Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 | 2 a.m.
When Hilary Nagel goes to “class” at College of Southern Nevada, she powers on her iPad and listens to a lecture in her pajamas from the comfort of her home.
Nagel, 28, is among the university students across the nation taking online classes. As cash-strapped colleges contend with budget cuts, higher-education leaders and politicians have looked toward online education as a potentially cheaper way to educate students.
In Nevada, which last year saw a 14 percent decline in state funding for higher education, online classes have proliferated as demand has grown.
The first college in Southern Nevada to offer online education was CSN, in 1996. The state’s largest higher education institution started out with one computer server, 37 sections of online classes and 528 online students.
By last fall, CSN’s “Online Campus” had grown to 18 servers and 962 online sections with more than 13,000 online students.
“We started very small, but grew quickly,” said Terry Norris, director of e-learning at CSN. “It was hard to keep up with the growth.”
Online courses become viable options because students may be bound by time and geographical constraints, Norris said.
Virtual classrooms allow rural students in Tonopah and Nellis Air Force Base students serving overseas to complete their degrees at CSN. Las Vegas students like Nagel who work during the day can still go to college by logging online in the evenings and weekends.
UNLV junior Yisrael Vincent, who has attended CSN for two years, said he could no longer afford the hourlong commute to campus. That’s one of the reasons why he began taking online classes, he said.
“(The commute) ends up being a higher opportunity cost than logging on at home,” the accounting major said.
Despite its convenience and popularity, online education has become a contentious issue. While major universities such as MIT have embraced online education, critics question the quality. Some longtime faculty members see it as a threat that could upend the traditional higher education landscape.
The debate came to a boiling point earlier this summer when Virginia’s higher education leaders fired the beloved president of the University of Virginia over a perceived lack of progress toward online education. (The president, Teresa Sullivan, was later reinstated to her position after a maelstrom of complaints.)
“We have some Luddites who are like, hell no, we’re not doing this,” said Sondra Cosgrove, a CSN professor who began teaching history courses online in 2004. “They don’t realize some people can’t go to college any other way.”
Nearly one of every five courses offered at CSN are online, and the community college has 30 degree programs with courses that can be taken entirely online.
Despite not having the physical constraints of classroom size and number of chairs, online courses still require professors to provide grades and answer questions. That's why enrollment in an online class at CSN is capped at 35 students, Cosgrove said.
There’s also the time-consuming task of developing an online course, Cosgrove said. Each of Cosgrove’s online classes took her about 100 hours to create from scratch, she said. That’s because unlike traditional classes — which could be taught just through lectures and reading assignments — effective online classes require more visual and interactive instructional material, she said.
CSN employs a “learning management system,” a sort of online blackboard that professors use to post syllabi, readings, videos and notes for students. This digital blackboard also allows professors to administer quizzes and tests, as well as manage an online forum for student discussions.
It’s hard for online students to cheat on a test or assignment, because everything a student does online is logged by the learning management system, Cosgrove said. She knows when and how long a student has worked on a reading assignment, and she can administer different versions of quizzes to discourage cheating.
Furthermore, Cosgrove’s online assessments tend to be what educators call “authentic.” Instead of having students just recall information from online texts, Cosgrove has her students write creative essays demonstrating what they’ve learned. For example, one of her essay topics asks online students to travel back in time to a historical period and describe the scene.
Because CSN professors develop their own online courses, the quality is similar to traditional classes, Norris said.
“We’re offering the same good, quality (education), except doing it in a different mode of delivery,” he said.
UNLV also has an online program that has grown exponentially.
Las Vegas’ major research university started online classes in 2005 with 4,000 students. By last fall, UNLV had 13,000 students, or 55 percent of its total enrollment, taking online classes.
Popular online courses include nursing and hotel administration. UNLV also offers eight degree programs online.
Despite its more recent start in the online forum, UNLV has received national interest for its Office of Online Education, which helps faculty develop fun, interactive online courses.
Housed in two portable buildings on its Maryland campus, this 22-member department of programmers, videographers, graphic designers and information technology specialists churns out dozens of video-game-like courses that have garnered national attention, said director Mark Fink.
In these online courses, UNLV students can simulate geological phenomenon and can even learn copy editing in a virtual notebook. Fink argues this more game-like format keeps students engaged and can better help express complex topics.
Professors also can bring in a speaker or lecturer from another state or country who can explain topics firsthand, via video conferencing, Fink said.
“Throughout the world, there’s a demand for learning in different ways and you need to meet students' needs,” he said. “If UNLV doesn’t do it, students are a click away from any other online institution.”
(Because both UNLV and CSN’s online courses are not state supported, the schools charge both a course fee and an additional online fee — $10 per course at CSN and $34 per credit at UNLV — to fund course development, server maintenance and tech/tutoring support.)
As a result, UNLV has begun to attract students from 60 countries around the world, said Margaret Rees, UNLV vice provost for educational outreach.
Although they have high commercial potential, online courses aren’t a “moneymaking opportunity” for UNLV, but rather a way for the university to distinguish itself, Rees said.
“We’re trying to build a brand around the world to be the leader in online education,” she said. “We want to be the gold standard in online education.”
CORRECTION: The story has been updated to reflect that University of Virginia leaders temporarily ousted President Teresa Sullivan over a perceived lack of progress in online education. A faculty senate report later found the university has been making progress in innovating online teaching tools. | (September 6, 2012)