When you look at the 50-year history of UCF, there is a clear line of demarcation. There are those students who went to class with pencils and paper, and those who carry smartphones. There are students who sat in desks and listened to professors’ lectures in real time, and students who take online or blended classes from the convenience of their homes, dorms or the neighborhood coffee shop.
“Today, online classes are an expectation,” says Dr. Thomas Cavanagh, associate vice president of the Center for Distributed Learning. “Students don’t care about modality. They want what they want when they want it.”
LEARNING IS CHANGING.
“I remember leaving notes on a bulletin board in the library to let someone know where and when to meet me,” Marisabel Wolfinger, ’89, recalls. “It seems so Fred Flintstone now.”
“We can replicate the birth of the universe and observe it over and over again,” says Dr. Joel Hartman, vice provost for Information Technologies and Resources. “We can even replicate nuclear explosions and evaluate their effects. You couldn’t do that [20 years ago] in a lab.”
“I can’t even imagine how long it must have taken for students in generations before me to sift through the card catalog doing research,” Heather Masessa, ’10, exclaims. “I could turn on my computer and get answers instantly.”
WIN-WIN FOR STUDENTS, UCF
“I worked a part-time job, so the more online classes I could take, the better,” says Masessa, who now works as a traffic manager/marketing coordinator for the Orlando-based marketing firm, Net Conversion. “Plus, online classes let me learn on my own time and not be forced to listen to a lecture for two hours.”
And that’s the difference. Many students today are looking for their higher education to work into their schedules, fit their lifestyles and complement their preferred learning methods. Previous generations didn’t have that option.
“I chose traditional classes because I’m a hands-on learner,” explains Lauren Farber, ’07, a graduate of The Burnett Honors College. As the principle trainer for AOL, Farber is well-versed in diverse learning modalities and champions a blended approach — using online and traditional tools — for the employees she trains. “The one blended class I took was great — we would do homework and tests online, but meet in class. I liked the convenience, but appreciated the social aspect.”
Farber gets it: Online classes benefit both the student and the university, and assessments show that students taking blended classes actually outperform students taking solely face-to-face or online classes.
In response, UCF is putting significant resources behind its online programs, an effort that started in 1996 with just two classes. “Our model is designed for quality,” says Cavanagh. “We have invested significantly in instructional design and do a great job training faculty members.”
Today, Cavanagh says, UCF offers one of the best online programs in the country, and “everyone, from the senior administration down, recognizes the value and importance of online learning.”
“In the last year, all of the university’s growth has been online.”
The “value and importance” that Cavanagh refers to is a reflection of modern students’ demand for greater convenience and flexibility, as well as President Hitt’s rallying cry for increasing access to higher education.
“In the last year, all of the university’s growth has been online,” says Hartman. “And last semester, one-third of all credit hours at UCF were earned from online courses, with close to 5,000 UCF students taking no traditional classes whatsoever.”
The growth in online offerings clearly enables UCF to educate more students without having to invest in new buildings, parking and other factors that traditionally limit university attendance. But even more important, Cavanagh points out, is that the expansion of online learning makes education available to people who face significant obstacles to attending traditional classes — whether for medical, geographic or scheduling reasons.
Yet while accessibility and convenience are important, the benefits are more far-reaching than that. By increasing online programs, Hartman emphasizes, “Graduation rates are increasing too.” Plus, he says, “Students minimize excess credit hours, which enables them to graduate faster.”
“There are chemistry labs that require students to handle virtual chemicals. Anatomy labs that allow students to conduct virtual dissections.”
A REVOLUTION IN RESEARCH
While online learning is on every educator’s radar today, it isn’t the only way that technology is revolutionizing the student experience.
The university library, once the heart of every campus, is today a gathering place for students and a portal for information virtually accessible from almost anywhere in the world. Hartman points to OneSearch, the library’s robust search tool, which has changed the way students conduct research and dramatically broadened their access to critical publications.
And according to Hartman, “Smart boards and touch-screen technology are changing the learning experience even in face-to-face environments. It’s so much more interactive today.”
Technology is changing the way science courses are taught too. “Today, there are dynamic simulated labs that come close to imitating the real lab experience,” Cavanagh says. “There are chemistry labs that require students to handle virtual chemicals. Anatomy labs that allow students to conduct virtual dissections. For students learning in these virtual environments, the knowledge is no less real.”
TECHNOLOGY AND THE STUDENT OF TOMORROW
For students of the not-too-distant future, the walls between the different modalities will most likely disintegrate even more. There will be no online learning and traditional learning — just learning.
Beyond the logistics of where and how students take classes, it is foreseeable that students in the future will not be bound by arbitrary time constraints either. Rather than complete courses within a prescribed semester, why not allow students to complete the course work at their own pace? It is conceivable that each student will be given an individualized, customized curriculum and the resources to learn what he or she specifically needs.
Furthermore, as the popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) continues to grow, it is fathomable that someday students will not take classes solely from a single institution, but will instead curate a personalized program from a multitude of classes offered by the most prestigious universities and colleges in the world.
Most exciting is that the student of the future won’t necessarily have such a different experience, but more appropriately, have the option of so many varied learning methods. Face-to-face, online, blended, virtual, MOOCs and more will be available for every student to customize his or her higher education in the way that is the most accessible, affordable and valuable.
YES, LEARNING IS DEFINITELY CHANGING.