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Central Connections Magazine

Choose Your Classroom

Choose Your Classroom
Libby Gibson

CWU is a state leader in making personalized education more accessible than ever

By Barb Arnott

In the beginning, there were lectures, and they occurred at the same time on the same days. And students appeared and the teacher spoke. And it was good.

Then came slide rules, chalk boards, mimeographs, and overhead projectors. The world changed with interactive television in the 1970s, and CWU lectures went statewide, and it was cutting edge. Personal computers took over the world in the '90s, and everything changed.

Then came the Internet. And everything has changed again.

Robert Lupton came to Central Washington University in Ellensburg in 1999. "When I arrived on the first day for work, the department chair Ross Byrd said, 'You're going to teach a couple of online classes,'" recalled Lupton, now chair of the Information Technology and Administrative Management (ITAM) department at CWU. Then, the university was only offering a few online classes.

"Fast forward to today and ITAM is the leading department on campus with online programs and classes," Lupton beamed. "Our team recognized early on that flexible education would be a huge market, meeting the needs of people whose commitments to family or work made it impossible to enroll in a traditional program. It was the future."

Today, online learning in the United States continues to increase, driven not just by need but by preference. Students who find entertainment, news and friends online want their education there, too.

An estimated 7.1 million higher education students—one-third of all college students—are taking at least one online course, according to the annual Grade Change–Tracking Online Education in the United States.* According to the 2014 report, which surveyed more than 2,800 colleges and universities, academic officers believe the number of students taking online courses will keep on growing. Sixty-six percent say online learning is critical to their school's long-term strategy. Count CWU among them.

The student population is changing, and most undergrads no longer look like fresh-out-of-high-school teens. Young students living in residence halls make up just 15 percent of undergrads in the United States, according to The Online Learning Consortium (formerly The Sloan Consortium or Sloan-C). The other 85 percent are adults or seniors, have jobs, children, or don't live near a university. For them, online learning is essential to earning a degree.

High-caliber education for place-bound students

CWU is a leader in the state for offering online classes and degree completion programs.

"We still provide the most fully online degrees, and we're continuing to add degrees," said Chris Schedler, CWU's director of Multimodal Learning.

Offering classes online fits into CWU's mission to serve the region and make education accessible. The university works with community colleges throughout the state and uses technology to extend its educational programs to folks who cannot uproot themselves or their families to pursue a degree. CWU meets students where they are, offering its high caliber education in more ways than ever.

The university offers eight bachelor’s degree programs, eight master's degree programs, nine minor programs, and four certificates and endorsements online, as well as more than 300 general education courses— from intro to Western art to advanced business law.

One of its newer programs is the online professional and creative writing major, through which students earn a bachelor of arts degree in two years—sooner if they take summer classes. After nine years as a popular face-to-face specialization, the English department decided it would work well as a major, and gave students who don't live in Ellensburg the option to complete it entirely online.

"It allows the English department to reach a lot of new students that are place-bound for a variety of reasons and have different reasons for wanting to get a degree in writing," said Katharine Whitcomb, English professor and the online professional and creative writing coordinator.

The program combines creative writing in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting with professional and technical writing and editing. Graduates have been hired as writers and editors for magazines and websites, designers of game narratives for Microsoft, have gone on to earn advanced degrees in writing, poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and have become teachers.

"The degree has a lot of breadth," Whitcomb said.

Whatever one-on-one classroom experience students might miss in the online interface, they gain from being able to work on their own schedules, Whitcomb said, adding that jobs and family responsibilities are often the biggest things standing between students and an education.

The online professional and creative writing major is offered to students who don't live on the Ellensburg campus. Most are from the Puget Sound area, Whitcomb said, with other students based in Spokane, Yakima, Wenatchee, California and even Colorado.

"We really feel like we have a great thing going with this program, and offering it online allows students from all over the place to benefit from it," Whitcomb said.

At CWU, online program RETENTION RATES closely mirrored university retention rates between 2010 and 2013.

Doubled enrollments

A few years ago, the College of Education and Professional Studies turned its attention to its masters in literacy and masters in special education programs, both of which were experiencing low enrollments.

"Alumni don't usually come back to the Central campus for masters degrees, and especially those involved in education," said Connie Lambert, dean of the College of Education and Professional Studies. "They'll choose a school closer to where they live and work."

The college now offers the programs fully online with classes taught by the program's tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

"There are so many other options right now, so it was in our best interest to provide some of those similar options to masters candidates," Lambert said. "We also wanted to ensure that we gave our alumni the option to take classes from Central."

The College of Education and Professional Studies also offers its masters in school administration, masters in higher education, library media endorsement classes, residency principal certificate and program administrator certificate online.

"Enrollment has gone up in all the programs," Lambert said, adding that enrollments for the school administration program has doubled and almost tripled.

Still a residential campus first

Alex LowerBut CWU, a 123-year-old institution, is still a residential campus first. The Ellensburg campus continues to give students from all walks of life a place to discover themselves and prepare for enlightened, responsible and productive lives.

"The residential experience on campus will continue to be an essential part of higher education," Schedler said.

That's what CWU student Alex Lower expects out of college. The sophomore from Gig Harbor is studying business.

During his first year at CWU, Lower lived on campus in Davies Hall and says dorm life helped him get to know a lot of people. For fall 2014 he's trading the dorm for a house off campus shared by fly fishing roommates.

Lower expects to complete his degree in four years. He has never taken an online course, and at this point, doesn't intend to.

"I learn better with face-to-face interaction," Lower said. "You have a bunch of other classmates around you so you can talk amongst each other ... You can ask a lot more questions. It's just always worked out better for me."

But more and more residential students are taking online classes.

CWU student Brendan McEachran says online classes are helping him get through his degree program faster. In June, the music education major was taking a mix of online classes and traditional classes in Ellensburg. McEachran says the flexibility of online classes frees him up to practice in the music building during the week.

"A lot of students take online courses to fill gaps in their schedule, to get some flexibility in their course scheduling and to move a little quicker through their program," Schedler said.

It's working

A major contributor to the growth in online learning in the United States is the need for increased access to higher education and flexibility for adult and nontraditional students, according to Grade Change. Institutions continue to create new online courses not only because they're in demand, but more important, because they're effective. Seventy-four percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same as or superior to face-to-face courses, according to Grade Change.

A 2010 report by the US Department of Education, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning, concludes that blended instruction (a combination of online and face-to-face) is more effective than purely face-to-face instruction. The report also found that when used by itself, online learning is as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.

*Grade Change is the 11th annual report by Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC, and was published in January 2014. The report was written by Babson co-directors I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman.

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