William Eggers is ecstatic about the quality of students taking his Federal Indian Law class through Montana State University Bozeman — even though he hasn’t met any of them face to face.
Eggers, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe and longtime trial lawyer, began teaching the online class in January as part of a new graduate certificate program in Native American Studies.
The 11 students taking the class include attorneys, university administrators, residents of Indian country and recent college graduates with interest in Native American Studies.
A few have doctoral degrees. They live in Montana, Oregon, Alaska, the East Coast and the Southwest.
Even though the program was launched only this semester, it has drawn a lot of attention, probably because it’s the only program of its kind in the country and, perhaps, the world, said Kristin Ruppel, assistant professor of Native American studies and graduate coordinator for the NAS Department.
Ruppel co-teaches another class in the program, Native American: Dispelling the Myths, with Rebecca Wingo.
A certificate program, which requires fewer credits to complete than a master’s program, was started as a possible first step toward establishing a master’s degree.
A certificate is a way for people who may have a graduate degree to get more training in a particular area.
Creating an online Native American course is a way to offer Montana expertise to people around the world interested in the subject.
MSU has a master’s degree in Native American studies, but it is not offered online.
Ruppel and Wingo’s class has 13 students, who include college instructors, teachers, an agricultural extension agent who works with tribes, a minister who has worked on reservations and a veterinarian.
Not only is there a hidden audience around the country of people wanting to take such courses, there’s hidden group of people qualified to teach a course outside the state on whom MSU could draw if the program expands.
Wingo, an MSU graduate, teaches the class from the East Coast, where she lives now.
Eggers and Ruppel’s classes are among the 80 or so fully online courses MSU has this semester with 1,500 students.
MSU has about a dozen programs — all at a graduate level — that can be completed online, said Peg Wherry, MSU’s director of online and distance learning.
Equally as important, according to Wherry, are the more than 10,800 students, out of a total MSU enrollment of 12,000 students, who use at least one online tool in their class work.
One common tool is posting grades online, so only each student can see his or her grade.
Online learning is important for states like Montana, which have a small population spread out over a large area, Wherry said.
But online education goes beyond reaching Montanans. By drawing in out-of-state students, Montana universities can reach the critical number of students to be able to offer certain classes.
In that way, out-of-state students help subsidize Montana students.
Is anything lost in online classes?
A lot depends on the student, Wherry said.
If a student learns better by listening, he or she may do better in a conventional class. Students who do well learning by reading may do better in an online class.
Because some things can’t be reproduced online, conventional universities will continue to exist.
“Education still needs what brick and mortar gives,” she said “Socialization, for one, particularly for younger students.”
Eggers puts in more hours each week for his online class than for a regular class, but he is enjoying it more because the online students are smart, engaged and eager to do the work.
After posting one weekly discussion topic, he had 85 lengthy responses from students over the next three days.
Most of the students are prolific writers, good readers and good thinkers.
“It’s almost a better experience than a face-to-face class because they have to show they understand the material,” he said.
“There’s no ducking the submissions and the deadlines.”