The traditional student experience at Western Carolina University saw 18- to 22-year-olds strolling across campus, passing classmates on the way to a lecture, meeting with professors in the hallway or during their office hours, grabbing a bite to eat in the cafeteria and hanging out in residence halls. While much of that still goes on today, the student experience has definitely evolved in the last two decades.

Today’s experience includes much older students – mothers and fathers with full-time jobs and families, grandparents and members of the military. It includes students throughout the state, across the country and, in many cases, around the world. 

Welcome to the world of online education, a rapidly growing form of learning that continues to gain popularity for people seeking to further their education while continuing to work and without being confined to the traditional classroom setting.

Much in the way that students’ profiles have expanded, so has the role of faculty. Online education has made professors and instructors adapt and develop new ways to educate, communicate and teach these students.

Lisa Bloom, the Jay M. Robinson Distinguished Professor of Educational Technologies, was one of WCU’s first online professors in the late 1990s, teaching special education classes. The special ed graduate program would later become one of WCU’s first programs to go completely online.

Bloom recalls the faculty, herself included, initially kicking and screaming, saying, “That can’t work. It’s going to be like a correspondence class.” Bloom said eventually their attitude changed. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it well, and we were going to be proud of what we were offering our students. We set out to make classes that were really highly interactive,” she said.

Bloom learned there were many people who wanted to be special ed teachers, but because of family or employment circumstances, they weren’t able to attend a face-to-face class. Online classes proved beneficial for those with jobs, for single parents and for people living in rural areas. It also gave students flexibility as to when they worked on their assignments.

Today, Bloom continues to teach in both face-to-face and online settings. In many ways, Bloom enjoys the online environment. It allows her to be more creative with how she presents content and the way she engages with students.

“Some people think that you get less contact with students in an online class than you do face-to-face,” Bloom said. “I really think it’s the opposite. I feel like I get to know my online students a lot better than my face-to-face ones because I interact with them very frequently on an individual basis.”

Nathan Johnson, assistant professor of project management, has been teaching online courses for about nine years. During that time, Johnson had to learn how to connect with his online students and how to sense if they’re understanding the lessons. 

Another challenge is the realization that because he has students from all over the world, with varied schedules, it’s difficult to turn off being a professor.

“I would say one of the big negatives to being an online professor is the nature that you’re kind of always on call, so to speak,” Johnson said. “You set your boundaries, but no matter what boundaries you set, questions are still sitting there in your inbox or on (WCU’s learning management system) Blackboard, waiting for you to answer them. If they ask that question on Friday at 9 o’clock, when a lot of students are doing their homework for the week, I’ve got to answer those through the weekend.”

Online lectures are also challenging, Johnson said. Unlike in the classroom, there is no back-and-forth discussion with students during an online lecture. Johnson can’t see the head nods, nor can he look in the students’ eyes to see if they’re truly understanding.

That’s one of the reasons Bloom said she doesn’t use recorded lectures. Instead, her classes are broken up into modules where students are presented with a challenge and proceed through a five-stage learning cycle to complete the challenge. Within those modules, students may have to watch videos, read, interview people, complete individual and group assignments, or engage in interactive activities. Additionally, in each module students discuss content with each other.

Teaching in a virtual space forces professors to keep up with everchanging technology, which has made teaching easier over the years, Johnson said. In addition to using Blackboard and email, Johnson said he recently began using Microsoft Teams, which allows him to chat with students, be involved in their team meetings and see what they are working on. He also uses Skype for face-to-face meetings. He rarely has contact by phone.

“If you’re not comfortable with technology, being an online professor is not going to be a fun adjustment for you because it’s techno heavy,” Johnson said. “You have to be comfortable with the technology and you’ve got to be willing to change and learn new things. Students are not going to wait. They’re always moving with the technology.”

Bloom said she communicates with her students via Blackboard and email, but she also gives them her cell phone number. “I tell them with my cell phone number, if I’m going to bed, or engaged in a family activity, I’ll just have my phone off and just leave a message,” Bloom said. “They respect that. I don’t think anybody should have to be available 24 hours a day.”

Some common misconceptions about online teaching are:

  • They don’t have to take care of any students.
  • Online professors don’t do anything.
  • They don’t get to know their students.
  • Professors just put content online, then have students read it and take a test.

“That’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Johnson said. “It’s actually more stress, I think, than a face-to-face class. It’s always on your mind. You’ve got to set up all these due dates.”

Keeping students engaged also is a key factor to successful online teaching. For Johnson, that means keeping his messages light and always using a cheerful tone. He’s also learned to keep his live sessions on the short end.

Bloom said she tries to make the students feel like they’re a part of WCU. “I try to let them know about things that are happening on campus because this is their university and I want them to have a sense of place,” she said. “They don’t get that sense of walking down the hall and seeing their classmates and professors. I want to try to give them that sense of identity with Western and sense of who I am as a person and who they are as a person. I encourage them to post pictures so we can attach a face with their names.”

One thing is certain – online education is here to stay, and it’s going to get bigger. Currently, 20 percent of WCU’s student enrollment is from distance students.

“I think the business world is all about online education, and they’re very accepting of it,” Johnson said. “As long as industry is accepting of online education, then we’re going to be providing it.”  

Q&A with Susan Fouts ’78 MBA ’90, Executive Director of WCU’s Educational Outreach:

Q: Can you talk about the importance of distance learning as it pertains to higher education today?

SF: Most jobs today require additional training beyond high school. Some individuals take the community college route for that training; others take the direct university route. Often, some of those who have taken the community college route go directly to work upon completion of an associate degree or certificate. After a few years, those individuals will want to move into management or need additional education to compete for those higher paying positions. When that occurs, the individual wants to build on what they already have. Distance learning degree completion is perfect for that person. Usually, they are place bound with a job and a family and can’t stop their life to move and complete a degree full time. Without distance learning opportunities, that person would be stuck. When you talk about graduate degrees, the same circumstances apply. Typically, those seeking a graduate degree are professionals who are moving toward the third or fourth promotional opportunity and the graduate degree is one of the tickets to achieve that goal.

Q: How have you seen distance education increase at WCU over the last decade?

SF: Twenty percent of our student population are distance students. WCU is known for both the high-quality instruction and the support for distance learners. Word of mouth is the best advertisement to distance learners. WCU also has good relationships with area community colleges. We meet with the Western North Carolina community colleges once a semester. We go there. After hearing about our sessions, community colleges farther east in North Carolina have requested to host WCU to talk about our programs – not just distance programs. With Western Carolina University’s reputation for quality service and instruction, adults want to come here.

Q: What kinds of students generally enroll in distance learning courses?

SF: WCU’s distance students are typically over the age of 35, married, work full time and have kids. These students are serious about the quality of education, sensitive to price and expect to take something useful away from every class. Distance learning students typically graduate with GPAs at the same or slightly above the traditional WCU student starting as a freshman. The students are typically highly motivated and have both a personal and professional goal of completing the degree.

Q: Are there professors who teach only online courses, or do they also teach on campus?

SF: At WCU, most of the faculty members who teach online also teach on campus at the same time. 

Q: What are the pros and cons of distance learning?

SF: The disadvantages include some of the following: The distance learner does have to be motivated to complete the degree, so it is not appropriate for everyone. Distance learning also may not be appropriate for the 18-year-old, but because our programs are degree-completion, this is not an issue for WCU. Engagement with the campus is much harder as a distance student. WCU has tried different avenues to improve engagement.

Advantages include the ability to complete a degree from a distance. Most distance students go part time and our students are no exception. WCU faculty are a huge advantage for our distance students. These faculty members are engaged with their professions through research and community engagement.

Dr. Lisa Briggs ’87 MPA ’89 (Emergency and Disaster Management) is an example of a distance faculty member. Dr. Briggs is well known among law enforcement in North Carolina and beyond. Her students get more than theory in class, they get implementation of theory and practical knowledge. She is also able to engage those working in the field with her students in a variety of ways. Dr. Nathan Johnson (Project Management) is another faculty member who brings his military background and knowledge to his virtual classroom.