The University of South Carolina’s swelling enrollment can make arranging a class schedule a challenge for students.
“It’s hard to find the right times you want for the classes you want,” said Kendal Riner, a sophomore majoring in retail fashion merchandising. “It’s a competition.”
The Virginia Beach, Va., native found some relief for one class last year by taking a sports and entertainment management course online at the time of her choosing on her computer.
Riner’s online management course is part of a trend at USC, which is putting more emphasis on online courses in an effort to hold off competition from for-profit schools that have found a niche in letting students pick the times when to take classes.
The online courses offer convenience in scheduling. And, adds vice provost Lacy Ford, “You can get USC-quality degrees.”
Online classes give USC students who have jobs or work on community service projects more options, which students find attractive.
“Most of them won’t have that time flexibility the rest of their lives, so they cling to it pretty good,” Ford said.
Plus, as with USC’s plans for a longer summer semester starting this year, the online courses help USC cope with the 5,500 students it has added over the past decade to compensate for state funding cuts.
“(They take) some of the stress off our absolutely packed classrooms that, under current circumstances, we cannot expand,” Ford said.
About 2,000 of USC’s more than 30,000 students take at least one online course each year, Ford said. The school hopes to triple that number within five years as it triples – to more than 500 – its number of online classes.
USC also will start an online bachelor’s degree completion program next fall with from 500 to 1,000 students from the system’s two-year schools, technical colleges and transfer students. The program, called Palmetto College, plans to add 300 to 500 students a year.
“This isn’t your parents’ distance education,” Ford said.
Paths from satellite to laptops
The web-based programs are a far cry from classes broadcast via satellite from S.C. ETV’s studios in Columbia to campuses statewide in the 1970s. The school then used videotapes and, later, DVDs for distance education, but, by the middle of the 2000s, students began demanding online courses.
“They want to sit down with their laptop at 10 o’clock at night and do the course work,” Ford said. Athletes also are interested in online classes because they can study without interfering with practice schedules, school officials said.
Online courses include a mix of lectures, readings, videos, slideshows and exercises that must be completed each week. Online students also are required to participate in discussion board chats with topics set up by teachers.
Professor Rebecca Collier dots her lessons in a Women in Society course with plenty of visuals to keep students’ attention since they don’t have the interaction of a classroom. Students tend to open up on discussion boards – swapping ideas, helping with basic course questions and even trading personal information, she said.
“They don’t feel like they’re out there floating in cyberspace,” she said.
Collier is teaching 175 students, split into five groups, online this semester. She tells students she is available to answer questions via email or through the discussion board most times, except weekends. Another professor said she keeps office hours via Skype.
“It’s not 24/7 access to me. It’s 24/7 access to the material,” said Mark Beck, an associate professor who teaches an online pre-med course in medical terminology.
Online students must be disciplined because they have no one to prod them to complete a week’s worth of readings, lectures and exercises by Sunday. For example, Riner said she missed one bi-weekly deadline in her online course simply because she forgot.
“I missed a couple points, but, overall, it didn’t hurt my grade because I did better on the test on the end,” she said.
Tests are administered for only a limited amount of time to prevent students from Web-searching for answers, teachers said.
The price tag
Not every class – or every student – is suited for online.
Riner said some friends had a tough time taking an online accounting class. She took the same course in a classroom and made an “A.”
“It’s math,” she said. “People needed more practice, more demonstration problems in person.”
The school has no plans to offer four-year majors online, though Palmetto College allows students to complete the final two years of their degree without stepping onto one of the USC campuses.
The college, which received a $5 million grant from the state this year, will offer seven majors in the fall – business, criminal justice, education, nursing, human relations, liberal studies and organizational leadership. USC has requested $2.1 million for the college’s annual costs in next year’s state budget.
Palmetto College also will absorb about 30 students from USC’s new Back to Carolina program, aimed at those age 25 and older who are completing a bachelor’s degree.
Palmetto College will cost $4,487 a semester, slightly less than tuition and fees for on-campus students in Columbia, $5,244.
USC also offers master’s degrees online in nursing, education, library science and engineering – majors aimed at working professionals, school officials said. More graduate programs will be added as early as this spring in the school’s new McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research.
The school is working with Academic Partnerships, a Dallas-based firm that takes a third of the tuition paid by online master’s degree students in exchange for developing online courses for Palmetto College and the master’s degree programs, Ford said.
But online classes don’t excite all students, and USC has no plans to make online courses mandatory, Ford said.
“I’d like a professor to teach me,” said Zoe Pleasants, a freshman majoring in exercise science. “I don’t think I would have the motivation to do it myself if I didn’t have to go to class every day.”