Wayland's Virtual Campus Continues to Grow

PLAINVIEW, Texas - Wayland Baptist University history professor Dr. Estelle Owens will have about 75 term papers to grade in a few weeks. It's nothing out of the ordinary for professors who teach a full slate of classes during the fall or spring semesters.

But it's summer. And while professors typically teach one class during each summer microterm, Dr. Owens is among the growing number offering online classes. Currently teaching three such courses, Dr. Owens' workload is indicative of the changing face of education.

About five years ago, Wayland's Division of Business began offering online courses to enhance Wayland's commitment to its students.

"We started teaching online classes as a service to our students and to our external campuses," said WBU Academic Vice President Dr. Glenn Saul. "Four or five years ago we probably had 150 students online. Now we have 850."

Wayland's experiment with online offerings started rather slowly with a few business classes and a part-time coordinator. It has grown substantially since then.

"When they began setting aside the budget for virtual campus it included an item for promotion because there was some concern that people weren't going to sign up for this unless we advertise it somehow," said Dr. David Howle who took over as Virtual Campus Coordinator June 1. "As far as I know, the promotion money has never been spent.

"The workload grew much faster than the structure to contain it."

Wayland uses its online offerings to connect students and professors from its 13 campuses and aid in the overall educational experience. Dr. Saul said some of the smaller campuses have a hard time bringing together enough students for particular classes, but when the course is offered online, it draws from every campus in the university system.

"This way we can pool our resources and maximize the potential we have to serve all of our students," Saul said.

Class size is limited to 25 students in undergraduate courses and 15 to 20 students in graduate level courses. Howle said the classes generally fill quickly once the course offerings for a particular term are posted.

Wayland's online classes also give military students who are often moved around the world, away from the campus, the opportunity to continue their education.

"It became quite evident that we had to provide a means for students who wanted to take courses with Wayland to be able to do so," Howle said. "Wayland is making steps toward trying to accommodate the huge need that our students have for online classes."

Currently, Wayland offers online courses only to students who are already enrolled at one of the campuses. The university does not offer an online degree and doesn't plan to anytime soon.

"That is not our policy or our purpose at this point," Saul said. "We really want the online courses to supplement what we do at our other campuses and to be a resource for them and not to be in competition with them."

Howle said offering a degree completely online would move away from the personal education experience that Wayland is trying to promote.

"We have carefully limited classroom size and have focused our attention on the fact that our faculty is concerned about the students," Howle said. "Our moral obligation as a university is to provide a rich educational experience."

However, Howle, who also teaches online courses, said the virtual campus does have its advantages.

"I would say you have a much greater chance of hearing every voice in an online class," he said. "In a traditional classroom, there are some students who are simply intimidated by hearing the sound of their own voice in a crowd. When they are given a chance to not only reflect, but write out a comment and look at what they have said and edit it before they hit that submit button, then you are much more likely to allow every student to make a comment - and a much more thought provoking comment than what you are going to pick up in class.

"I don't apologize at all for not seeing the students face-to-face because I find the interaction is at least as rich as traditional classes."

While Wayland will not offer an online degree anytime soon, the virtual campus will continue to grow and evolve.

"I get asked about whether online classes are as effective as traditional classes," Howle said. "The most recent studies I have seen suggest that if you compare the results of a strictly online class, a strictly face-to-face/traditional class, and a hybrid - a traditional class that is enhanced by having lectures and discussion boards available online - the first two come out about the same. The one that does the best is the hybrid class - possibly because it gives students more opportunities.

"One of my goals is to set up workshops to help our faculty understand the technology we have in place already and how that can be used in traditional classroom settings as well as help them understand how to set up online classes."

Howle said that as education continues to change, mastering the use of Internet technology will become increasingly important.

"My personal feeling is that universities that do not understand the online market are going to fail," he said. "We have the means to touch a huge potential student population. We stand ready to have a vast impact on education."