By Carson Cook, Chattanooga, Tenn.– As the university works to expand its undergraduate online education programing, some faculty members remain hesitant to utilize virtual classrooms.

This semester, the university is offering more than 150 web-based courses. Two years ago, that number was just 102. Just in undergraduate programs, there are 101 web-based courses this semester, compared to 73 in the fall of 2013.

One of the goals outlined in the university’s new strategic plan is to “expand, integrate and assess virtual course delivery methods as a part of the overall educational experience,” according to the plan website. Part of this goal is to have at least one undergraduate degree program in each college and the ability to complete general education requirements completely virtually by 2020.

Currently the university offers entirely online undergraduate programs in four departments. Students can earn as B.S. in criminal justice and a bachelor’s of integrated studies, as well as certificates in nonprofit management and engineering. There is also a program for registered nurses to earn a B.S. in nursing in 14 months. Several other departments offer some courses online, but not entire degrees.

“Online education is something the university is embracing. I think it needs to be done strategically and done the right way with the right courses,” said the head of the English department, Dr. Chris Stuart.

Stuart said he expects more classes will be offered online, but that some courses may not work well in the virtual environment. He said the growth of online programs shouldn’t happen “without a full conversation about how it should be done and how to do it well.”


Advantages of the Online Classroom

Students and teachers have noted the advantages of online classes, such as flexibility and online discussions.”

“Aside from the obvious advantages of not having to drive to campus, online courses offer flexibility and allow working students who might not otherwise be able to attend to work rapidly towards a degree,” said Roger Ling, the technology coordinator for the School of Nursing.

“There are still regular deadlines and due dates but students can do the work at any time of the day rather than being tied to a specific class time.”

Abigail Edwards, a Franklin, Tenn. sophomore, said about her experience with an online communication course, “I had a part time job and an internship. It gave me enough flexibility to manage all those things, but also was an interesting enough class that I was focused and wanted to participate.”

Andrew Najberg, a lecturer who has helped design the online model for Creative Writing, explained that in an online discussion students have as much time as they need to compose their thoughts, and there is a record of the conversations to review.

“They can sit and think out what they want to say, and I do think that absolutely appeals to a lot of students,” said Najberg. He also thinks having more time to think about a response can encourage more critical thinking.


Negative Backlash

Despite the advantages of online courses, some professors have no interest in teaching one.

“For me, all the fun of a professor is being in the classroom…the fun is being there with people and discussing books,” said Stuart.

Dr. Aaron Sheheen, another English professor, also says he does not want to be an online instructor because he doesn’t want to lose the discussion component.

“I think face-to-face discussion is essential for making sense of complex pieces of literature. That’s something Plato figured out over two millennia ago,” said Sheheen.

“Moreover, it takes a certain level of emotional and intellectual maturity to disagree respectfully with another in person.”

Najberg believes that many professors are hesitant to embrace new technology because it challenges the “tried and true” methods they’ve developed from years teaching in the classroom.

“My experience so far has been that online teaching is made a lot more challenging when you try to force the online class into the methodology of a traditional semester,” said Najberg.

“Instead it requires a more substantial rethinking of how a classroom operates.”


Not for Everyone

“It just depends on the type of student,” said Edwards about online classes.

Students that do well in online classes “know how to manage their own time effectively, definitely,” said Edwards.

“Also, if you’re a student that maybe isn’t as talkative in class or maybe doesn’t get as much from discussion.”

Najberg echoed these sentiments, “The primary determinant of success in online classes is your strengths as a learner.”

“Each individual student learns better in different ways.  Some people benefit greatly from the seminar discussion format.  Other people can soak up information from lectures and really retain it.”

The UTC Learn Online website offers a quiz to help students determine if the virtual classroom is right for them. Some of the factors they encourage students to consider are if they have regular access to a computer, their level of computer skills, their time management skills, and how much time they are willing to devote to an online class.