Several colleges and universities say they’ve seen double-digit increases in the number of students taking online courses in recent years. Increasingly, some of the online offerings are what’s known as “hybrid” courses, which mix an online experience with traditional classroom learning.
Scott Pilgram is working on his business management degree from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn. Last semester, Pilgram took his first hybrid course.
The class, Linguistics in Society, alternated between classroom work one week and online work the next.
“It was pretty neat. I liked it,” he said.
What appealed to Pilgram, a full-time accountant, about the time online was that he didn’t need to spend as much time on campus. Meanwhile, the occasional face time with his classmates and instructor kept his studies on track.
“[I] personally, and I’m sure some other people, might have a hard time [getting motivated] on an internet-only class,” Pilgrim said. “You might not feel like going up to your room … and logging in. Every other week I thought was a nice mix.”
It was a nice mix for instructor Michal Moskow as well. Moskow is also director of online learning at the university. She likes seeing her students face to face, but said that’s not necessary every week.
“Some students, or some instructors, might want to have the classroom experience, but might not be able to come as often,” Moskow said.
Hybrid courses seem to answer a challenge in online education. They offer some classroom time to students not able to muster the motivation for a purely online course. At the same time, they’re an acknowledgement that sitting in class for hours week after week might not be the best use of students’ time.
A recent analysis of existing online-learning research by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. What’s more, students who took the class using a “blended,” or hybrid, model of instruction performed best of all.
Moskow said Metropolitan State will offer more online courses in the coming years, and among them will be more hybrid courses.
“It seems to me that there’s an interest in them and that they’ll be growing for a while,” she said.
There’s a similar prediction from officials at St. Mary’s University.
“I honestly think we will see that blended design staying around. It’s shown for us that it’s quite effective,’” said Rebecca Hopkins, dean of the private college’s Graduate School of Education.
Hopkins said St. Mary’s students are often working full time while they get their degrees, so they want to take classes online. At the same time, those students like to get together face to face, at least once in a while.
“We do have student feedback that said, ‘We … value that face-to-face time together,’” Hopkins said. “It doesn’t need to happen all the time, but we do like what that brings to the learning experience.”
The University of Minnesota is trying out hybrid courses as well. An introductory chemistry course, a lecture once offered entirely in the classroom, is now taught partially online. That means students who normally wouldn’t take courses online, 18- and 19-year olds living on campus, are now online students as well.
Bob Rubinyi oversees online courses at the university. Rubinyi said the internet-based classroom is no longer solely for older students piecing together a degree between work and family duties.
“It’s not this division between the traditional students and the students who are taking classes after hours or on the weekends that we might have had in the past,” Rubinyi said. “We’re seeing much more blending of those two populations.”
Rubinyi said 12,500 students took at least one course online from the university in the 2008-09 school year. That’s a 10-percent increase over the year before.
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) officials say they saw a 22-percent increase in the number of students taking online courses at their state universities and two-year colleges this fall compared to last.
Leslie Mercer, associate vice chancellor for planning at MnSCU, said that’s in part because online learning is becoming a normal part of the college experience.
“I think it’s becoming more widely known, [and] I think students are more comfortable with it than they used to be,” Mercer said. “And faculty are more comfortable as well.”
Mercer said students have become so comfortable with online classes that many are taking courses from more than one MnSCU school at the same time. That’s something MnSCU hopes to make easier for students to do in the future.