Online learning growing by ‘leaps and bounds’ at higher education level

February 8, 2014
California University of Pennsylvania nursing professor Mary O’Connor, who is a Global Online coordinator, prefers an iPad to communicate with her online students. - Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Sherry Yancosek always dreamed of obtaining her master’s degree, but it was a personal goal that seemed just out of reach.

Then, by chance, things fell into place. Yancosek – who splits a busy work schedule between Washington Hospital as a nurse on the critical care unit and the Penn Commercial business and technology school as a program coordinator of practical nursing – was required to complete a higher degree in order to continue on in her position as program coordinator.

Having graduated from California University of Pennsylvania in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, Yancosek revisited her alma mater to see what they had to offer.

“I wanted something that would work with my schedule,” Yancosek, 60, of Washington, said.

Although skeptical, she decided to give Cal U. Global Online a try.

“I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” she said. “I’m not self-directed enough. But because of availability and the fact that it allowed me to do it on my own time, I decided to give it a try.”

Although the program was tough, Yancosek said she loved it.

“Going to school full time and working full time was quite a challenge,” she said. “But the staff was very supportive … You do have to be disciplined and you have to commit to it, but I’d recommend it to others.”

That is something she said she does on regular basis.

“Whenever I hear others thinking about going back (to school), I tell them about Cal U.’s online program.”

Yancosek completed her master’s degree in nursing in August. After roughly a year of intense, hard work, Yancosek said her graduation day made it all worth it.

“I got to walk in graduation with my honor cords on and my kids watching,” she said.

Success stories like Yancosek’s are becoming more commonplace as adults across the country are choosing to complete their bachelor’s or obtain their master’s degrees online. U.S. universities and colleges are offering more and more degrees online each year to meet the growing demand.

Cal U. began to offer its Global Online program to students in 2005. Since its inception, interest in online learning has more than doubled. Over the last six years, the program has grown by 56 percent, and Cal U. now offers undergraduate degrees, letters of completion and certification programs and graduate degrees.

“It’s the same quality education, it’s just offered in a different platform,” Stephanie Franks, director of Global Online, said. “We are dedicated to the service of our students.”

In 2010, Cal U. Global Online was added to the SR Education Group’s most affordable category. SR Education Group, a Kirkland, Wash.-based company, is focused on creating authoritative online education and career-related resources. In 2014, SR Education Group named Cal U. Global Online one of the most affordable online degrees in the nation.

“Following the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education school system module has enabled us to provide affordable education,” Franks said.

Roughly 2,000 students are enrolled in the program, which does not require students to come to campus to complete portions of their degrees.

“Students don’t have to fly in for capstone, or check in every few weeks,” Franks said.

Franks said students have turned to online programs in search of flexibility and mobility. “Students are looking for value in return for their investment.”

Although Cal U. is the only university or college in Washington and Greene counties to offer online programs, it is among a growing list that spans the state and even the country.

Lynn Reinke, director of communication and marketing for West Virginia University, said the school typically caters to adult learners who started their degree elsewhere and are looking to finish.

“A lot of people come to us for degree completion,” she said.

Reinke said WVU has offered online programs since 1998. She said some of the programs are blended, where class time is split between an online and classroom setting, and others are solely online.

“Each program is unique,” she said. “It gives students and faculty options.”

Reinke said convenience plays a big role in choosing an online program.

“Thinking about adult learners, they can keep their jobs and squeeze in class time in their own time,” she said.

The technology has also improved.

“When we started, we didn’t have much bandwidth and didn’t have as many tools,” she said. “Now you can add video to engage people and discussion boards. Those are a big component.”

Reinke stresses that online programs aren’t for everyone.

“The student has to be motivated,” she said. “The burden shifts to the student to be proactive. It can be a very good experience.”

Natalie Corkos, of Peters Township, is currently enrolled in WVU’s integrated marketing communication online graduate program. Corkos, who drives roughly an hour each way for work, said she couldn’t fathom driving to classes a few nights a week, so an online program was a natural choice.

“It’s a commitment, but there are not set times,” Corkos, 24, said. “It’s easy to make plans, and work at our own pace to get things done.”

Although she’s only been out of school for a few years after graduating from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2011, Corkos was concerned about being able to handle the workload. But after starting her master’s program this summer, Corkos said she’s hooked.

“It’s a very unique program,” she said. “They keep up with new content constantly.”

Videos and discussion boards also make the work interesting. Currently, it takes Corkos between 15 and 20 hours each week to complete assignments for the two classes she’s enrolled in. She anticipates graduation in 2015.

“You have to be self-motivated,” she said. “I can see it being frustrating for others. It’s a personal goal for me. I’m very grateful. I wouldn’t be doing grad school it wasn’t online.”

Karen Pollack, director of academic affairs, undergraduate programs, at the Penn State World Campus, said their program has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 15 years.

“We’ve seen a tremendous growth, double digits,” she said. “We have plans to expand.”

Penn State World Campus offers 40 undergraduate degrees, 40 graduate degrees and certificates. As a result of the overwhelming success, Pollack said the program is planning to offer doctoral degrees in the future.

Pollack said a typical Penn State World Campus student is an adult who started a degree, but didn’t finish due to a variety of circumstances.

Like the other colleges and universities, Penn State World Campus uses a variety of teaching platforms, including video and animation.

“We have over 14,000 students worldwide,” she said. “We have students in every state and every convenient.”

While Yancosek is enjoying her reprieve from balancing a jam-packed work and school schedule, she said she’s toying with idea of obtaining her doctoral degree.

“I’m taking a breather,” she said. “But if I’m going to do, I’d do it online.”

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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