UTEP Researcher to Study Benefits of Online Learning
Last Updated on October 21, 2019 at 12:00 AM
Originally published October 21, 2019
By UC Staff
Many college students juggle their academics with other responsibilities such as jobs and family. For those reasons, more of them may consider it necessary to register for online courses to complete their degree plans.
While the assumption that online courses allow for greater college access may ring true, there is no strong empirical data to support that statement, according to Alyse Hachey, Ph.D., associate professor and co-chair of UTEP’s Department of Teacher Education at The University of Texas at El Paso – and she plans to do something about it. Hachey is part of a multi-institutional team that will study how online opportunities increase college enrollment, particularly among nontraditional students who may use this education method to complete their degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The National Science Foundation awarded Hachey’s crew a five-year, $2.5 million grant in July 2019 for this research. While the focus will be on STEM, the study will involve online education in general and its role in college degree completion.
This kind of information is important to educators as statistics show that more college students enroll in online courses every year. A Nov. 7, 2018, article in Inside Higher Ed stated that a third of all students take at least one online course. The article, which used 2017 data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, also stated that overall online enrollment continues to increase for students who enroll exclusively online (up to 15.4%) and for those who mix online and face-to-face courses (17.6%).
“Education has moved to online in so many ways,” Hachey said during an interview in her sixth-floor office in UTEP’s Education Building. “Interest in online learning is expanding so we have to learn more about it because it is changing higher education.”
Hachey will work with frequent collaborators Claire W. Wladis, Ph.D., professor of mathematics, and Katherine Conway, Ph.D., professor of business management at the Borough of Manhattan Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY), and Christopher H. Rhoads, Ph.D., associate professor of education at the University of Connecticut.
The research team, which will start its project in October 2019, believes that its results will provide critical information about students and the challenges that affect their academic choices to obtain a degree. Their findings will serve registrars, administrators, policymakers and schedule coordinators as they decide course structure, advisement and course availability as well as provide insight into patterns of student thought that may suggest better forms of student support.
The qualitative data collection, a combination of survey data and institutional research, will track approximately 22,000 traditional and nontraditional CUNY students, which has seven two-year campuses and 11 colleges that offer four-year degrees, through the regular registration process. Many of those campuses serve lower-income students and promote social mobility. Students who agree to be part of the investigation will go through a separate scenario-based registration process where researchers will record student choices when faced with common enrollment roadblocks such as course scarcity. This will gauge how online and in-person students react to problems along their degree pathways.
While not involved in the research, UTEP students Graciela Ramirez and Andres Encerrado shared how the University’s online courses have helped them to achieve their academic dreams.
Ramirez, a senior organizational and corporate communications major, graduated from El Paso’s Del Valle High School in 2000. She enrolled at UTEP that fall and was in her sophomore year when a family situation forced her to drop out of school to work full time. Other events through the years kept her out of school until 2018 when she decided to resume her pursuit of a UTEP degree despite the student loans and working two jobs. The El Paso native said a positive attitude and online courses put her in a position to graduate in December 2019.
“(The courses) have allowed me to learn much more than I could have imagined,” Ramirez said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to have done it at my own pace.”
Encerrado is a two-time UTEP graduate who returned to school to enhance his marketability. The native of Juárez, Mexico, is a senior electrical engineering major who already earned a bachelor’s (2014) and master’s (2017) degree in physics. He is on track to receive his engineering degree in December 2020.
He has balanced his studies with a handful of campus research and technology jobs, memberships in several student organizations, and service as a Tech-E volunteer in the Undergraduate Learning Center.
Encerrado described himself as a “serious” student who sought ways to hasten his academic journey. One summer he needed to take two courses to be eligible for a teacher’s assistant job. He took a face-to-face Summer I course in one of the larger lecture halls. He said the three-hour classes were too long and lacked teacher-student engagement. The next session included an online option, so he tried it and regularly finished his work in about half of the allotted class time. Since then, he takes as many online courses as possible and recommends them to others.
“In a way, the online classes create a one-on-one feeling,” the first-generation college student said. “You ask questions and get a response. The courses help me to be as efficient as possible.”
Beth Brunk-Chavez, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s Extended University, is interested in what Hachey’s research will reveal because the information will benefit the thousands of students who enroll in UTEP Connect, the institution’s suite of fully online degree plans that launched its first course in 2015.
UTEP Connect offers 22 programs from degree plans to graduate certificates, which span across the University, with more online options in the works. The number of courses and enrolled students has increased through the years. As of fall 2018, UTEP Connect had enrolled 4,392 students with almost 60% of them undergraduates. A little more than half of the 1,306 graduates through spring 2018 have been graduate students. Her student demographic information from the 2018-19 academic year showed that the typical UTEP Connect student was a Hispanic female undergraduate in her mid-30s who transferred to UTEP from El Paso Community College.
Brunk-Chavez said online courses suit her graduate students who frequently work full time and have additional family responsibilities. They often do not want to deal with the commute to campus or the search for a parking space, and they may not have the time or energy to sit through a three-hour class with so many other demands on their attention.
“The online option is important because it gives the student the opportunity to reach the next career level,” said Brunk-Chavez, who stressed that UTEP’s online education is about more than accessibility. “We offer quality courses and that’s appreciated by our students who are focused and driven to finish their studies as efficiently as possible.”