Virtually the Same: Robert Morris University Virtually the Same | Robert Morris University

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BY JIM TALERICO

Talerico is an adjunct professor of English and communications skills at RMU

The last time Larry O'Leary walked into a classroom was 1983. Today, he's back at school via the virtual classroom, earning his M.S. degree in organizational leadership in RMU's fully online graduate program.

O'Leary says it's too early for him to assess how e-learning stacks up to a traditional education, but he has noticed that class participation and discussions are much more extensive than they were in his brick and mortar days. While students in a classroom typically have three hours a week to talk about issues, he notes that those online are reading, writing, and posting comments five to seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And while he might not know what his classmates look like, "you can get a feel for how people think and the type of personality they have by reading their introductory bios, posts and responses," he says.

Whatever opinion one may have of distance learning, one thing is sure: It is not going away. From 2002 to 2010, while the overall student body in higher education increased by two percent annually, the number of students taking at least one online class a semester grew by 20 percent, according to a recent report in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Today, nearly one out of every three college students takes at least one course online.

The growth spurt is apparent at RMU. Two years ago, the university offered four graduate online degrees. Last year the number jumped to nine, including instructional leadership, HR management, competitive intelligence systems, and the university’s flagship M.B.A.

Undergraduates can choose among seven online degrees, from business and nursing to English and psychology. "Students expect it, the market demands it, and the technology makes it possible," says professor Lois Bryan, D.Sc., who teaches managerial accounting for RMU's online M.B.A. program.

But the jury is still in session over how well virtual learning compares to a traditional education. Tensions are apparent in a recent Pew Research Center survey of college presidents, in which nearly half said they believe an online course does not provide an equal educational value compared to one taken in the classroom. Bryan, who also teaches traditional business courses, agrees there are some drawbacks. "In the classroom, I get a lot of energy and cues from students as to where the discussion should go. When students don't understand something, I get an immediate question. That's not happening online yet."

Some RMU faculty argue that an online education is better than a traditional one. Anthony Petroy, D.M., assistant vice president of the university's online and off-campus programs and assistant professor of organizational leadership, says a lot depends on the instructor. Online learning can be much more successful than the traditional classroom, he says, provided the instructor has a strong presence and is active in discussion threads and responds promptly to student questions. Even face-to-face interaction is possible in the virtual classroom; Petroy uses Skype for real-time video chat with his students.

The only difference in an online course is the delivery, says Darcy Tannehill, Ed.D., vice president of online and offcampus programs and associate professor of education. And, she adds, students cannot hide in an online class. "Many professors can vouch that often in the classroom setting, two or three students dominate the discussion, while the majority contribute little," says Tannehill. "But online, all students must respond to discussion posts from their professors and peers." While intimidation, uncertainty, or apathy may keep some classroom students from participating, Tannehill says those studying online can take the time they need to read and think about their responses, do some research and reply intelligently – when they are ready.

The university's B.S. degree in health services administration used to be a hybrid of classroom time and online work, but the major is now entirely online. The program's new director, Joseph Angelelli, Ph.D., formerly of Brown University, says the change actually sets the bar higher. "Students are not limited by a weekly class time, but are able to communicate all the time," he says. "They can be more reflective, and faculty are able to be in constant contact with them." Many of the students are already working in health care fields, so they bring their everyday work experiences to the discussions, Angelelli says.

That appeals to students like John Shingle, a sophomore in the program. "Classroom discussions tend to be more teacher-driven, but online they are more student-driven, which has its benefits," he says. For example, one recent discussion about long waits in the emergency room garnered 40 comments. "In the classroom, one or two students would have said something, and that would have been the end of it," Shingle says.

RMU's online health services administration degree program was ranked #5 in The Best Colleges' Top 10 Bachelor of Health Management and Health Administration Degree Programs of 2011-2012. Angelelli is grateful for the distinction, but adds, "I'd like us to be number one."

Another sign of the health of the university's online programs is that the majority of students keep coming back. While most online courses have retention rates that average about 50 percent, according to Tannehill, RMU had a 94 percent retention rate in graduate online courses and a 97 percent in undergraduate courses in fall 2011. "Once you're here," Tannehill says, "we want to do everything we can to keep and engage you."

Learn more about RMU's online degree programs at rmu.edu/online.

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