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Online Learning

As 6-year-old Tyler pedals his bicycle around the block and 14-year-old Abby is busy with friends, their father, Tim Collins, heads to school. There is no need for a babysitter or even for gasoline to drive the 30 miles to Big Sandy Community & Technical College where Tim is pursuing a degree in education. During the day, he doesn’t even have to leave his job at Joy Global in Salyersville to pursue his education goals. Instead, school is as close as Collins’ computer, and it is open any time he so desires.

Collins is one of thousands of Kentuckians taking higher education classes online. In fact, in Kentucky online learning has exploded,
growing 10 percent a year since the first courses were offered in 1997. Sixty-five percent of students graduating in 2010-2011 (the latest figures available) take at least one online course before graduation, according to Allen Lind, vice president for Innovation and eLearning for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

The reason? Online courses meld nicely with the rest of life.

Collins says it well: “I enjoy online classes and am so thankful for them. Online classes give me more time with my children, particularly Tyler, who wants a lot of my attention. When he is taking a nap or playing, I can jump in there and take care of my school work.”

Since their inception, online classes have been popular with nontraditional students such as Collins, 46. Collins knew just a few years out of high school that he wanted a different job, but it wasn’t that easy to make a change. He had a family to support, and “a good job with good benefits.” One benefit in particular—the chance to work with his father every day—was particularly important to Collins.

When his father, Harold, died in January of 2014, Collins says the world changed for him.

“I was like a trapeze artist,” he says. “I could walk a tightrope with my dad, my safety net, always under me. It’s different now that I don’t have that safety net.”

That’s when Collins made a decision.

“You are an old man, I told myself one day at work,” he recalls, “but you can still dream. You are ready to go back to school.”

Collins called Big Sandy Community & Technical College. It turned out to be the last day to register for classes the upcoming semester. It was a sign to Collins, who turned in half a day of vacation time and rushed to the college to register.

Now he boasts a 3.75 grade point average. In the fall 2014 semester he took math, two education courses, and a logic course—all online. He will have a similar course load in spring 2015.

Nontraditional students are not the only ones taking online courses. Students who are on campus every day also find online courses advantageous.

On the other side of the state in western Kentucky, Hunter Evans graduated in May 2014 from Murray State University with a degree in telecommunications system management and is now an associate consultant in cyber security for Microsoft in Dallas, Texas.

“I worked two jobs for the first three years of college,” Evans says. “The online courses made it possible to schedule my classes around work.”

Evans also found that he learned more in the online courses.

“There is not someone there to tell you what to do,” Evans says. “When you run into a problem, you have to research it yourself. While researching, you also learn the answer to something else. The instructors are there, but at the same time you don’t want to be 100 percent reliant on them. Online if you ask 30 questions, you need to find 30 answers.”

That work ethic is what Evans and Collins say is necessary to do well with online courses.

“You have to be willing to do the work and not put it off,” Evans says. “It is easy to put it off since there is no set time to do it. I loved to work at my own pace and work hard on a class for two to three weeks and complete it.”

At the Council on Postsecondary Education in Frankfort, the agency that oversees the state’s public higher education institutions, Allen Lind says the state has tried to make online learning easier by having all public schools use the same software.

Lind says online learning is so well-established that it is now divided into two categories—traditional online learning and competency-based learning. In a traditional online class, students have a set amount of time, typically 16 weeks, to learn as much as they can. With competency-based learning, there are certain things students are required to learn and they can take as little or as much time as needed to learn them.[pullquote cite=”Allen Lind” type=”left”]”The U.S. Department of Education is spending a lot of time to adapt its rules and policies to make competency-based learning doable and fundable at the federal level. Our two-year system, KCTCS, is already a national leader.”[/pullquote]

And another big change is on the way.

It’s called the Commonwealth College, and through it students will be able to earn an entire bachelor’s degree online using the competency-based format. Two universities will be the first to offer such degrees: the University of Louisville will offer a bachelor’s degree in leadership in healthcare management, and Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green will offer a bachelor’s degree in advanced manufacturing.

“As soon as we get those out of the gate, there will be other universities and degrees to follow in the next few years.”

Likewise, online learning is an integral part of education at Kentucky’s private colleges and universities, such as the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg. The college offers two types of online courses, according to Nick Cockrum, associate dean for Academic Affairs. With synchronous courses, students come together online in a virtual classroom for discussion and feedback. This is the more traditional approach to online learning. The university also offers asynchronous courses, in which study is entirely independent, on each student’s time schedule, and there is no common meeting time.

“Offering both gives students a choice as to how they want their education delivered,” says Cockrum. “Asynchronous courses allow for students whose family and job don’t allow them to schedule common meeting times.Synchronous courses are especially popular in education programs, which make up the largest percentage of online courses,” Cockrum says. “There are benefits to getting students and instructors together.”

Cockrum says the university has taken a different approach to online learning in one other important regard.

“Many universities charge more for online learning, and those classes cost more than traditional classes,” he says. “We look at it the other way around. We gain some cost advantages since we don’t need classrooms. This allows us to deliver the programs at a better price for the student.”

Back in Salyersville, Tim Collins is only one class from finishing his associate degree and has already been accepted at Morehead State University. He will be dual-enrolled and taking classes online at both Morehead and Big Sandy Community & Technical College during the spring 2015 semester.

“I am so excited about this new chapter in my life and my new career ahead,” he says. “Once I have this degree I have no plan of stopping with school. I want to go on and get my Rank 1 and my master’s. There is more for me. I am going to get this done.”

With thoughtful sincerity, Collins adds, “Could I say one more thing? I am unendingly grateful for all the help I’ve been given along the way. I’ve been blessed with the best advisors I could possibly have.”


Check out the 2015 College Guide by Kentucky Living magazine.

Debra Gibson Isaacs from February 2015 Issue Tim Webb

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