.
"It's tough for students to work a job, pay their tuition and make time to attend classes," Stokes said.
Andrea Jensen, director of WSU Online, said Weber State has been offering online courses for 15 years and, like the University of Utah, has seen rapid growth. In 1997, there were 77 students enrolled in online courses. This fall there will be more than 12,000 students, which means that 38 percent of the student body will be enrolled in at least one course online.
At BYU, online courses have been offered for years in the form of "independent study," where students are not bound by a semester calendar and work under their own pace and direction to achieve academic goals. Students also pay to take those courses in addition to their full-time tuition.
But this year, BYU will test out the typical online model by offering 12 courses for students that are included in regular tuition and are completed within a semester calendar with faculty and classmate interaction, Independent Study director John Taylor said.
Each of the 12 courses, which cover mostly general education subjects, has 25 "seats" available and filled up within days of being offered, Taylor said. If successful, Taylor said more classes will likely be offered online in the future.
"It's a very significant difference for us this year," Taylor said. "We're really looking forward to it."
But Stokes said the growth in online course enrollments is expected to eventually plateau. He said a larger, emerging trend in higher education is hybrid courses that combine the social elements of a classroom setting with the advantages of online technology. Hybrid courses, he said, combine the strengths of different teaching methods and allow opportunities for students to get out of the classroom for hands-on learning.
"The hybrid really changes the way a course can be taught," he said.
At Utah Valley University, Clark said there has been a push for faculty to enhance their courses with technology. He said his staff holds a Hybrid Course Boot Camp where they help faculty identify the best delivery methods – such as online or face-to-face instruction – for key concepts and offer incentives for moving toward 50 percent of their course delivery being done online.
He said hybrid classes that reach the 50 percent threshold are referred to as "Hot Bunks" because they allow a classroom space to be shared between two courses. There are 92 Hot Bunk hybrid classes scheduled at UVU for the fall of 2012.
"It's very clear that this is the direction the (university) president wants us to go," he said.
UVU is expecting more than 9,000 online enrollments in the fall, Clark said. Enrollment for both online and hybrid courses has grown by more than 20 percent each year, Clark said. Last year, roughly 2,000 students were put on a wait-list for online classes, which prompted the university to increase the class size cap with the assumption that an equivalent number of students will drop out of the class during the course of the semester.
But Clark was quick to emphasize that online and hybrid courses are not just about maximizing space. He said by tailoring the instruction, teachers can take advantage of technology's strengths to more effectively teach a course without losing the "magic of the classroom."
"The classroom has a place and I truly believe that," he said. "The power of hybrid is the faculty has the ability to deliver the key concepts in a variety of ways, and that includes face-to-face."
Wagner said a digital environment is also in line with the way students communicate with each other in today's digital world. Feedback on hybrid courses from both teachers and students has been positive, Wagner said, and many professors have noted that a student who feels uncomfortable speaking up in a classroom environment does not have the same difficulty engaging in discussions online.
"The secret is not to just embrace it because it’s a trend but to embrace it because it enriches the learning and teaching environment," Wagner said.
Jensen had similarly high praise for hybrid teaching. She said technology is full of opportunities for education and offers greater flexibility for students and teachers, but most people are hesitant to give up full-scale on the social aspect of a classroom setting.
"There's some people that really don't want to let go of that face-to-face component and hybrid really is the best of both worlds," she said.
In the end, Clark said the goal of distance education is not to replace the traditional classroom but to provide another option for a student's education. Much like how a hybrid course blends different delivery methods, a student's four-year education may include several online and hybrid classes alongside traditional classroom lecture-based courses.
As technology advances, distance education is also able to bring the classroom to student, wherever they may be.
At Utah State University, Utah's only land-grant university, video conferencing allows students to attend USU classes in each of Utah's 29 counties. Through IVC courses, students are able to participate in classroom discussion and pose questions in real time to teachers despite being separated from their classmates by, in some cases, hundreds of miles.
"It's in our blood," said USU vice provost Robert Wagner. "It's in our mission that we have to take education out to the state."
He said USU operates 64 locations across the state, for a total of 230 IVC-equipped classrooms, and this fall will broadcast 360 courses each week.
"There's not another university in the country that's done nearly as much interactive video broadcasting as Utah State," Wagner said. "We're a model for other institutions."
Though not to the scale of USU, most of Utah's schools use video-conferencing to reach students at locations other than the main campuses. At UVU, the technology is also used to broadcast college-level courses to high schools for concurrent enrollment.
"They're really participating in a UVU course," Clark said.