Long Island's colleges are joining a higher-education revolution in bringing their classes to the Web, extending the radius of their student base.
Schools are adding fully online classes, as well as "blended" classes that are given mostly online with just a few face-to-face meetings. For-credit cyberclasses are beginning to supplement undergraduate classes, and some all-online bachelor's degrees are cropping up.
"The pace of change is rapid, unlike anything we've ever seen in higher education," said Andrew Rosman, recently hired to lead LIU Post's business school because of his online learning expertise. "If you are a limousine company and you choose to stick with the horse and buggy, you're going to be out of business."
Recent startups at Ivy League universities, while not for-credit, are getting attention and elevating the reputation of online learning.
Virtual classes at Long Island schools help more students who are balancing job and family gain access to higher education. They give traditional students who want to fast-track their degrees another option and expand enrollment to students from other parts of the country and other countries, college officials said.
"The freedom is the biggest benefit," said Giuseppe Prisco, 21, a senior at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. "But it can also be a drawback because it requires a lot of self-motivation."
Proponents say online courses, if done correctly, are rich in content, challenge students' critical thinking skills and give them a unique learning experience. They also can provide for greater interaction between professors and students.
Critics, however, say online classes can devalue the discourse that occurs during the traditional classroom experience and make it easier for less-motivated students to fall behind.
Nikki Edgecombe, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, said her group has gathered data that suggests the completion rate in online classes for some underprepared community college students was lower than those in face-to-face classes. "There are a lot of questions out there because the evidence does suggest pretty significant challenges to teaching people remotely," Edgecombe said.
New ways of thinking
Schools on the Island are forging ahead, moving to keep up with new technology, train faculty and make sure students are learning effectively.
At Hofstra University, where the first online class was offered in 2010, Provost Herman Berliner said the administration knew as far back as 2000 that "a massive sea change" was coming.
"For a while, I think everyone thought it [online learning] was a cheaper product," Berliner said. "But if you're doing it right -- and we're doing it right -- you can provide high-quality online experiences."
Virtual learning will not substitute for undergraduates' campus experience during the regular academic year, he said, but it's a boon for those who need to make up a course or want to take an extra class when the campus is closed. The fastest-growing winter- and summer-break classes are those offered online, he said.
In the past two years, more than 20 percent of Hofstra's faculty has taught online, with the university offering professors a $4,000 stipend for creating their first online course and $2,000 for the second, Berliner said.
At Stony Brook University, seven graduate-degree and certificate programs are fully online. The school enrolls more than 1,600 students in about 100 online classes per semester, adding a dozen new online courses each academic year, said Laura Unger, associate director of the School of Professional Development Online.
Officials at the SUNY College at Old Westbury say their strategic plan includes growing its online courses to 100 by 2015. There are 36 blended online classes.
Farmingdale State College has offered about 80 to 100 online courses for the past three years and has created a task force to create a best practices guide for professors and students.
Saint Joseph's College in North Patchogue offers two fully online bachelor's degrees and several certificate programs. The school has more than 850 students registered in its online classes, hailing from Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.
The cost for students and the schools, college officials said, is the same or higher than the physical classroom. Technology and expertise are expensive and class size is typically limited to 20 students -- fewer than in traditional classes, local colleges and experts said.
Students who are fully online don't use physical space or require resources such as residence halls, the infirmary, parking garages and the cafeteria, LIU Post's Rosman pointed out.
"Maybe next year we don't need to build that new building, because our growth is coming from online and not physical classes," he said. "I'm just not sure the costs will cancel each other out, but universities have to recognize there is a shift."
It's a significant time investment for both the instructor and the student, said Francine Glazer, assistant provost and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, where several graduate degrees are fully online.
Glazer, editor of the 2011 book "Blended Learning: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy," said a professor might spend 400 hours or more to bring a class online.
For many faculty members, doing that means abandoning more than lecture notes. They must teach differently, sometimes becoming a social coordinator for students at the beginning of the class to make sure everyone gets to know each other.
"It's a paradox because you think that online you're so isolated," said Glazer, a biologist who has taught online. "But really you have more contact with the professor and each other."
Helps juggle responsibilities
Student Charles Schwalbe, 30, of Commack, said he probably wouldn't be able to complete his bachelor's degree if not for a fully online program at Adelphi University, where enrollment in blended online classes has jumped 210 percent over the past five years.
Schwalbe works more than 40 hours per week as a paramedic for North Shore-LIJ Health System and is chief of the Commack volunteer ambulance corps. He expects to graduate in 2013 with a bachelor's in emergency services and aspires to move up to management or administration.
He said he chose Adelphi for the reputation of his program and because it is local. "Even though it's online, I know that if there's an issue, or I need to go to a professor's office hours, that I can just go to campus," Schwalbe said.
The cyberclassroom is gaining wider acceptance as top universities create new online ventures.
A new form of online teaching known as a MOOC -- "massive open online courses" -- is creating partnerships among the nation's top universities to provide classes online for free.
Coursera, a MOOC launched in January by two Stanford University computer science professors, enrolls 1.3 million students, more than half of whom live outside the United States.
The for-profit company this month signed on classes from leading universities including Brown, Columbia, Emory, Vanderbilt and Wesleyan.
Administrators at other colleges see potential in online learning, according to a study released last month by the Pew Research Center in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
More than half of the 1,055 college presidents surveyed said online courses offer a value to students that equals a traditional classroom's. However, only 29 percent of 2,142 adults in a telephone survey thought online teaching measured up to traditional teaching.
Bridgette Stann, 25, of West Babylon, said the Internet enables a higher-education link that would be physically impossible.
She is returning to Nassau Community College after taking two years off to care for her daughter, Zyaa, 2. At NCC, where online enrollment doubled over the past three years, officials said the Web classes propel their mission to make higher education accessible.
Stann often comes home from her day job at a bank, puts Zyaa to bed and logs in to her class. Her readings, notes and assignments are all online, as is a discussion board to which she and all the other students are expected to contribute.
"I take school very seriously," said Stann, who is studying accounting and hopes to move on to a four-year college. "It's not like it is less work online; if anything, I feel like it's more. But I can be in my pajamas and really, I wouldn't be able to take that class if I had to go to campus every day."
TYPES OF ONLINE CLASSES
Fully online classes have 100 percent of the coursework online.
"Blended" or "hybrid" classes mix online coursework with face-to-face meetings. The definition varies, but typically includes any class where 30 percent to 80 percent of the work might occur online.
HOW CLASSWORK IS DONE
Asynchronous online classes allow students to read coursework, contribute to class discussion boards, take tests and submit assignments at times they choose, as long as they fall within the class schedule. These are the most popular because of their flexibility.
Synchronous classes have a set time when students log in to their computers to "meet" online during the class time.
Sources: Online learning experts at various Long Island colleges