Downtown: a tangible headquarters of virtual learning

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January 20, 2003 // UPDATED 1:03 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Two major online universities make their headquarters here -- but don't think the classes are easy just because the teacher can't see you

Imagine earning an entire Master's degree while wearing your pajamas, or going to classes in your underwear, or working fulltime at your current job while earning a Ph.D. All this has become possible with advent of online learning -- much of which is based Downtown.

Capella University, 330 2nd Ave. S., and Walden University, 155 5th Ave. S. -- two completely online universities -- have headquarters Downtown. Metropolitan State University, 730 Hennepin Ave. S., runs an online business administration degree program, and other online classes, from its Downtown campus.

Capella University President Michael J. Offerman said, "It's kind of an interesting development that Minneapolis has been home to two of the three top (online) institutions in the country. I've been asked, 'Why Minneapolis? Why is all this activity happening up there?' I don't have a good answer."

Whatever the reason, online education appears to be working and providing higher education to those who may not have had the time or financial security to pursue another degree.

Untraditional demand When Capella founders Steve Shank and Harold Abel started their university in 1993, they saw that adult educational needs could not always be met in a traditional university setting, because a 9-to-5 education doesn't fit everyone's life.

"It wasn't so much that we wanted to use the Web, but that we wanted to get education to people so that they can deal with it even though they're going to have to continue working and providing for their family," Offerman said.

Gary Seiler, dean of the college of management at Metro State, said since more of their classes are online, more students can attend. "We have students who might be single mothers who can't get the daycare [to go to class]. They can take classes at home. We have shift workers. We have cops who can't commit to 15 weeks of Tuesday night classes. They can take a class online because they can do it when they have the time to do it," Seiler said.

According to Seiler, he even had one student who had started a course at Metro State, but was then transferred with his work to Massachusetts. When that particular class went online, the student was able to complete it from the East Coast.

Jeff Walter, a student in Capella's school of education, found Capella after attempting to earn a Ph.D. at a traditional university three hours from his home.

"I tried to [commute] for six months. I'd miss work and be away from the family," Walter said. "I just couldn't maintain that. Being very frustrated I got online one night and started looking around. I found Capella."

According to Offerman, there are very few benefits to attending an online university headquartered where you live. However, some degrees at Capella do require yearly seminars where students come together to demonstrate their skills. These are often held in Minnesota. Thus, students who live here do not need to drive or fly to the seminar. Living in Minnesota and attending Capella might benefit those in education programs because it could be advantageous to be licensed in the state where you reside.

The other advantage to Minneapolis is that Capella takes up space in the Campbell Mithun building with about 300 employees.

Better learning? To some, the idea of taking learning completely out of the classroom and putting it on the Internet may seem farfetched. However, according to online teachers, administrators and students online learning does work -- in some cases better than face-to-face learning.

Barbara Keinath, director of online learning for Metro State's college of management and professor of management, said she received an e-mail from an anthropology professor saying that after 13 years of classroom teaching, "This online course was one of her absolute best teaching experiences because of how much the students learned. The depth, the breadth, the enthusiasm and the level of responsibility that students took for their learning made it a peak experience for her."

Capella learner Jeff Walter is a professor of music and humanities at Texas Wesleyan University, said he has found online learning to be as rigorous and challenging as what he has found in traditional universities.

"What surprises me most about Capella is that I thought it would feel impersonal and it wouldn't hold muster for a graduate program," Walter said. "But the instructors -- many of them have as much rigor and as much depth to what they do as I've ever experienced in an on-land program."

Online classes are set up as asynchronous discussions, meaning that students enter the online "classroom" and write an answer to a discussion question or respond to what another student has said.

Offerman explained how online discussions work at Capella:

"You could come in [to the online classroom] at 9 a.m. and say something in regard to the topic of that week. I might not come on until noon. I can see what you've said or what others have said and then I add to it. It's what's called a threaded discussion."

Learning used to mean a three-hour drive for Walter, but now it's as easy as waking up and turning on his computer. Walter said he usually gets online at 3:30 a.m. and studies for a few hours until his children wake up. He then goes to work fulltime and spends weekends doing more Ph.D. work.

Offerman said students do not have to be online at a particular time, but they must keep pace with their classmates. Beyond online discussions, students also complete readings, activities, papers and exams. Students electronically send assignments to the teachers, who grade them online and post the grades.

Discussing at a distance It's the online discussions, however, that some teachers see as the biggest departure from face-to-face learning. In contrast to a traditional classroom, no student can hide in an online classroom.

"There are many learners [in a traditional classroom] that sit back, and I call them 'vicarious interacters,'" said Tina Stavredes, Capella's interim faculty director and core faculty member of its school of education. "They may be interacting, but they're not verbalizing it. In an online environment, the only way we know our learners are present is by their written interaction in the course room."

Said Metro State's Keinath, "The shy student, the quiet student, the student who likes to think before they respond, gets to do that in the online classroom. That student gets drowned out in the face-to-face classroom no matter how well you manage the discussion. The talkers prevail; online, you get to know everybody."

Stavredes, who has also taught traditional classes at the University of Minnesota, said being an online teacher means that she presents less course material but spends more time helping students to understand that material.

"When I taught face-to-face, I spent a lot of time delivering content and then interacting. Whereas here, they come into the course room prepared to discuss the content," Stavredes said. "Mostly, the faculty's job is not to always be saying what their perspective is, but to be able to read what learners are posting and help them to a higher level of understanding."

As for success rates, Keinath said that in her experience, online students have tested as well as students in traditional classrooms. She put her theory to the test by teaching two of the same Metro State classes -- one online and one face-to-face. She compared exam scores, paper scores and homework.

"I discovered what the research says: that the medium doesn't matter. Students learn just as much online as they do in the classroom. It doesn't make a statistically significant difference if they're learning online or in the classroom," Keinath said.