A lot has changed in the 12 years that Montana State University Billings has offered classes online.
In 1998, some students inquiring about the classes not only didn’t have computers but also didn’t realize they needed a computer to take a class, said MSU Billings Chancellor Ron Sexton.
Now, computers are so inexpensive that most students have them. Online learning also has evolved by leaps and bounds, with Internet tools working their way into a large portion of all classes.
MSU Billings, among the first campuses in Montana to offer classes over the Internet, remains a leader in the state, with 17 certificate or degree programs completely online.
Montana State University in Bozeman has about a dozen online programs and is developing more. The University of Montana has 14 programs.
At MSU Billings, about 2,000 of the university’s 4,800 students are taking at least one online class, said Tim Tirrell, director of E-Learning.
Thirty percent of credit hours now taken by students are from online classes.
MSU Billings classes have reached students in every Montana county, 23 states and five or six foreign countries.
Each semester, MSU Billings has 185 online classes.
“We’re addressing demand,” Tirrell said. “That’s where the demand is.”
If three sections of the same class are offered the same semester, the online class will fill first, Sexton said.
MSU Billings isn’t alone in offering online courses.
Ninety percent of colleges and university across the country have at least some classes online, said Tirrell, who worked in distance learning on the East Coast for 20 years before coming to Billings two years ago.
Enrollment in online classes across the country grew 17 percent from fall of 2007 to 2008, according to a recently released Sloan Survey of Online Learning. Representatives of college and universities said that the recession spurred demand for both online and face-to-face classes during that time.
Tirrell said students take online classes for several reasons:
• Convenience. It’s easier to squeeze in an extra class for full-time students and more convenient for part-time students to take two classes instead of one if at least one of the courses is online.
• Schedule. Some students can’t fit a regular class into their schedule because of family or work obligations.
• Cost of commuting. Colleges and universities saw a spike in demand for online classes when gas hit $4 a gallon.
Another factor feeding the popularity of online classes is that traditional students — those who go to college soon after graduating from high school — grew up with computers and have few problems navigating the Internet.
Although many nontraditional students also are now computer-literate, some aren’t and use MSU Billings’ online tutorial support.
“The digital divide is still an issue,” Tirrell said.
And some in parts of rural Montana still can’t get a high-speed Internet connection, which makes taking a class more difficult.
From the beginning, MSU Billings decided to develop full online degree and certificate programs rather than just individual classes, Sexton said.
That was because it was uncertain how a single class would fit into a student’s plan to get a degree or if it would count toward a degree on any campus in the state.
That’s less of an issue these days after the Montana University System has made many basic courses transferrable across state campuses.
Over the past decade, several things have changed about online MSU Billings classes, Sexton said:
• More on-campus students are taking online classes, too.
• The number of hybrid classes that use both online and face-to-face instruction is growing. A class may meet once a week and have online discussions for the rest of the week.
• Online education has become richer, with better technology that allows integrating videos and lectures from a variety of sources.
At MSU Billings, total class enrollment in online programs has grown 15 percent to 20 percent every year. That percentage may count the same students more than once if they take more than one online class.
Online classes are unevenly spread among departments at MSU Billings.
The sciences offer few online classes, but most communication courses are online.
Many business classes are online.
Fewer online classes exist at the MSU Billings College of Technology, particularly in vocational-tech programs, where learning dependents heavily on hands-on training with machinery.
Students seem to like online classes even though they are more expensive to take.
MSU Billings charges an additional $40 per credit for each online class on top of in-state and out-of-state tuition.
That extra fee pays for Desire II Learn, the online delivery system that all MSU campuses use.
Where’s online education going in the future?
The Montana Legislature voted money for a virtual high school program that would enable students to finish their diplomas online.
A virtual community college also is on the horizon. That program could help students complete a two-year degree, taking classes from any campus in Montana with a common registration and financial aid process.
Sexton isn’t surprised by online education’s popularity.
But he didn’t expect it to progress as fast as it did or anticipate that technological changes would enhance online classes “so the quality is as good as anywhere.”
Contact Mary Pickett at email@example.com or 657-1262.