Web tuition price rooted in innovation, adaptation

Victoria Garcia

Since the turn of the 21st century the importance of technology and the Internet has progressed significantly, making it less of a luxury and more of a necessity. This seems to be especially true for those in the pursuit of a higher education.

Because a fast-paced, busy schedule is becoming the norm for today’s college students, it’s no wonder that online courses have become the convenient option for completing credit hours and eventually obtaining a degree.

Timothy W. Peterson, Washburn University’s dean of continuing education, has noticed a definite increase in online course registrations, specifically in the past five years.

“The numbers have increased from approximately 3,500 students enrolled online in Fiscal Year 2002 to nearly 5,900 students in Fiscal Year 2007,” said Peterson.

Washburn first began offering online programs in spring 1999 to provide access to a few of their baccalaureate degree programs for students attending Kansas City Kansas Community College as well as Johnson County Community College. Currently this project, more widely known as 2+2 PLAN, includes 26 different community and technical college partners.

The project allows students to complete an associate’s degree at one of the partner institutes and then, in another two years, a bachelor’s degree at Washburn University without having to travel to Topeka for classes.

The 2+2 online PLAN degree programs include the Bachelor of Integrated Studies, the Bachelor of Applied Science in Human Services, the Bachelor of Applied Science in Technology Administration, the Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and the Bachelor of Health Science degrees.

Currently, the Allied Health Department in the School of Applied Studies offers the most online courses and programs and serves students throughout the nation.

“However, the majority of enrollment is by local students who work or have a time conflict in taking a full schedule of campus courses,” said Peterson.

While online courses are a more viable option for a wide range of students, differential tuition, or different course cost, raises the prices of classes even above what it costs to take the same course in a campus classroom environment. As an example, the current amount for a psychology course online is approximately $238 per credit hour, yet that same course taught in a classroom environment stands at around $185 per credit hour.

Allen Dickes, dean of enrollment management, explained the three main reasons behind differential tuition, the first of these being cost of development.

“We encourage professors to take their time putting online courses together and while that effort is important, it also costs money on behalf of the university,” said Dickes.

Secondly, because the enrollment in online courses is typically limited to no more than 25 students the amount of interaction between faculty and students is greater than in the traditional classroom setting.

“This is mainly because students and the instructor have the option of communicating at any time of the day, whereas in a classroom environment discussion is usually restricted to that set period,” said Dickes. “This usually means that instructors end up spending a large portion of their time checking up on the online discussions, and it’s important that they are compensated for that.”

Kimberly Morse, assistant history professor, has encountered much of this exact experience while teaching courses online.

“While grading time is the same whether online or in the classroom, the quality depends on the participation of the students and the preparation of the instructor,” said Morse. “I’ve found myself literally checking in all the time, especially if it’s a class who has frequent active discussion online.”

Morse, who has been teaching for more than 10 years, began instructing some of her courses online in the fall of 2004. Prior to that, from 2000 to 2003 she gained online designing experience while helping faculty at the University of Texas at Austin lay out and build their online classes.

“Faculty have the option of organizing their WebCT modules in whatever way works best for them, but, in my opinion, their overall foundation and guidelines set the tone for how students manage themselves and their assignments throughout the span of the course,” said Morse.

A shared misconception among many students is that while online courses are more expensive, the course load is much easier than that of a traditional in-class environment. Morse, Peterson and Dickes all stress that this simply isn’t so.

“Online courses require an extra amount of commitment from both the students and the instructor, and I’ve noticed that in my online classes, student seem to be really prepped and engaged in their work,” said Morse. “Teaching online requires a lot of rewriting for the specific medium. Professors have to think about what they are going to do and, more importantly, how they are going to do it in an online environment.”

Dickes explained that one of the leading reasons behind differential tuition is simply the high demand for classes online. Because a large number of students are clamoring to reserve a spot in an online course, the overall price is a rational influence.

“We have expanded the offer of online courses significantly, and the demand has only increased,” said Dickes. “Everything I see tells me that a large population of future students will be choosing to have at least one online course in their schedule.”

The higher price range of online courses could be playing a leading role in students’ overall superior performances in classes online. Peterson believes that most faculty who have taught online courses have found them to be successful to the extent that students take online learning seriously.

“The vast majority of WU students rate their online courses highly,” said Peterson. “For example, 91 percent of the students who completed an online course evaluation in the fall of 2007 said ‘yes’ when asked ‘Would you take another WU online course or recommend it to a friend?’.”