Distance learning

Colby-Sawyer College’s announcement that it will offer online-only baccalaureate programs in accounting, business administration and health care management starting in September is the latest step in the adoption of “distance learning” by traditional colleges.

Considerable attention has been given to college courses online because of free, massive online courses, but they don’t offer academic credit and the huge class size — 10,000 students isn’t uncommon — makes them a different experience.

New Hampshire has been a leader in the area of brick-and-mortar schools offering online courses, thanks largely to Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, a groundbreaking school for online degrees. Many colleges now offer some online-only courses, including Colby-Sawyer.

But creating an entire 120-credit bachelor’s degree program that’s strictly online remains a big step for a small liberal-arts school. (Technical and engineering schools translate more easily into the Web-only world.)

Unlike single classes, the online degree program required approval from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits institutions of higher education.

Keeping quality

Colby-Sawyer established its first online classes in 2011, following up on suggestions that arose from communitywide planning sessions that began in 2008. It targeted existing students.

“We looked at what our own students were doing during the summer to get ahead or make up work, and noticed certain kinds of courses that many of our students were taking elsewhere, then transferring credits back in,” Taylor said.

“We had 10 or 12 classes the first summer. They were well enrolled.”

An important part of the development process was finding an acceptable price. The school settled on $300 per credit, with no other fees except textbooks. That’s in line with or less than online courses offered by other New Hampshire schools — and far below residential cost.

It takes at least 120 credits to get a bachelor’s degree at Colby-Sawyer, or $36,000 total, about the cost of a single year of residential college. The school has also loosened its restrictions on how many credits can be transferred in from two-year schools, to make getting a degree more affordable for students.

Mandatory participation

All along, said Lisa Hayward-Wyzik, an English professor and dean of distance learning, the big focus was keeping up Colby-Sawyer standards in this new format.

Courses on the Web are taught by full-time staff members with the same curriculum as traditional courses in formats that they choose. Some have their own classroom lectures filmed, others do separate filming, some just do voice-overs of material. It’s all based on Moodle, an open-source learning platform used by many schools.

Enrollment is capped at 20 students per class, which is fewer than some traditional classrooms. The classes are asynchronous — that is, you don’t have to be signed on and participating at a specific time — but components must be completed within certain times, whether it’s watching a lecture, writing an essay, answering a quiz or participating in discussions.

“One of our big focuses is to make sure that students feel a sense of isolation but are part of an online community, part of the Colby-Sawyer community,” Hayward-Wyzik said. “Isolation is one of the primary causes for students to not do well online and drop out.”

College-specific branding of the website is part of creating this sense, but so are mechanics of the operation.

For example, instructors are required to respond to students within 24 hours — although weekends might be different — and student participation is mandatory, Hayward-Wyzik said.

To an extent, she said, enforcing all of this is easier online than in the real world, since there is a permanent record of who does what.

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