To Infinity and Beyond: Southeast Expanding Virtual Classrooms



CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Oct. 29, 2013 – When Bruce Miller of Farmington, Mo., made the decision to return to school at the age of 45, he says he intended to “check off an item on my ‘bucket list.’”

Over the past couple of years, though, his adventure morphed into something much more.

“I’ve developed several new interests because of required classes,” he says. “There have been times when something which I would never have believed relevant has helped me out at work. There have been several classes I’ve taken which have been useful in my personal life as well.”

Miller, who is employed at Black River Electric Cooperative in Fredericktown, Mo., and has an associate’s degree, has been enrolled in online coursework at Southeast Missouri State University since 2009, taking a couple of classes each semester. He plans to complete his journey towards a bachelor’s degree in December.

Miller is pursuing a major in general studies. The online coursework, he says, has been a practical solution to continuing working while striving towards his long-time goal of a college degree.

“For me, if I had taken classes on campus, I would have been spending a minimum of six hours a week commuting, assuming two classes a semester,” he said. “I considered CMC’s (Central Methodist College) four-year program at Mineral Area College, but, again, the necessity of being on-call at work left me fearful of having to make a choice between classes and work.”

Miller is one of a rapidly growing number of students this fall opting for online courses at Southeast Missouri State. First day enrollment figures show 971 students are taking their coursework entirely online this semester, up 43.4 percent from just four years ago. At the same time 2,924 students are taking at least one Web course at Southeast this fall, up nearly 112 percent from fall 2009.

Dr. Allen Gathman, associate dean for Online Learning at Southeast, says the University is now facing the challenge of accommodating this growth.

“We are trying to come up with more capacity to meet this demand,” he said, adding Southeast is now 4,000 student credit hours ahead of where it was at the end of the fall 2012 semester for students enrolled in online courses. “We have been having big growth in online enrollment.”

The growing demand for online courses comes as Southeast Missouri State University celebrates the 10th anniversary this year of its first online degree program. In celebration of this milestone, the Office of Online Learning will hold an open house from noon to 3 p.m. Nov. 6 in Kent Library Room 305. Light refreshments will be available, a technology-inspired art installation will be on display and a video montage made from clips of people across campus will be shown.

Southeast launched its online Bachelor of General Studies in 2003, four years after it began offering its first online courses in 1999. Southeast currently offers about 250 online sections of courses and, since 2006, has made available more than 472 different online courses, Gathman said.

Over the past two years, Southeast has offered about 400 online courses a year, he said. In fiscal year 2013, Southeast offered 768 total online sections. Currently, the University has eight online bachelor’s degree programs and eight online master’s degree programs.

Among the bachelor’s degree programs is the newly created Bachelor of Arts in Social Science program, which can be earned entirely online. It is the first and only Bachelor of Arts program students may complete online at Southeast.

“Our program is particularly useful as a degree completion opportunity for students who begin face to face, but then are in a changed situation, due to work, family or other circumstances,” said Dr. Wayne Bowen, chair of the Department of History.

Gathman says those taking online coursework generally fall into two groups: those pursuing their degrees entirely online because they are trying to balance work and family obligations, and those seeking efficiency in their class schedules.

“The appeal of online courses is the appeal of flexibility,” Gathman said.

He says some people need more education to advance in their careers, but without online coursework, it would be impossible to attend class on campus.

“Online is about the only way they can do that,” he said.

Those seeking efficiency in their class schedules may be students primarily taking classes on campus but who want to accelerate their pace to graduation. An online course may be the only way to fit another class into their schedule, he said.

“Online is convenient and fits in well with my job,” Miller said.

Nick Hendricks of Marble Hill, Mo., is in a similar position. He entered the workforce immediately after his high school graduation as an order builder for Coca-Cola and advanced over the past eight years to become a warehouse supervisor. Shortly after his high school graduation, he also got married, and he and his wife now have two children.

“Finding the balance between work and family is a challenge. Adding my desire to receive a bachelor’s degree means stretching my time even further,” he said. “However, the online classes that Southeast provides have made this goal possible for me.” Hendricks, who aspires to become a senator, is currently a sophomore taking 12 credit hours online as a business administration major. He also is serving as the mayor of Marble Hill. “While this is a great opportunity for my future, it is another commitment of my time and another barrier that would prevent me from attending traditional face-to-face classes,” he said. “My position at Coca-Cola and role as mayor have provided me with a strong foundation for my future. However, I still feel that a bachelor’s degree is a necessity to compete in the current job market. The ability to get this degree through online classes is a great benefit to me. Being able to do my homework when I have the time, around my work schedule, meetings, and family outings, is crucial to my success as a student. Taking college courses online is the only way I am able to find the time needed.” For Karley McDaniel of Mulkeytown, Ill., an online class has been beneficial to her this semester while she is recovering from two broken wrists. Taking an online class helps her shorten her day and is less physically demanding than coming to campus for an additional class, she said.

These students say their online coursework has provided a quality and challenging learning experience.

“If a student is choosing to take an online course because they think it will be easier, they should rethink their motives. To be successful, you have to have great time management and organizational skills,” added Jerrick Myers, a senior criminal justice major from Jackson, Mo., who is taking nine hours of online coursework this fall. “If you are not disciplined enough to set aside time each day to do your coursework, you will have a hard time with online learning. The quality of the education one can attain through online learning is completely in their (students’) hands. If you put in the work and devote the time, you will do great and be happy with the education you received.”

Southeast’s faculty also play a vital role in the outcomes achieved via online coursework. Gathman credits the University’s faculty for treading into this unfamiliar territory.

The success, thus far, of Southeast’s online coursework “is a testament to the adventurous spirit of our traditional faculty,” Gathman said. “Overall, the willingness of our faculty to take this (online teaching) on has been really remarkable.” He is quick to note that the success and quality of Southeast’s online programs can be attributed to the fact that the majority of the University’s online courses are taught by full-time, tenure track faculty members, most of whom are also teaching courses in the traditional face-to-face format. This differs from some institutions in which the online learning component is set up as a subsidiary online institution and operated quasi-independently of the main campus, Gathman said.