CHICAGO — It was the sort of discussion that happens hundreds of times a day in America’s college classrooms — an English professor and her students grappled with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “To a Skylark,” trying to pry meaning from words written nearly two centuries ago.
This conversation, though, had a decidedly 21st-century twist. It was conducted in cyberspace, with the professor, Sara Cordell of the University of Illinois at Springfield, speaking over a chat room audio feed, and the students typing their impressions into a text box.
While the session lacked the intimacy of a face-to-face exchange, it nonetheless seemed to produce the illumination Cordell was after. As it ended, having uncovered the poem’s themes of joy, loss and the limits of human existence, one student wrote, “I see so much more than before.”
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“I think students learn a lot more in my field online,” Cordell said. “They have to take a lot more responsibility for their learning. They can’t just sit there and stare at me and pretend that literature is a spectator sport.”
Virtual education at the college level has exploded over the last decade, with one survey finding that about a third of all students today take at least one class online. The humanities, though, remain a relative rarity in the digital world.
Most online bachelor’s degree programs offered by Illinois universities focus on practical or professional subjects, such as business, nursing or criminal justice. The National Center for Education Statistics found that only 14 percent of humanities majors take courses online, compared with 27 percent of computer science majors.
But aided by a grant meant to further such studies, the University of Illinois at Springfield designed online degree programs in three fields — English, history and philosophy.
Some Chicago-area students enrolled in the courses say their experiences have taught them that online education can be far more than just a convenient substitute for traditional classrooms.
“Online classes have really given me a voice, a strong voice,” said English major Anila Niaz, 22. “I probably never would have the guts to make a comment in a classroom.”
Ray Schroeder, director of the university’s Center for Online Learning, Research and Service, said the programs are structured so that students accumulate a year of full-time credit before starting Internet-based classes at the school.
He said that’s partially for reasons of economy — Springfield offers no tuition break for online classes, which can cost up to $387 per credit hour — and partially because administrators think there is value in students making a “seamless” transition from high school.
That used to mean taking classes in a brick-and-mortar classroom, he said, but increasingly, that is not the case.
“The technology has changed, the experience of the students have changed, so I don’t have a strong opinion as to whether it should be face to face or not,” Schroeder said.
English major Nancy Nocera, 23, an aspiring teacher from Mundelein, Ill., is one student who has conducted nearly her entire college career online. She took a few traditional courses at the College of Lake County after she graduated high school but was uncomfortable speaking in class, fearful her instructor or fellow students would pick apart her comments.
So she shifted to strictly online courses, earning an associate’s degree at the college before enrolling in Springfield’s program in 2011. She said the classes, which allow students to interact via Facebook-like discussion boards, emphasize thoughtfulness rather than spur-of-the-moment glibness.
“I’m always very quiet in class,” she said. “I don’t want to get into a heated argument about something. Lots of people are really quick to want to debate (a point) with you. In discussion boards, I feel like I have a voice because I’m able to express myself with confidence. I can tell someone why I think I’m right, or I can agree with someone and elaborate on their point.”
Melinda Borucki, 34, of Naperville, Ill., turned to online classes because she works full time as a radio station audience development director. But Borucki, who attended Lake Forest’s now-defunct Barat College before starting her career, said she thinks the Internet provides a superior forum for studying literature.
“Online classes kind of get a bad rap for being not as complete as an in-person class, but I think you actually end up learning more because you’re not wrapped up in a conversation that changes five or 10 times,” she said. “In an online class, everyone has to stop and think of what they’re saying.”
Some online instructors, like history professor Elizabeth Kosmetatou, require a minimum level of participation on discussion boards (her rule is three substantial posts per week, she said). But when a class is really rolling, the conversations go far beyond that.
“In my most successful class, we ended the semester with 4,000 messages,” she said.
Not all professors are converts. Political science professor Richard Gilman-Opalsky, whose department will soon allow online students to minor in the subject, has no desire to teach via the Internet, saying it can’t match a live classroom that engages students “in gestures and emotions … to get people feeling, not just thinking.”
He views the rise of Internet classes as evidence of the creeping privatization of higher education, in which money and popularity, rather than scholarly importance, drives academic decisions.
“I don’t think the physical campus is going to disappear anytime soon, but I do think the pressure (to teach online classes) is getting greater, and a lot of it is based on economics,” he said.
But for a humanities professor, there’s a flip side to being exposed to the marketplace, as philosophy professor John Barker can attest.
“Honestly, at this institution, that’s the only way we’ll have a viable philosophy major,” he said. “We just don’t have that many students on the ground interested in doing philosophy. Online, we have a much bigger market. We can pull students in from all over.”
That’s how Niaz came to the school three years ago. She was living in South Dakota and wanted to study something other than the engineering classes offered by the local college.
Now a Chicagoan, she has been able to keep up with her studies while working full time and moving from town to town — even while traveling to Turkey for a family member’s funeral.
Niaz, who is on track to graduate this year, said her online classes have been just as rigorous as any she has taken in person, requiring group projects, presentations, close readings of poems and, of course, plenty of discussion.
“Those were classes I probably got more out of than even an on-campus class,” said Niaz, who would like to become a teacher. “Not all classes in which students sit together can work as well as that.”
RYOT NOTE: We’re all for online education, so much so that we want to tell you about one of our favorite resources. Khan Academy is a nonprofit that provides free, online courses to anyone who wishes to take them! Whether you want to brush up on WWII history, or delve into the deeper meaning of literature, Khan Academy has you covered, but they need your support to keep doing what they’re doing! Click on the gray box alongside this story to learn more, donate or spread the good word about their mission!