Expanding online learning

Summer 2012 provided a notable example of the growing impact of online learning at Bluffton.

With continued development of online courses and those blending online and traditional elements—particularly in the liberal arts and sciences—the number of sections of online undergraduate courses doubled to 14 from summer 2011. Those classes enrolled 97 students, who helped boost summer undergraduate enrollment from 118 in 2011 to 162 this year.

"The online summer classes have revived our summer school," says Dr. Sally Weaver Sommer, vice president and dean of academic affairs, who notes that enrollment has risen every year since the first online course became available in 2009. Among the offerings added in 2012 was an online version of a liberal arts and sciences course for juniors, Issues in Modern America. It's an example, she says, of uniquely Bluffton courses that are keeping students enrolled in Bluffton for online learning rather than going somewhere else.

"You can't find these courses elsewhere," she points out, citing Spiritual Disciplines as another uniquely Bluffton course nowMoodle expands available online. In these and other Web-based offerings, Bluffton students "receive quality instruction plus our distinctive values perspective from Bluffton professors."

When students go home for the summer and take general education courses at a nearby community college, "we have no idea what the content is," adds Dr. Sarah Cecire, a professor of education and the university's online learning coordinator. With Bluffton-based courses, "they're exposed to the content we've deemed important," including the blend of history and literature that comprises the university's "unique take" on a humanities course, she says.

The online option is more convenient for many students, who can save summer travel expense and fit school around a work schedule by taking classes on the Web, Cecire notes. "It enables a wider range of students to participate, especially over the summer," she explains. "It expands their opportunities."

Bluffton is also moving into blended courses, and Cecire has taught several of them in the graduate education program with excellent results, she says. "For the adult market, online learning is extremely popular," largely due to the flexibility it provides, she adds.

Faculty members are designing online courses in Moodle, a learning management system that gives them a Web home for course materials. They can post course syllabi and other documents for students, as well as class announcements, on Moodle. In addition, students can submit assignments on the online site—and some Bluffton faculty now require that all assignments be turned in online, Cecire says.

Moodle also offers a collaborative work space where students can work on class projects together while physically apart, and a discussion forum where those less inclined to participate in class can become part of expanded interaction. That can be helpful, she points out, because "there's a limit to what you can accomplish in 50 minutes" of class time.

As online learning coordinator, Cecire supports fellow faculty members in their use of Moodle and other online tools. She's now helping Lima City Schools' teachers learn Moodle as well. With many high schools, and even some junior high schools, having adopted it, Bluffton will start seeing incoming students who know how to use the technology even before they arrive, she predicts.