At some schools, it’s possible to get a 4.0 GPA without ever setting foot in the classroom, but USC, defying the national trend, says it has no intention of letting students get by without going to class.
More than one in four students at colleges and universities in the United States take at least one class online, according to a recent study by the Sloan Consortium, a group that focuses on integrating online courses into higher education. In fall of 2008, the study showed, enrollment in online courses increased by 17 percent compared to the previous year.
The increase seems to result from both a greater availability of, and greater interest in, online courses. As schools look for ways to save money, online classes are becoming more and more common. Students are also gravitating toward online classes because they allow flexibility, giving students the chance to arrange their classes around a full- or part-time work schedule.
USC, however, appears to prefer that its undergraduates receive the full college experience.
According to Gene Bickers, vice provost for the Office of Undergraduate Programs, the university rarely offers undergraduate courses only online and will not be increasing the frequency of this practice.
“The philosophy behind it is that face-to-face learning is the best, particularly with undergraduates,” Bickers said. “It’s more the experience.”
The university does offer quite a few classes that are blended — a mix of lectures, discussion sections and online content — and more and more professors are using that option, Bickers said.
One of those professors is Matthew Pratt, who taught Chemistry 203 alongside Professor Richard Brutchey last fall. The class showcased online technology through a website, recording video lectures and online labs.
Though students had the option of going to all the lectures and finishing their lab assignments in the discussion section, they also had the opportunity to do it all on their own time, Pratt said.
The students that performed best, however, were those who utilized both options.
“The people that got the best grades in the class were people that I recognized every day,” Pratt said. “There’s a difference between being in class where you can stop me if you don’t understand what I’m saying and at home where you don’t have that opportunity.”
The possibility of watching a lecture at one’s own leisure can be desirable to students with other commitments, especially those forced to work full- or part-time jobs in these hard economic times, said Susan Metros, associate vice provost for Technology Enhanced Learning.
“Students have to work and to be able to take classes anytime, anywhere,” said Metros.
On the other hand, she said, it’s not USC’s mission to provide fully online degrees.
“A big part of education is the social experience, the cultural experience — you don’t get that in an online degree,” Metros said.
For Yasemin Zamanpur, a sophomore majoring in business administration, the ability to take her Core Concepts of Accounting Information (BUAD 250a) class online last semester was not as helpful as she had anticipated.
“What’s bad is that it’s very easy to lose track and, because the videos are released on a fast weekly cycle, inevitably you find that you’re left behind,” Zamanpur said.
On the other hand, the online courses offer a flexibility that’s unparalleled by face-to-face lectures.
“If you don’t understand a problem, you can pause it, rewind and look through it again,” she said. “I can watch it when I wake up in bed and on a weekend.”
For Jesse Small, a junior majoring in cinema-television critical studies who took Chemistry 203 last semester with Pratt, having the online component gave him peace of mind when he had to miss a class.
“It wasn’t more work or getting behind, but if I ever needed extra help there were the resources available,” Small said.
But having a lot of undergraduate classes offered only online doesn’t seem to be in USC’s future. Only a handful of current classes are using enough technology to make it possible to learn from home, Metros said.
“We think USC is more than just sitting in front of a screen,” she said.