Fully online course offered by U College

It’s 2 a.m. You can’t sleep. There’s nothing on the tube. So why not go to class?

Sound far-fetched? Not for students enrolled in the “Applied Statistics Online” course offered by University College in Arts & Sciences and taught by David Dixon, Ph.D.

David Dixon
David Dixon

The course is an example of one of the newest University College endeavors — making some classes 100 percent available online.

“In general, I think that the response has been very good,” said Robert E. Wiltenburg, Ph.D., dean of University College. “What people have found nationally in continuing education in online courses is that if it is simply an online course, there is a high attrition rate. The motivation, obligation to the instructor and to your fellow students is obviously much lower.

“But something like statistics lends itself very well to this — it’s problem-based, you have a clear textbook, you know what it is that you are trying to do, you need more coaching and help from the instructor than strictly speaking blackboard instruction so that it works out very well.”

While Wiltenburg said that the statistics course is the only completely online course offered by University College so far, others are in the works, including summer courses for students who go home, or writing courses — which by their very nature would adapt them well to the online format.

But for now, the focus is on the statistics course. And Wiltenburg left the design of the course up to Dixon, a research statistician in biostatics at the School of Medicine.

Dixon has taught the online class for five semesters. Through adapting and conforming, he has come up with a good working model.

“The course is designed to be conducted entirely online,” Dixon said. “However, if a student would like to call me or meet with me in person, that is certainly OK. There is a textbook that we use, and I supply reading assignments and homework problem sets.

“Exams are submitted online also, but some students prefer to send me hard copies, which is fine. I don’t post grades, but students send me private e-mails or just call me for grade info.”

So while the class is designed to be fully online, Dixon incorporates some face time with those students who need it. He also sends out discussion questions that members of the class will discuss online.

That represents a slight change from his earliest thoughts when approached about starting a course like this four years ago.

“At first I thought teaching a technical course like statistics in an online environment would not work well,” Dixon said. “But as I got into it, I found that class discussions were actually better in terms of both quantity and quality. People tend to be more forthright online than in person. Some of our class discussions get pretty lively.

“I usually put out discussion questions on Monday and monitor discussion throughout the week. It’s fun to see how the students interact and pose different scenarios for problems.”

One of the things that has held back University College — and continuing education programs nationally — in attempting to increase the scope of fully online courses is the need for quality faculty. But with Dixon, Wiltenburg found the right person to start this endeavor.

“Frankly, one of the limiting factors is the interest of the faculty,” Wiltenburg said. “It’s one thing to say to yourself, ‘Hey, I bet there are people out there who want to do this.’ It’s another thing to actually have an excellent instructor willing to try it, because whenever you are pioneering a component like this, there are going to be surprises and glitches.

“You need to have someone who is passionate about this — like David Dixon, who was interested and fully versed online.”

Another obstacle is the sheer cost of putting something online, both from a technology standpoint — as well as the issue of how much are students willing to pay.

“It’s not cheap no matter how you do it,” Wiltenburg said. “One of the things that is interesting is that it cuts against the idea that the whole culture of the Internet is quick and cheap. You go to a Web site and you aren’t expecting to pay money.

“I want it to be there, I want it to be free, and I want it to be just the way it was when I used to go to the library and open up an encyclopedia.”

Despite the possible drawbacks, though, Dixon’s statistics course is receiving positive reviews from students and co-workers.

“The online discussions have really turned out extremely well,” Dixon said. “People who don’t raise their hand in class to ask a question or made a comment have no qualms about participating in online discussions.

“People tend to open up a lot in an online environment — more than in person. And in a course like statistics, removing the intimidation factor in any way possible is very conducive to learning.”

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