The Virtual Classroom
Online Education An Increasingly Important
Part Of Macon State College's Academic Program
By Sheron Smith
When Dr. Amy Berke taught an online version of freshman English
for the first time a year ago, she quickly realized she was going
to have to check her ego at the virtual door.
"One of the first things I learned is that the hierarchical
nature of the class disappears," said Berke, an assistant professor
of English. "The instructor is no longer 'sage on the stage,'
but more of a 'guide on the side.' At first I found that ego-flattening,
but it's been liberating for the students. They take more responsibility
for learning and feel more powerful in that environment."
A novelty just a few years ago, online courses now play a highly
visible role in reshaping teaching and learning in Macon State College's
New Century atmosphere. During the 1999-2000 academic year, the
college offered 10 sections of online courses, mostly in accounting
and computer applications, with a combined enrollment of 174 students.
In the 2000-2001 academic year, including this summer, the college
offered 37 sections of online courses with a combined enrollment
Beyond those numbers, many courses in various academic disciplines
have become significantly "Web-enhanced." In a Web-enhanced
class, students have regular face-to-face contact with the instructor
but use many Internet-based resources, such as discussion boards or
course webpages that may include some combination of text, animation,
graphics or video.
Laura Swinney (top), an MSC sophmore,
likes the 'anytime, anyplace' convenience of the online English
class she takes from Dr. Amy Berke (bottom). Here, Swinney
checks out the course webpage while visiting at her boyfriend's
house. Berke works in her office.
An online course uses many of those same resources, but the majority
of interaction between the instructor and students takes place electronically.
From Berke's English 1102 course webpage, for example, students
follow links to read the poetry of Sylvia Plath online, then "meet"
in a chatroom to discuss her work. In an online IT course, students
can watch a video over the Web to see a demonstration of how to
replace memory chips inside personal computers. In an online economics
course, students can access a Web tutorial that explains the concept
of supply vs. demand.
"This is just the beginning of an exciting transition in higher
education," said President David A. Bell. "I see some
phenomenal things happening in the next few years. Rather than being
two distinct worlds, the traditional classroom experience and online
education are integrating into a variety of interactive models for
teaching and learning. Our job is to create the richest electronic
environment we can to produce top-quality online courses and enhance
the traditional college experience."
IT Leads the Way
Besides growing in number, Macon State online courses are more
diverse now, with choices ranging from information technology to
business to health sciences to English. The Learning Support division
is in the act as well, recently offering an online version of a
writing lab designed to help students prepare to take the Regents
Leading the way in the development of online education at Macon
State is the School of Information Technology, which expects to
have all eight IT core courses available online by the end of the
2001-2002 academic year. Through Georgia GLOBE, the state's electronic
learning network, Macon State will place the entire IT degree curriculum
online within a few years. Toward that end, the IT division has
taken on the challenging task of finding ways to simulate online
some of the most hands-on aspects of the degree program, such as
a computer concepts course in which students study the architecture
of hardware and operating systems software.
The IT division has also collaborated with the Macon State College
Educational Technology Center, which trains schoolteachers how to
integrate technology into the classroom, to offer a 30-credit-hour
online certificate program in educational technology. The program's
students - a combination of educators who aspire to be technology
specialists at their schools and others seeking second careers -
come from nearly all regions of the state.
"The number of completely online IT students from around the
state is growing and will surely become a significant factor in
years to come as we, and they, get better at it," said Dr.
Bill Elieson, the IT division's chair. "I hope that we will
soon reach a point where every IT student takes at least some classes
Title III Grant
Macon State's development of online education and other technology-driven
academic resources got a major boost last year when the U.S. Department
of Education awarded the college a $1.75 million grant under the
"Strengthening Institutions" program, commonly known as
Among other things, the funding allowed Macon State to expand the
staff of the technology support services department. The new personnel
include Stacy Kluge, an instructional designer, and Geoffrey G.
Dyer, multimedia developer. They, along with Phil Wetherington,
instructional technology support specialist, are training faculty
members how to use technological tools that help them create Web-enhanced
or online courses.
The grant is also helping to pay for the development of broadband
(high-speed) Internet access at Macon State, as well as other infrastructure
crucial to building online resources for students and faculty or
otherwise integrate technology into the classroom. In fact, most
of the Title III project's goals relate to innovative teaching.
The integration of technology into the curriculum will engage students
in active learning, an approach that research has shown increases
the chances they will stay in school and finish their degrees.
The advantages of online courses to students include their efficiency
and the ability to look at and listen to course material as needed.
But the most oft-cited advantage of online courses is their flexibility.
One reason Christy Shannon, 26, decided to take Berke's online English
class is that it eliminated the need to arrange for childcare for
her 5-year-old daughter.
"As long as you have access to the Internet, you can participate
in class from the beach if you'd like, which I actually did,"
said Shannon, who plans to transfer to the University of Florida.
"Another advantage was the computer skills I picked up. I was
somewhat computer-illiterate so I was a little intimidated in the
Sam Franklin, 35, an information management major in the business
& IT degree program, has taken two online accounting courses
from Dr. Patti Impink, a business professor. Franklin, information
systems branch chief for the Georgia Air National Guard, said he
would pursue the entire degree online if all the courses were available
in that format.
"I'm married, I've got three little ones and my job is pretty
demanding," Franklin said, "so the flexibility is really
Macon State faculty who teach online classes say they also like
the flexibility, although some note that they have to invest more
time in such courses.
"An experienced teacher can give a lecture (in a traditional
class) from an outline of notes," said Dr. John Edwards, an
associate professor of IT who teaches online courses in computer
interface design. "But in an online course you can't teach
from notes, you have to post pages of detailed text. Another difference
is that in a traditional class an instructor has different ways
of gauging students' understanding: are they looking at you or just
sitting there with their eyes glazed over?
"Teachers can use those dynamics to change their approach,
literally in the middle of class. Online, you don't see the students
as a group, so you can't use those dynamics. What you have to do
is use as many approaches to teaching as possible and hope at least
one of them works. All of this takes more time."
Berke agrees that classroom dynamics are very different online,
which is not necessarily a drawback. Two or three students cannot
dominate discussion in an online environment, creating opportunities
for those who may be reluctant to speak up in a traditional class.
"Students just seem to be less self-conscious in an online
class," Berke said.
Impink said many of her students actually seem to interact more
in the virtual environment.
"I require students to participate in online discussions and
they all get to know each other by 'screen' personality," she
But as nearly every instructor of online courses is quick to note,
the virtual classroom isn't for everybody. Students who register
for online courses thinking they will require less work usually
find the opposite to be true.
"I thought it would be easier than going to a classroom, but
it's been a lot of work to get everything posted online by the deadlines,"
said Laura Swinney, another of Berke's English students. "
I've put more time into this class than a lot of my other classes."
Franklin said the self-discipline he's developed through his military
career serves him well when he takes an online course. "But
I can see if you're not self-disciplined it could really bite you
in the rear," he said.
Impink said some of her online students drop the course when they
realize they have to invest more time guiding their own learning.
"These courses are great as far as scheduling convenience,"
she said, "but they are not easier. Some students just don't
want to put in that extra time."
Dr. Janice Edens, an English professor who also teaches freshman
composition online, posted on her website a checklist students can
review to help them decide if online courses are for them. Berke
also uses the checklist, which gets students to ask themselves if
they have the self-discipline and organizational skills it takes
to complete coursework outside the structure of a traditional class.
Edwards hopes the college can eventually require students who register
for online courses to participate in short orientations so they'll
know what to expect.
Quality of Instruction
At Macon State, students in online courses must come to campus
once or twice per semester to take exams or fulfill other class
requirements. (For students outside of Central Georgia, Macon State
arranges with the nearest University System institution to give
exams.) One obvious reason is the need for an instructor to make
sure that the student who registered for the online course is actually
the one doing the work, but also because a dash of face-to-face
interaction seems to enhance the virtual experience.
"I like the hybrid of the personal interaction with the efficiencies
of online," said Elieson, who has taught online classes in
the educational technology certificate program in which he met face-to-face
with the students one Saturday a month. "That social interaction
makes the asynchronous interaction more meaningful."
Even so, Dr. Mike Staman, Peyton Anderson Professor of Information
Technology, predicts that evolving technology will enable instructors
and students to create a sense of community online without ever
meeting face-to-face. He and his students in some online IT seminar
classes he teaches are experimenting with creating what Staman calls
In a scenario described by Staman, teams of students could hold
meetings online using tools that are freely available over Internet,
or soon will be, but not merely through chatrooms.
"They can talk to each other because all have purchased a
$10 microphone they've plugged into their PC and they use their
speakers for sound," Staman said. "They can see each other
through a $40 camera that they mount on the top of their PC. They
could share desktops on their computers, so members of the team
could watch one person do something. They would have a shared whiteboard
on which, like the blackboard in the classroom, they can diagram,
erase and modify each other's diagrams because it is a common space.
Sharing elements of their projects is very easy because an instantaneous
file-transfer feature is included.
"So the idea is to create a virtual meeting space which is
actually a bit better (in some ways) than a real meeting space.
After all, when the meeting is over each member of the team just
saves the files and a full record of the meeting, the teaching,
the examples and the modifications are saved for future reference
on each member's PC."
As the technology evolves, the demand for online education is certain
to grow, although nobody at Macon State believes it will replace
the regular college experience --- nor that it should. The challenge,
as Bell said, is to make sure the quality of online education grows
along with the demand.
"How we respond to that demand should be an ongoing discussion,"
Berke said. "We always want to make sure the quality of instruction
is our primary consideration."