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Teen earns WSU degree entirely online


Not only will 16-year-old Kayla Heard be the youngest Washington State University graduate on record at Saturday’s commencement, but she earned her entire bachelor’s degree without ever visiting campus.

“That’s rare,” said Randy Spaulding, Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board’s director of academic affairs, remarking on both details. “I think the fact that she never had to step foot on campus is a little unusual, but we will see more and more of that.”

Heard is not typical – she started reading before age 2 and graduated from high school at 10 years old, earned her Associate of Arts degree at 13 and now a bachelor’s. The teen has already passed her law school admissions test and plans to earn a law degree online.

“My parents felt that it would not be a good idea to send me to campus at such a young age,” Heard, of Union, Wash., said in a telephone interview. “I appreciate their decision, mainly because online studying has given me quite a bit of flexibility in my study schedule.”

Obtaining a degree without being on a university campus is becoming more common, and universities are making it increasingly convenient. Those opportunities are making a college education attainable to a wider population, higher-education officials say.

“The students who are seeking out these programs are getting younger, but they are getting older too,” said Dave Cillay, WSU’s executive director of The Center for Distance and Professional Education Online. “If you think about the way communication has evolved… it’s not as much face-to-face. It’s a mirror of the way our society is moving.”

WSU was the first of the state universities to offer online degrees, starting in 1992. Currently eight bachelor’s degrees can be earned entirely online – business administration (with majors in accounting, management and operations, and management information systems), criminal justice, human development, social sciences, and humanities. Undergraduate and graduate certificates are also available through online courses.

Heard majored in history and minored in political science, which falls under social sciences.

Enrollment numbers are growing every year for online education at WSU. Nearly 5 million were enrolled nationwide in 2008, according to study published in 2010.

WSU attempts to make the online educational experience as close as possible to the campus experience.

“You interact with the instructors online,” Cillay said. “You interact with the class online. There’s a discussion board where students are required to participate, and the nice thing is they have to, they can’t just sit in the back of a class.”

Like on-campus education, there are service learning opportunities where students participate in their community. If a class requires lab work, such as environmental science, the equipment is boxed up and sent to the student and the student performs the experiments at home.

Obviously, there are class labs where that’s not possible, Cillay said.

Final exams and some midterms may need to be proctored, but in those cases the students can go to a nearby location where a qualified observer watches them take the tests. WSU is also piloting a virtual proctoring program where students can take tests at their computer.

Experts say there are more pros than cons to an online education.

“I think the thing we worry the most about with online is the students’ ability to engage with another, but that’s getting better, and some of that’s occurring,” Spaulding said. “You lose some of that interpersonal interaction that can occur. Many would argue that there are some things that happen in the classroom or on campus that doesn’t happen online.”

On the other hand, he said, taking courses online is “available basically anywhere, anytime as long as you have Internet.”

Said Spaulding, “Never stepping foot on campus isn’t really what educators had in mind when they came up with online courses, but that’s what’s happening.”

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