Online education at most Long Island universities and colleges is being boosted in the 2014-15 school year, with the state university system continuing its major push and other schools reconstructing courses, hiring staff and adding infrastructure to support virtual learning.
"We are realizing a vision of learning anytime, anywhere," said Wendy Tang, an associate professor at Stony Brook University. She also is director of an online SBU program that leads to a bachelor of science in electrical engineering.
The State University of New York system this year launched an expansion of its online degree curricula with "Open SUNY" and is considered a leader in the field nationwide. Stony Brook, as part of that drive, has brought aboard an expert in the field -- one of the first associate provosts for online education in the state system.
Adelphi University, in Garden City, recently hired a specialist in distance learning and this month completed a digital overhaul of its library. New York Institute of Technology -- based in Old Westbury and Manhattan, with extra "global campuses" -- is growing the number of online courses it has offered since 2008. And LIU Post in Brookville, in a first this fall, will offer a fully online master's program in taxation.
The thousands of students about to begin fall semester at Long Island institutions have new opportunities in this rapidly changing and versatile academic landscape. Even so, online courses are a fraction of what is offered, educators say. Some local educators say such distance learning can never supplant the traditional college experience during the regular academic year -- especially for those just entering school.
"On the undergraduate level, our sense was in the fall and spring semesters, nothing replaces the on-campus experience," said Herman Berliner, Hofstra University's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
"Being on campus, you're around people and classmates and that's important to me as a commuting student," said sophomore Cass Lang, 18, a Hofstra public relations major/design minor who lives in Wantagh. "All the friends I have right now are from my classes."
Students enrolled in online programs tend to be older, Tang said. Many are seeking career advancement and are working professionals.
Robert Gardner, 44, of Oswego worked toward a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering online from Stony Brook.
"The online option allowed me to continue to work, spend the evenings with my wife and kids and do coursework at night after putting the kids to bed," he said. "The difference I found is that with the on-campus education, there were always other students around taking the same classes I was. If I had a question on an assignment, there was always a good chance I could get some help from another classmate. With the online option, it was up to me to figure out every problem I had on my own."
The SUNY system's online push, spearheaded by Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, is apparently the most wide-ranging commitment so far among the Island's institutions of higher learning.
Open SUNY allows New York residents, out-of-state and international students to earn the same degrees over the Internet, paying the same tuition as that of students in campus settings. It launched in January with eight fully online degrees, including the bachelor of science in electrical engineering offered by Stony Brook.
The online degree courses have the benefit of 24-hour student technical support, tutoring services and faculty training.
Enrollment numbers for the first months were unavailable and Open SUNY has not expanded beyond its initial degree offerings, SUNY spokesman David Doyle said.
Seventy more complete online programs from SUNY campuses statewide have been nominated for the next phases, he said.
Stony Brook so far is the only Open SUNY partner on the Island. Participation by Farmingdale State College is under discussion, officials there said. SUNY Old Westbury did not submit programs at this time.
Stony Brook this year hired its first associate provost for online education -- Eric Rabkin -- who is charged with exploring and supporting the implementation of various online educational options.
Online offerings will grow faster than on-site education, mostly because of the convenience they offer, Rabkin said. Stony Brook currently offers 24 programs that can be fully completed through distance education and 29 where more than half can be completed this way.
"Some faculty think it is a terrific idea to experiment and . . . others believe -- and often quite rightly -- they have been doing very good work in traditional modes, so why should they have to change?" Rabkin said. "But everyone recognizes in a world that has these tools available that we have to figure out how to make the best use of them for the sake of our students."
Courses in two formats
Online education often is offered in two forms -- courses that are completely online, and courses that are "blended," with some work done in the classroom and some online.
Faculty in the online-only program usually do not meet students face to face. Synchronized online sessions, discussion boards, teleconferencing and other online collaborative tools are used to connect with students.
The leadership of the American Association of University Professors supports the view that a blended approach to online education can be more beneficial where students can view some material online and then participate in the classroom, said Marty Kich, a member of the executive committee of the AAUP's Collective Bargaining Congress and president of the association's Wright State University chapter.
Research has shown, too, he said, that courses designed by faculty who are teaching them, as opposed to courses taught by instructors hired to manage prepackaged materials, tend to keep students more engaged.
"We are not fundamentally opposed to the concept of digital education, but we are opposed to the efforts to simply wring as much profit as possible from the use of the technology," Kich said.
Stan Silverman, who runs NYIT's Technology Based Learning Systems area, said higher education should be careful about the courses' development and content. In 2008, NYIT, where faculty members develop their own courses, already offered 133 online courses, and last spring offered 178.
"In looking at the landscape of online education, in bigger institutions they are hiring course designers to build the courses and then handing them off to faculty who teach off those courses," Silverman said.
Adelphi University recently hired Laura Martin as associate provost for online learning and it offers about 75 online and 65 blended courses and plans for more in the future.
"We have been evaluating what we can and what we can't do academically and building infrastructure, so when we do roll something out, it is as close to perfect as we can do it," Martin said.
Adelphi's overhaul of its library includes a lab with several large interactive screens that allows access to the library's online database -- content that cannot be found for free on the Web. In addition, the lab supports distance learning.
"We can have students from across the world entering into this classroom," said Brian Lym, dean of University Libraries.
At LIU Post, online education is not a central part of the school's strategic plan for undergraduates during the regular academic year, said Jeffrey Kane, vice president for academic affairs.
"What we are concerned about is the efficacy given that significant aspects of a college education go well beyond the classroom," Kane said. The university does offer online and blended programs for graduate students, including the online master's in taxation being offered for the first time this fall.
Online growth predicted
Hofstra's Berliner predicts growth in online participation for graduate students. The university's fully online degree programs are offered at the graduate or advanced certificate level.
"Part-time graduate students -- let's say in business or education -- are not looking to come to campus if they don't have to come to campus . . . and so we are trying to offer as much online as we can," he said.
At Farmingdale State College, student demand for online coursework is high, but growth has been slow, said Michael Knauth, director of information resources and head librarian. Still, the school has hired in the area, bringing a second instructional designer on staff in April.
"If we offered many more distance learning courses, they would fill up immediately," Knauth said. "There is a desire among students for distance learning. Not all of our faculty are always convinced that online medium would be the best way for them to educate their students."
LI'S ONLINE COURSES
How many online courses -- including those that are blended incorporating distance learning with classroom experience -- are offered at many Long Island colleges and universities:
About 75 online and 65 blended courses
152 online projected in Fall 2014
Farmingdale State College:
About 120 online courses fully online and about 10 to 15 hybrid
Five Towns College: About 20 to 25 online and five to 10 per semester as hybrids
Hofstra University: More than 300 fully online and hybrid
About 10 that will be offered in 2015
Nassau Community College:
Total of 115, includes blended/hybrid
New York Institute of Technology:
178 offered last spring
St. Joseph's College:
A total of 143 online offerings and 27 hybrid offerings
Total of 471 offered within the past year
Community College: 103 online courses
14 fully online and 52 blended courses