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Distance learning is a boon to strapped community colleges

With the price tag of college tuition rising and unemployment growing, distance learning is allowing community colleges to increase enrollment without overburdening finite resources.

Thanks to broadband, offering courses virtually has never been easier - and that's good news to the nation's community colleges, which are being swamped by job seekers going back to school. "If you offer a class virtually, you save a classroom. There is no question it has an impact on capacity," says Tony Felicetti, associate vice president of Academic Services and Enrollment Management at Monroe Community College in New York.

Despite the uptick in enrollment, community colleges have often been the victims of budget cuts in this recession, making any cost-cutting measure a must. Since virtual learning takes capacity out of the equation, it's a no-brainer: according to the American Association of Community Colleges, 90 percent of community colleges now offer courses online.

While distance learning can save on the cost of maintaining a physical space, you still need a professor - not as easy as it sounds. In a recent survey by the APLU-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning, 64 percent of faculty at land-grant institutions said it takes "somewhat more" or "a lot more" effort to teach online compared to teaching in a physical classroom.

"The best way to fail is to assume it isn't different: they aren't used to teaching in this manner, and they didn't learn in this manner," says Jan Balzer of SunGard Higher Education. That's why Monroe has set up a 15-hour course specifically to prepare faculty for the unfamiliar challenges of online teaching.

Despite the hurdles of learning a new system, learning via broadband is an obvious boon. At Mid Michigan Community College, online enrollment is so expansive that the Distance Education office hired two additional staff to handle the load. That's no small accomplishment for a Michigan school during this recession, says Director Anthony Freds. "As far as addressing expansion," says Freds, "there is no doubt that it is a good way to go--not just financially, but as a way to provide quality instruction."

To learn more, read the Speed Matters Fact Sheet on Distance Learning.

Virtual Capacity: Using distance learning to manage surging enrollment (University Business)

High Speed Internet and Distance Learning (Speed Matters)