There's nothing unusual anymore about learning online. Computers have become classrooms for an increasing number of students.
UNCG, however, is making it more convenient by enrolling about 400 students in WinterSession, five weeks of online classes taught during the break between the fall and spring semesters. Judging from the response, other schools in the UNC system should consider following suit.Enrollment in online classes is booming. Nationwide, almost 2 million students took at least one class via computer in the fall of 2003. UNCG students will earn nearly 13,000 credit hours online by the end of the 2004-05 academic year. That's up from 5,424 just four years ago.
WinterSession mirrors that growth. From three classes and 60 students two years ago, now there are a dozen classes filled to capacity. In the cyber-classroom, timing is everything. And even though the holidays can overwhelm, winter break studying works for some students.
It comes down to a matter of convenience and timing. On-campus classrooms aren't always an option. For full-time workers and people restricted by home responsibilities or physical disabilities, the flexibility of online studies creates new opportunities.
The virtual classroom will expand as the digital divide narrows and computer usage becomes more commonplace. Hooking up to the Internet no longer is the mystery it was only a few years ago. Students can plug in just about anywhere.
Area community colleges that appeal to nontraditional students are leading the way, but the state's four-year institutions aren't far behind. All show dramatic increases in online classroom enrollment.
There are drawbacks. The learning experience can suffer without direct contact between teacher and student. Technical problems still crop up.
But the success of UNCG's WinterSession underscores the need to reassess geographical and scheduling obstacles. The old-fashioned mail correspondence course definitely has taken on a new look.