Online classes help PSU respond to growing enrollment

Once upon a time, all learning took place in institutions.


“It used to be that if you wanted knowledge, you went to it フ_- it didn’t go to you,” said Mike Burton, vice provost for extended studies at PSU. “The monks owned the books, so if you wanted to read the books, you had to talk to the monks.”


But things are different now, and the university’s role has changed.


Only 35 percent of today’s high school students go straight into college and finish an uninterrupted baccalaureate degree. The majority will take another route to their educational and work careers.


Portland State, a decidedly nontraditional campus, has students of all ages and backgrounds, as well as many who work and attend school simultaneously.

Even as large numbers of students continue to matriculate, the costs of a college education and the availability of state and federal support continue to drift in opposing directions, chipping away at the higher education infrastructure. Colleges try to do more with less, and work to squeeze an exploding student body into a finite physical space.


“We’re responding to tremendous growth,” said Roy Koch, PSU provost and vice president for academic affairs. “We have serious space constraints and need to find room for our students beyond the campus.”


In keeping with these demands – which Burton refers to as “the three D’s”: demand, delivery system and demographics – universities have embraced online learning as an alternative means of delivering a college education, a trend that took root in the 1990s.

When Burton arrived at PSU two years ago, he was charged with integrating the existing online systems: the Department of Extended Studies – which provides the executive master’s in business administration, continuing education and educator access to online training and licensure – and the state-funded Office of Information Technology, which works with professors to implement classes that are partially or fully online.


Burton was also asked to further develop online learning at PSU – including fully online degree programs.


“For degrees, we looked at the niche things that we thought we could do better than anyone else, degrees that we could offer on a national basis,” Burton said.

On Sept. 26, PSU rolled out its first fully online degree: a bachelor’s in administration of criminal justice.


The next online degree at PSU could be in sustainability and environmental studies, an area with strong local interest. 


Many students say they are happy with the online classes offered at PSU, saying they enjoy the convenience and self-directed learning.


“You can roll out of bed and to the computer, do your homework as you please,” Portland State student Allison Jewell said. “As long as you meet deadlines you’re in the clear.”


“Convenience is a huge attraction,” Josh Bobbitt, another PSU student, said. “It’s less time away from my family.”


By avoiding expenses associated with traditional classes, such as transportation and child care, online students save money.


But web-based classes also come with unique challenges. Instructors must be enthusiastic, organized and teach students they’ll never see.


“It takes a lot of motivation to be a good online teacher,” Burton said. “Dan Johnson in geography – he’s our poster child for the ideal online professor. He’s interested in his students, he understands the online structure and he’s committed to providing a great class experience.”


It doesn’t always go so smoothly. Bobbitt found himself in the middle of one exceptionally difficult online class.


“The course was set up horribly, the instructor didn’t communicate and there were technical glitches galore,” Bobbitt said.


With no student-teacher interaction and no assignments, many students in Bobbitt’s class failed to grasp the material, not realizing how much trouble they were in until they started failing exams.


“Lack of human contact is a problem,” Jewell said. “If you need help, you have to be able to find the professor.”


“Online classes are difficult,” Bobbitt said. “There’s more reading involved and no lectures to sit through. You really need to be self-motivated to do this sort of class.”

Well-designed online classes deliver a quality product and a good learning experience. Students learn from their professor and from discussions with their fellow students. But if an online professor isn’t accessible or interested, success is fully in the student’s own hands. Quality drops, and frustration rises.


When an online class falters, who is responsible?


At PSU, departments administer their own online classes with tech support from the Office of Information Technology. Each department chair is responsible for the success or failure of its online classes.


“It’s absolutely the department’s responsibility to insure the quality of the online courses and instructors,” Burton said. “My job is to provide the administrative support to make the process effective.”


The interest in developing online learning continues at PSU, which currently offers more than 300 online classes.


“There’s a lot of thought and work going into the future of online learning at PSU,” Burton said. “We want to make online classes exciting and viable. We want to take learning and do something different with it.