Jennifer Black isn't a fan of technology. Until college, she didn't know much about online classes. If the stereotypical online student is a career-minded adult working full time, she's the opposite—a dorm-dwelling, ballet-dancing, sorority-joining 20-year-old who throws herself into campus life here at the University of Central Florida.
Yet in the past year, the junior hospitality major has taken classes online, face to face, and in a blended format featuring elements of both. This isn't unusual: More than half of the university's 56,000 students will take an online or blended class this year, and nearly 2,700 are taking all three modes at once.
As online education goes mainstream, it's no longer just about access for distant learners who never set foot in the student union. Web courses are rewiring what it means to be a "traditional" student at places like Central Florida, one of the country's largest public universities. And UCF's story raises a question for other colleges: Will this mash-up of online and offline learning become the new normal elsewhere, too?
Signs suggest yes. The University System of Maryland now requires undergraduates to take 12 credits in alternative learning modes, including online. Texas has proposed a similar rule. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is pushing to have 25 percent of credits earned online by 2015. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, pointing to UCF as a model, has made blended learning a cornerstone of its new $20-million education-technology grant program.
These players pin their hopes on Web classes as a panacea that will expand access, speed up the time spent earning a degree, save money, manage classroom needs, and much more.
The trend toward online courses for campus students can be a head scratcher. Why pay to go away to college if you're going to sit in your dorm room taking online classes?
Control over course schedules, for one thing. Alexander Harrison, 20, a junior majoring in accounting and finance at Central Florida, often prefers watching lectures online to enduring a two-and-a-half-hour class in person. Web courses also free up time for more campus involvement, be that playing baseball or joining the belly-dancing club.
Or sleeping in.
The convenience of online classes can be a slacker's paradise. Schedule the right mix, and you might not have to face a live professor before 1:30 in the afternoon. Which means you can stay out until 4 in the morning and still sleep nearly eight hours. Not only that: Some students talk about online classes being so easy a caveman could pass them. In a test, there's no one telling you that you can't look at the book, says Ariel Hatten, 20, a junior and nursing major who considers her online class an easy A.
"No one enforces you to do the right thing" in an online course, Ms. Hatten says. "It's at your discretion. I care about my grade, so if I don't know the answer, I'm not gonna let myself fail when I have an opportunity to look in the book."
This is the good and not-so-good news as universities move from bricks and mortar to clicks and mortar. The Chronicle spent three days trailing Ms. Black, Mr. Harrison, and Ms. Hatten to get a closer look at how that shift is changing the student experience—and how students feel about their growing digital freedom. Here's what we found.
It's 9:30 a.m., and a hospitality-law class is under way. In a campus auditorium whose plush red seats have the feel of a movie theater, Arthur D. Sims engrosses his students in a case study. The focus: a college student who went skinny dipping at a wild resort party and got his penis stuck in the suction hole of a swimming pool.
Ms. Black, who has the relentlessly chipper personality of a tour guide, looks down from the fourth row in disbelief. "Oh my gosh, this is disgusting," she mutters.
Maybe, but it's also an engaging segue into the legal concept of negligence for several dozen groggy students who were out tailgating at last night's football game.
For UCF, this kind of course is an increasingly rare breed: purely face to face. For Ms. Black, it's the start of a packed day that will shift between on- and offline study as naturally as changing gears on a car.
After several minutes of hilarity, Mr. Sims arrives at his point. The skinny dipper sued and won because the cap was missing from the hole. Forty-eight-thousand dollars, he says, "for a romantic encounter with the pool." His hook baited, Mr. Sims descends from the stage and prowls the auditorium, quizzing students on the peculiarities of negligence law.
Ms. Black calls Mr. Sims "a pretty cool professor." But she could not manage all her courses in his low-tech style. Her hospitality major and dance minor add up to a 20-credit course load this semester. Plus, she's a resident assistant, works at a nearby Marriott, belongs to a Christian sorority, mentors elementary students, and dances in "The Nutcracker" back home in Jacksonville. "I don't like to have downtime," she says.
There isn't much downtime in her schedule. The hybrid class she has next—a fast-growing style here—helps her pull off that packed course load.
When Central Florida began experimenting with online courses in the mid-1990s, it didn't expect demand from on-campus students like Ms. Black. Officials figured they'd get students who lived far away. But early on, about 75 percent of online students were already on the campus or lived nearby.
That's a good thing, for a reason unrelated to technology: The university has a severe shortage of classroom space. It's a young institution, opened in 1968 in part as a training ground to prepare workers for the nearby Kennedy Space Center. It evolved from a commuter campus that was something of an academic afterthought in Florida to a place where the majority of students study full time. Enrollment shot from 21,000 in 1991 to 56,000 today. So much building accompanied the student boom, the running joke is that UCF stands for "Under Construction Forever."
The university remains 40 percent short on classroom space. One of its coping strategies is invisible on a campus dotted with new buildings—football stadium, basketball arena, pastel dorms—that scream Traditional State U.
UCF has become a hybrid university.
For Ms. Black, that means the boisterous give-and-take of Mr. Sims's morning class gives way to lots of quiet clicking. Two of her courses are known as "blended" or "mixed mode," meaning class meets face to face only once a week, and the rest of the work is shifted online. The afternoon a reporter visits, she has time to kill before catching a shuttle to her dorm. So she plops her giant orange backpack at a table in the student union. Then, in a routine that's become as familiar as checking Facebook and e-mail, she logs on to UCF's course-management software and enters the digital classroom of one of her blended courses.
First she mouses over to the green stars that indicate new content has been posted. For her finance class, there's a quiz on Chapter 4. Basic stuff—10 questions, open book. And there's also a discussion question to answer: "What is working capital, and where is it listed on the balance sheet?"
"That's more or less your participation for the class," she says.
Blended classes generate the highest student evaluations of any learning mode at Central Florida, and, like her classmates, Ms. Black is a fan. She gets as much from the online work as she would from more time in class, she says. Plus, the free time helps make it easier for her to do dance.
One of her mixed-mode professors, Youngsoo Choi, likes the online component for another reason: It makes students grapple with material before they meet for class. At least, he hopes it does. Mr. Choi, who teaches tourism management, worries some students may view the reduced class schedule as time off.
"I still have a phobia and a concern," he says. "Maybe I should still talk about a few basic things to some of the students who probably enjoyed the football yesterday and didn't do anything for the class."
Ms. Black takes official mixed-mode courses, but other students customize their own unofficial blends. For example, Mr. Harrison, the accounting major, takes a business class with more than 1,000 students. The lectures are given live, he says, in a room that fits 68. Some students show up more than an hour early for a seat, but attendance isn't mandatory. Students can also watch online videos of the lectures any time. Mr. Harrison catches some lectures and skips others. He likes the freedom of these video classes. Learning online can also be a challenge.
"You can walk through the library, and literally, you'll see students who are watching a lecture but also have Facebook open right behind it," he says. "And, it's sort of like, 'How much time are you spending on each frame? Are you actively taking notes, or are you just chatting with your friends?' There's a lot of distractions that come with putting courses on the Internet."
Talk with some professors and administrators, and they say today's students like Web courses because their generation lives online. Mr. Harrison's remark reflects the more complicated picture you hear from students themselves, especially when it comes to fully online classes.
Mr. Harrison, who attended a private high school with a graduating class of 38, never thought he would have to take classes on the Web. Once the shaggy-haired fraternity rusher learned to manipulate the system, though, he ended up handling so much of his course work online that his actual butt-at-a-desk class time has shrunk to about six hours a week. Since he began at UCF in 2008, six of his courses have included a large online component. "It's such a crazy mix," he says. "Each semester is a new experience."
His first experience with an online course was a struggle. He got lazy. He'd tell himself, I'll watch the lecture between 2 and 4 p.m. Something would come up. He'd say, I'll watch two tomorrow. He fell behind. There was no help. He got a C.
That's the kind of trouble Susan J. Wegmann strives to avoid. The associate professor of education will e-mail students, call them, tweet them, Facebook them, chat with them—use any available safety net. "I tell them, 'Listen, I don't want you to think that I'm stalking you or anything, but I will certainly try to get ahold of you if you're not turning in work and participating,'" she says. Some are adolescents, she notes. Most don't have online experience.
Ms. Hatten, the nursing major, did—from her father.
An electrician-turned-foreman, he tried studying management online. His daughter would help him on weekends, explaining how to do things like format an essay. He couldn't finish the degree for financial reasons.
Ms. Hatten is having better luck with her online medical-terminology class. To demonstrate how it works, she sets up camp in a quiet room on the third floor of the student union, next to a giant lizard wearing a UCF jersey. She learns through interactive software. The computer offers activities like dragging the term "peripheral nerves" to the correct spot on a picture of the body. It chimes when she gets it right. Beyond course announcements, Ms. Hatten's interactions with the professor have been limited to one e-mail exchange.
"It's wonderful," she says of the class.
Educators who prize human contact would probably say it isn't. Then again—compared with what?
The next day, Ms. Hatten attends a physiology class in a lecture hall in a nearby building on campus. Students struggle to understand as a professor with a thick accent drones through slides about terms like "hematopoiesis."
Ms. Hatten whispers, "She's really nice. But she doesn't teach very well."
Some students look spaced out. Some surf Facebook. Others text.
The most interactive moment comes when the professor announces that she plans to grade a test on a curve, and the class cheers.
The scene evokes a quote UCF's online officials like to share.
If you want to encounter distance education, a student once said, sit in the back of a 500-seat lecture.