by Dave Gardner
With an endless amount information now moving around planet Earth at the speed of light, a renaissance is unfolding within the educational community as e-learning comes of age.
Cheryl Lesser, Ph.D., vice president of academic affairs at Luzerne County Community College (LCCC), described how e-learning systems fit nicely with the mission of community colleges to serve the employment skill needs of the community as the economy rapidly evolves. Because of this match, online education is growing despite the expansion of multiple locations with traditional college campuses.
“E-learning also provides more than just an answer for skill training,” said Dr. Lesser. “It is effective as an effective system for lifelong learning.”
According to Dr. Lesser, within LCCC, 25% of the students take a minimum of one e-course across various majors. The school has about 1,300 online students overall, and surveys indicate they are satisfied with how their educational demands are being met, the comparable tuition to traditional learning, and the work flexibility e-learning allows.
Veteran teachers often can be very effective online, and according to Dr. Lesser LCCC identified early faculty adopters with the technology and then systematically built a system. Yet, a major challenge, besides access, compliance and accreditation issues, involves national competition with other schools in an environment where student numbers are limited.
The ongoing selection of “tools” also must be dealt with.
“As cyber technology races forward, decisions have to be made by educators about resource allocation,” said Dr. Lesser. “I suspect we will even have to incorporate virtual augmented realities because of student demands, but we have to bear in mind there are costs for technology and tough choices will have to be made.”
Gopu Kiron, director of eLearning at Lackawanna College, described how the school launched its internet-based system with a few specific courses that received positive student feedback. Now, e-learning courses have been fully sequenced into the school’s various educational programs.
According to Kiron, during the past year, the school instituted some vital infrastructure improvements to its systems. At the top of the list is institution of a delivery platform known as the Canvas Learning Management System, which is widely accredited.
Lackawanna now offers four full bachelor degrees that can be earned online in the areas of business, human services, criminal justice and restaurant and food service management. Within associate degrees the e-degree total is nine, and includes the bustling specialty of cyber security, plus classes for advanced high school students to work toward an associate degree.
“Many students use a combo of traditional and e-courses, which are available during summer and intersessions,” said Kiron. “The tuition is the same as taking traditional classes, but the obvious benefit of e-learning is time flexibility with the classroom obligation.”
Delivery of e-learning does present a series of ongoing challenges. A student cyber-orientation is vital, and it can be difficult for instructors to identify the students who are struggling.
“The instructor can’t study the student’s face and body language, which, in a traditional classroom, may point out those students who are in need of help,” said Kiron.
Course delivery must be applicable with use of a telephone’s small video screen. In addition, a one-size-fits-all curriculum process doesn’t exist, so custom help by the instructor and possibly additional assignments must be available.
Lackawanna is making an effort to have the school’s various support offices available online. Student support with career counseling is vital, as is student engagement to help generate employment soft skills through exercises such as speech deliveries that emulate the classroom experience.
Kiron openly acknowledges that questions exist concerning how employers perceive the value of e-learning versus traditional classrooms. Therefore, course content must meet employer needs, and recognition has been made that even the most proficient traditional instructor probably will need training in e-education.
“Video lectures in particular require training of the faculty,” said Kiron. “The kids are very visual and tech savvy, and they expect video presentations to be done effectively.”
On the K-12 educational front, e-learning expansion is being fueled by the recognition that America’s classic system of one-size-fits-all public education works for some, but not for every student. Parochial and private schools need substantial tuition dollars for access, and these realities have opened the door for e-learning to expand.
Brian Hayden, CEO of The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, manages a system that focuses on K-12 but does also offer select college courses. The school serves students from every Pennsylvania district, and operates with revenues channeled through the home districts at a level of 80% of the district’s costs for that student if he or she was enrolled there.
“Our 11,000 students can enroll here any day of the school year, and as a group they are quite diverse,” said Hayden. “Many have gone through emotional or physical issues, are dealing with work responsibilities, or may want to accelerate through their classes.”
According to Hayden, cyber students must be organized, self-directed and disciplined. Middle school is the biggest e-learning entry point, and students often come and go, even with some short stays of only one semester.
During 2019, 14,000 students graduated from a student base that included about 100 mothers and 100 homeless people. Hayden emphasized that virtually every student can explain exactly why he or she is there, and that most are dealing with situations their home district simply could not respond to.
“There are two separate decisions to be made when a traditional school system is not working for a student,” said Kiron. “The first is to leave their district, and number two involves where to go.”
He added that a stiff challenge facing the world of K-12 e-learning involves the legislative situation in Harrisburg. According to Kiron, Pennsylvania’s charter school laws are old and were created before the invention of the internet, and e-administrators must make sure they are firmly included within any legislative conversations about the future of education.
“As the millennials become part of Harrisburg’s decision-making process, we increasingly will have fewer problems with the acceptance of cyber education,” said Kiron. “Even now, we are being accepted as a partner in the whole educational system, and are striving for continuous improvement.”