Online courses bring in big bucks, but at what cost?

(U-WIRE) University of West Florida’s president says online courses may be a financial savior during the current budget crisis.

But some faculty members are worried about the University’s plunge into online education. Some say they are being pushed by their departments to develop eLearning courses without sufficient training. Others worry that the online courses they are creating will replace them in the classroom some day.

Meanwhile, student cheaters apparently love the ease with which they can beat the online system when it comes time to take exams.

But despite the growing pains associated with UWF’s growing online education empire, nobody expects the University’s newfound emphasis on cyber classes to diminish.

Cavanaugh, in a January 2008 Town Hall Meeting, said that online courses allowed the University to hang onto students when they go home or do internships over the summer.

He said online classes represented a major source of revenue growth that has greatly helped cushion the blow delivered by budget cuts.

The numbers certainly back up his claim.

Since the program’s inception during the 2003-2004 academic year, eLearning has shown a significant amount of growth.

In just the last academic year, the number of eLearning users increased a staggering 56 percent. Over 40 percent of classes for the upcoming UWF Summer 2008 schedule are being offered as online courses.

The merits of online courses have garnered appeal with an ever-changing student body.

These courses allow students with jobs, scheduling issues or other prior commitments an opportunity to continue their education regardless of circumstances.

Senior Help Desk Analyst Theo Wiegmann said the ability to learn and process information at students’ own convenience has a certain appeal.

“People who work full time and still want to go to college have few options,” Wiegmann said. “Online courses offer schedule flexibility that night courses simply can’t. You can learn at your own pace and revisit content as often as needed. These options are a major draw to students.”

Former UWF student Jon Turner experienced the benefits of the go-at-your-own-pace aspect of eLearning.

“Without online courses I probably would never have finished my bachelor’s degree,” Turner said. “There were a lot of times I would be studying or doing class work at all hours of the night. If I wasn’t able to learn material when it was best for me, then I probably would have had to drop out of school.”

However, the online numbers boom does not sit well with some faculty, who worry about a lack of sufficient training because of the enormous amount of time and understanding of digital technology required to develop these courses, they said.

In a recent faculty meeting, one official said that the number of new online courses far outpaced the rate at which faculty could be trained.

Marzilli said that there were roughly 330 new online classes being planned for the coming academic year, but only 50 faculty members were trained by UWF’s Academic Technical Center during that same time span, according to minutes from the session.

Senior Christina Kicklighter has taken several online courses and is well aware of how easy it is for students to cheat the system.

“Anyone who has taken one eLearning course can tell you how easy it is to cheat the program,” Kicklighter said. “You can have multiple people take a test at the same time; have Web sites open or have your book open while taking the test; have someone else log on and take a test for you – the possibilities for cheating are essentially limitless.”

A lot of the time, the issue of whether a student can use a book or a Web site will be covered in the professor’s syllabus but not always. Anthropology graduate student Jake Scott says problems may occur when information is not covered.

“If it is covered in the syllabus, there’s no gray area,” Scott said. “However, even if they say you can’t use outside information, there is no real way for them to make sure you aren’t. With no one around to police the class, it really just becomes a question of morals.”

Unfortunately, solving the cheating issue will take a little more than individual morality.

Officals say UWF has taken measures to combat cheating by maintaining well-trained Information Technology technicians.

“Cheating is always going to be a problem,” said Help Desk Manager Andi Sortino. “We do everything we can to keep that problem as small as possible.”

The departments have a few tools at their disposal with which to address the issue.

“Professors can give proctored exams – exams in which the students have come to a specific location to take the exam,” Sortino said. “This helps to stop multiple people from taking a test or one student taking a test for another student.”

“Hopefully, we will also shortly be introducing a program which will act as a lock-down browser,” Wiegmann said. “This will potentially eliminate a student’s ability to access other sites while taking an exam.”

Administrators can check quiz logs or look up IP addresses to see when and where tests were taken.

Even something as simple as a random test question generator, like that offered by the Academic Technical Center, has shown to be an effective tool in the fight against cheating.

But none of these measures are foolproof.

As long as things remain as they are, UWF may be generating revenue from online courses, but it may be at the expense of a quality education.

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