BYU tests out online classes with pilot program

Carolyn Carter
A recent study showed online classes can expand students’ opportunities to learn. BYU may be implementing more online classes. (Carolyn Carter)

With one simple click on her laptop, BYU student Deb Hutchins was transported from the numbing world of social media to her online college course. When it comes to online classes, a computer becomes the professor, a web browser serves as a textbook and a shoddy dorm room is transformed into a classroom for one student alone.

A recent study conducted by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University showed college students were “significantly more likely to fail in or withdraw from” an online class than those enrolled traditionally.

Students across the country have been taking online classes and drawing their own conclusions about the pros and cons of this growing form of education. Hutchins, a senior majoring in food science, has tried online classes at BYU.

“I could have gotten an A if I had spent 50 hours during the semester to go to class, but saving those 50 hours was worth (the lower grade),” Hutchins said. “I missed a few points though because I wasn’t in the class where they could have given me really specific instructions about how to do the assignments.”

Hutchins stated she would recommend taking an online class to other students, especially if it’s not a difficult class.

Many schools in Utah are now offering a large selection of online classes for students to choose from due to increasing demand. Some of these even give an opportunity for students to graduate having taken exclusively online classes. BYU offers very few online classes to regularly enrolled full time students.

Director of BYU’s School of Communications Ed Carter has valuable input about online classes and their potential in BYU’s educational landscape, having completed two master’s degrees online. Carter’s first master’s degree was from the University of Edinburgh in 2007, and second was from Oxford in 2013. He supplemented his online coursework with brief visits to Scotland and England.

Carter said he had positive experiences with online education, and believes it has the potential to benefit students when administered correctly.

“I think online learning can work, but if it’s only straight online learning I think we’re missing something,” Carter said.

Carter said students will learn better by doing much of their classwork online, but still being required to come to class about once a month for full class discussions. Studies, like the one conducted by Columbia University, have shown this model to be superior to strictly online classes.

For the past three to four years BYU has been conducting a pilot program of online classes for currently enrolled BYU students, according to Carter. He pointed out that BYU is not ready to fully implement online classes beyond the pilot program just yet.

“BYU is being cautious about (implementing online classes) which is a good thing, and yet (the University) is still doing something,” Carter said. “We’re not doing nothing, but we’re not jumping way ahead of ourselves beyond what we’re ready for. Wherever BYU is going to end up, a program (for online classes) requires us to be working on it over a period of time. We have to be developing it now.”

Online classes have already been successfully instituted at several universities and colleges in Utah, including Salt Lake Community College. In total, about 300 different online classes are offered each term; these classes are often the first to fill up and have been the only classes that have had an increase in enrollment over the past few years.

A comparison of online and traditional classes at Salt Lake Community College reveals that online class grades (for C or better grades) are four percentage points below classroom rates. Ryan Hobbs, the director of Salt Lake Community College’s online programs, strongly supports the online program.

“I have had the great privilege of being enrolled in an online class as a student and a faculty member,” Hobbs said. “I strongly believe that students can learn in any format or method, if the right elements are in place.”

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