September 3, 2008 in City

College, custom-built

Convenience, growing number of classes help drive growth in online learning
By The Spokesman-Review
Brian Plonka photo

Heather Campbell, who home-schools her two children, also works at home toward a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Washington State University.
(Full-size photo)

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When Brian Campbell heads to college this fall, he’ll be driving five days a week between Spokane and Cheney.

His wife, Heather, will head to her home computer – a trip that’s a good bit more fuel-efficient.

She’s working on a bachelor’s degree in humanities through Washington State University, after completing an associate’s degree at Spokane Community College over the summer. Nearly all her courses, past and future, are conducted online. Earning her degree that way is better for her busy life; she home-schools two young children and carries a full load of classes.

Online courses also save the family gas money.

“That’s a positive aspect of it, especially for me,” said Campbell, 26. “I wouldn’t have wanted to drive to Cheney for Eastern, and we didn’t want to move to Pullman.”

Online courses and online components in traditional classes, a growing part of college life for a decade, have boomed in the past year at many institutions. Officials say rising gas prices are one reason. But they also emphasize other factors, such as a growing number of course offerings and increased credibility of distance learning.

“The publicity and visibility of online learning has helped people, across the board, accept it,” said Muriel Oaks, dean of the Center for Distance and Professional Education at WSU. “You’d be surprised how much interaction and collaboration happens between students and instructors in these courses.”

Nationally and regionally, the growth has been particularly pronounced at community colleges. Online enrollment at Washington’s community colleges has grown by more than 700 percent in the past eight years and by 30 percent just last year. At Spokane Falls Community College, online enrollment was up 48 percent last year.

At SCC, online enrollments were up 19 percent last academic year and are expected to grow more this year. At North Idaho College, which increased its online offerings over last year, summer online enrollments jumped 11 percent.

Marie Rustemeyer, distance learning manager at SCC, said the increases have been steady in recent years as the college added course offerings, degrees and certifications. For community college students – who include working people with families and some who are struggling financially – online courses are attractive because they’re convenient and flexible. Saving on gas is probably a consideration for some students, Rustemeyer said.

“I think it’s a factor. I don’t think it’s a driving factor, necessarily, or the only factor,” she said. “I think the growth is likely motivated by convenience and flexibility, as much as gas prices.”

For many students, saving on fuel costs may not have been the main reason they took the online route, but it’s been a nice benefit.

Vance Frost, a 45-year-old graphic designer who decided a few years back to return to school, spent up to three hours a day driving between his home in Ephrata and Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

“That wasn’t that bad, except for the wintertime,” he said. “And gas prices started to become a concern.”

Frost figures he’ll save $4,000 a year going full time online through WSU. Once he gets his bachelor’s degree after this year, he plans to earn a master’s in counseling – although he’ll have to take traditional classes to do that.

Oaks, the WSU dean, said she’s seen distance-learning courses change a lot since the school began offering them in 1992 – with videotaped lectures and teleconferences. The online courses offer much more opportunity for interaction, she said, and they place a premium on writing skills – students have to show progress in writing because they’re not often in a classroom where an instructor can talk to them.

“In a classroom, sometimes it’s much more one-way,” she said. “We see students who might be shy about speaking up in the class, face to face … they just thrive, often, in these courses.”

For Heather Campbell, the primary attraction of online courses is the ability to mold them around her family’s schedule. Her husband’s a full-time student at EWU, and the kids she home-schools are 5 and 8.

She said that a couple of years ago, “I wasn’t even sure I was going to get a degree,” she said. “I was home with two little kids.”

But she found out about online courses at SCC through her sister, and she started taking classes last year. She finished her two-year degree in 16 months. Of her 22 classes, 16 were online. The rest of the classes for her bachelor’s degree will be online.

She said online courses can be more challenging in some ways than traditional ones. Students are asked to do more work that shows they’re keeping up; she takes more quizzes and participates in more online discussions.

Most days, she gets up early and checks in on her classes on Blackboard – the online resource many colleges use to manage the courses – and then shifts into home-teacher mode for the morning. She often studies in the afternoons or around her husband’s schedule. And then there’s always the late night, when the kids are less likely to need attention.

“Once they’re in bed is the easiest time to do homework,” she said.

Contact Shawn Vestal at or (509) 459-5431.

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