College is just a click away

E-learning systems help state schools meet demands, cut costs

Going off to college used to mean packing all one's worldly possessions into a steamer trunk for a long trip to a faraway campus. But now, getting to college can be as simple as logging on to the Internet.

Many state colleges and universities are expanding their use of online learning systems to reach more students in rural areas and serve growing student populations while containing costs.

Doubling enrollment

E-learning enrollment at the University of Florida has doubled every year since 2000, with more than 75,000 student seats in 1,300 courses. State laws require the school to offer information on food and agricultural concerns to communities around the state as well as to individual farmers. An e-learning system makes a wider array of resources available to those who want to pursue a formal certification program or just get gardening information specific to the state, said learning support systems manager Doug Johnson, who chairs the University of Florida Course Management System Advisory Group.

Florida is using e-learning software from WebCT of Lynnfield, Mass. WebCT Vista, its academic enterprise system, running under the school's Linux operating system, is designed to let the university expand its distance-learning programs and host e-learning services for partner campuses.

UMass Online, the online learning program at the University of Massachusetts, supports a 15,000-student distance learning program as well as Web course content for UMass' 47,000 students on campus.

The distance learning program expands access to the university for working professionals and other students seeking to complete undergraduate studies or obtain advanced degrees or certificates in areas such as business, education, IT, criminal justice, homeland security, health and hospitality.

'Because of the locations of some of our students, distance learning is the only way some will have access to a UMass education,' said UMass Online chief executive officer David Gray.

UMass Online also uses WebCT software to enable collaboration among the five UMass campuses and provide professors and administrators with course management functions and electronic content-sharing capabilities. E-learning enriches both learning and teaching, said UMass-Boston professor Mark Schlesinger. 'Faculty and students benefit from its flexibility for discussion groups, assessments, and the sharing of materials across courses, disciplines and campuses,' he said.

As e-learning has grown, schools have adopted a variety of disparate software components. Both Florida and Massachusetts expect this semester to have integrated the WebCT Vista software with their student administration systems from PeopleSoft Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., automating the exchange of course registrations, grades and other data, as well as accessing library systems so faculty can use library holdings in their courses.

E-learning also gives students in crowded courses more ways to boost their performance. At the University of Oregon, which uses the e-Education platform from Blackboard Inc. of Washington, D.C., for example, an introductory psychology course has more than 200 students and minimal interaction between professor and students. The professor can supplement resources at the course site, such as online discussion groups, self-assessments and other materials.

These would otherwise be costly or cumbersome to distribute to such a large class, said Colleen Bell, library instruction coordinator at the University of Oregon. 'With an online chat or threaded discussion, students can evaluate their classmates' and instructor's statements before expressing their own thoughts,' she said.

Community colleges are also broadening their online education services. Arapahoe Community College outside Denver in Littleton, Colo., serves about 8,000 students each semester and provides community education courses to another 10,000 students per year. The college is stepping up from Blackboard's basic Learning System to the full version, with Blackboard acting as the application service provider. The college expects the move to improve its offerings while keeping costs low, said Lin Claussen, Arapahoe's director of enrollment management, research and education technology.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected