Keeping your distance: Online programs celebrate nontraditional learning

By Laura Grimm

Our campus goes well beyond Moorhead—in fact, it stretches over half a dozen states.

National Distance Learning Week was Nov. 6-10. The goals of the week were educating people on the growth of distance learning and the students’ accomplishments.

Nineteen percent of MSUM students are taking all of their classes online this semester. Nine percent of those are in campus-based hybrid programs, and 10 percent are in fully online programs.

These students may not have the traditional college experience, but according to Barbara Matthees, the chair of the School of Nursing & Healthcare Leadership, their online classes have many benefits.

“In an online class, everybody posts their discussion postings. You can’t sleep in the back,” Matthees said. “Everyone has the same podium and the same ability to speak in the online mode.”

Of the 13 master’s degrees MSUM offers, nine are entirely online or online hybrids—including degrees in nursing, business and education that were listed in the 2016 U.S. News & World Report of Best Online Programs. All but one of the licensures and certificates are online or hybrids.

According to Matthees, online students live across the country, from California to Florida, mostly because they moved from Minnesota while enrolled in the program. The majority are from Minnesota, and the Twin Cities area in particular is a hot spot for online students.

Fantasia Winrow is pursuing her master’s in business administration, a predominantly online degree, while working at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota.

“I liked the flexibility of being online,” Winrow said. “I can work full-time and still get my degree.”

The majority of Matthees’ RN-BSN students are employed full-time as registered nurses and cannot afford to take a day off. The program used to require students to come to campus once a week for 12 hours of classes. Now, students only need to interact on the class D2L page a few times a week, and all Matthees’ graduate classes have a monthly video-call meeting.

Even though they are not receiving the “typical” education, online students still do many of the same things in-class students do. Their classes can have discussions, quizzes, papers, presentations and group work. How group work is finished is completely up to the students.

“Since (my) students are all capable online students, I just put them in groups, and they figure it out,” Matthees said.

This has been a struggle for Winrow, since students rarely meet in real life.

“Because I am online, I think the biggest issue I have is trying to collaborate with my classmates, especially during group projects,” Winrow said. “However, the professors have taken this into account and try to provide us with as many means of communication, and (they) reserve rooms for group meetings if the participants are in a close enough location.”

Online students face some unique challenges, finding it harder to feel engaged and like they’re a part of the MSUM community.

“It’s easy to feel isolated if it’s just you and your computer,” Matthees said. “(But) the students do engage with each other, and they certainly get to know each other and respect each other’s strengths and knowledge. It’s a different kind of community.”

Even though Winrow lives hundreds of miles away, she still feels like she is part of MSUM.

“My professors have done a wonderful job keeping us informed of campus events, and frequent emails from the school make me feel part of the community,” Winrow said.


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