Online learning is the way of the future
In high school, Allie Keranen struggled with face-to-face classes.
“I always thought I wasn’t smart enough to go to college,” she said.
Almost eight years after high school, Keranen registered for online classes at Clark College and proved to herself that she was smart enough. She simply required a different learning environment than sitting at a desk in a bricks- and-mortar classroom.
“I learn better being able to pause the lecture and take time to read the assignments,” she said. “I like being able to do the work on my own time.”
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Clark College experienced a growing demand for online classes. Today, the college has 13 programs in which students can earn a degree without ever setting foot in a classroom. Even more programs are in the works.
Online learning evolution
Clark College first offered online classes in 2005. Students’ preference was evident right away.
“Our online classes were generally the first to fill and the first to get students on a waitlist,” said Kathy Chatfield, Ed.D., who leads Clark’s eLearning and instructional design. “That was across the board—and in just about any discipline.”
Chatfield is managing Clark’s initiative to develop online classes. In late 2017, the college took the next step: developing online degree programs. By the fall of 2020, Clark had three degrees or certificates that could be attained entirely through online courses. Ten more became available this fall. By the spring, Clark students will be able to earn a Bachelor of Applied Science in cybersecurity, Clark’s first online bachelor’s degree.
These new options were not prompted by the pandemic but by student demand. Nationwide, community colleges have faced declining enrollment for years. The pandemic made the situation even worse. Community college enrollment fell by 9.5% during the first year of pandemic restrictions, according to a study reported in Higher Ed Dive, an online publication operated by Industry Dive.
Chatfield noted that institutions experiencing the most significant enrollment growth pre- pandemic offered entire degree programs online. Students could log into their courses and do their work when it fit their schedules. Online courses meet the end goal of keeping students on the path to successfully attain their degrees.
Traditionally, community colleges have been considered commuter schools, but online degree programs obliterated a college’s geographic limits. It is possible for someone living across the country to earn one of these new online degrees without ever walking onto Clark’s campus.
Generous donor aids online learning
Contributions from Jim Martin ’68, a longtime donor, have been the key to keeping Clark on the cutting edge of this trend.
“We came across an alumnus who could see the future of education and knew that it needed some support,” said Clark College Foundation’s Chief Advancement Officer Joel B. Munson about Martin, the largest donor to online degree programs to date. “He has probably been the equivalent of our angel investor in these programs.”
Munson said that during the pandemic when the college had to quickly move the majority of its classes to a virtual format, Martin’s gifts were “especially acute to our online programs” by providing faculty with professional development best practices for teaching online. Additionally, equipment and technology for labs as well as hotspots for students to access high-speed internet were critical to the success of the transition.
In the spring of 2020, when the pandemic forced instructors to rapidly switch their in-person classes to online, many had little or no experience teaching virtually or creating online instruction videos or labs. The pandemic handed instructors a laptop and shoved them into the online learning pool. At first, a lot of them dog paddled.
In contrast, the online classes that make up these new online degree programs at Clark have undergone a rigorous accreditation process by Quality Matters, a nonprofit organization originated by faculty in Maryland who developed a way to measure the quality of an online class.
Quality Matters hires three trained faculty to peer-review the course based on a 43-point rubric. They spend three to four weeks reviewing the course and evaluating whether each of the 43 standards has been met. If the course doesn’t meet all the standards, Clark faculty can improve the course and submit it again for review.
Clark College has more certified Quality Matters classes than any other community college in Washington. Currently, between 60 and 70 courses have been QM certified. Between 10 and 20 more could be certified during this academic year. Chatfield’s objective is that eventually all of Clark’s online courses will be QM certified.
The college has also worked to make it easier for students to connect the dots about which online classes lead to online degrees. Clark rolled out an updated eLearning webpage. A new eLearning email address connects students with advisors.
A broader perspective
All of Clark’s health information management and medical billing and coding courses were previously taught face-to-face on campus. The department was planning a hybrid program when the pandemic forced them to go all online.
“We weren’t sure how students could do coding classes online,” said Olga Lyubar, who leads Clark’s health information programs. “It’s so detailed in teaching students to read medical records and diagnoses to code them. In the beginning, we were worried they wouldn’t be able to understand.”
However, Lyubar said the faculty had more trouble adjusting to the online formats than students did. Later, students were surveyed, and the majority of students said they wanted to continue online classes. Going forward, the entire program will continue online.
To provide a connection with students, the department’s instructors offer a Zoom study hall similar to office hours. Students can jump into the Zoom room and ask their instructor questions. Zoom is a video conference platform that became popular during the pandemic.
“We are not yet fully Quality Matters certified,” said Lyubar. “We are working with our eLearning department to work through some of our courses. Hopefully, within a year, we could be there.”
Juanita Doyon teaches interpersonal communications at Clark College and is a peer reviewer for Quality Matters. An advocate of online education, she has taught online since 2011. She also earned her associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees online.
Knowing she will never meet her students face to face, Doyon organizes her online classes to create connections by introducing themselves, sharing their values and personalities and having weekly discussions. If Doyon sees a student who isn’t participating or has missed an assignment, she emails them to ask if they need help. She encourages students to post questions any time and she is careful to answer all of them.
Doyon said, “Clark does a terrific job of maintaining quality in e-Learning classrooms. It provides training to instructors in the e-Learning department to ensure every teacher online is offering a quality educational experience to students.”
She pointed out another benefit of online instruction: Not only can students take classes while traveling or living elsewhere, but she can teach from anywhere with high-speed internet. Following her dream of living at the beach, she moved to Ocean Shores in 2013.
“I’ve integrated my teaching with my life,” she said. “Teaching online gives me the freedom to arrange my own schedule and teach wherever I am. It opens up the world to work with people who aren’t in our geographic area. It offers a broader perspective.”
In addition to taking online classes, Keranen also works a halftime retail job and volunteers at a food pantry. Like other Clark students, she finds that online learning fits her busy life better than in- person classes do.
Over the summer Keranen was dealing with health issues when her biological mother was hospitalized in Spokane with COVID-19. She alerted her instructors over email and requested an extension. The flexibility of online classes allowed a stressed-out student to pause briefly to cope with life’s challenges and then continue toward her degree.
Keranen said, “Now that I’m going to school online, I’m so much more confident in my abilities. I haven’t scored below 96% in my courses at Clark.”
Although some in-person classes have resumed at Clark, students like Keranen will continue to pursue their educations online.
“I believe,” she said, “that online is my learning style.”
Written by Susan Parrish, a journalist who writes about education, the environment, economic opportunity and living simply. She lives in Vancouver, Wash.