By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald

With three children, a part-time job and other demanding responsibilities, Colleen Saffron manages a hectic daily schedule, especially when she added one more thing: college.

“Things can definitely get busy and stressful,” said Saffron, who has two children also attending college.

But the linchpin in Saffron’s busy life is that she attends classes online, or by distance learning. “For someone like me, who needed flexibility, (online) classes were the only option,” she said.

Saffron, who earned a certificate in residential interior design online from the Art Institute in 2005, is now studying marketing and communications at Central Texas College.

The Harker Heights resident is among the thousands of students around the world taking distance courses though the community college.

Central Texas College offers 21 degree and certificate programs online, with more than 300 classes. Last year, the community college had 15,000 students taking online courses in Texas, and more than 28,000 online students, many of them stationed at military installations, including aboard Navy vessels, around the globe.

“It offers many students a chance to take classes that fit their lifestyle,” said Kathrine Latham, a distance learning instructor and communications department chairperson at the college. “I have had students right here in Killeen and ones in Afghanistan, all in the same class.”

The community college offers distance learning students several options in course structure through the web-based Blackboard program or CD and other data storage devices for those who lack Internet connections.

Some courses are self-paced, meaning students complete assignments and tests at their own pace. Others are time-based classes, which have set schedules for coursework, discussions and tests, and then there are blended classes, which are a combination of online work and attendance on campus for lectures or labs.

Self-paced learning

At Texas A&M University-Central Texas, instructors determine how to operate their virtual classrooms. Yakut Gazi, an online instructor and director of institutional design at the university, said instructors often use a range of online tools to present course material for the university’s 109 online courses.

“Online can be a different environment, so you need to keep students engaged,” said Gazi. “(Instructors) use everything from self-paced lessons, to live chat, to even recording lectures with a video or podcast.”

Saffron said she preferred the self-paced courses at the community college and characterized taking classes online as a double-edged sword. “It’s good when you can have something that works around your schedule,” she said. “But it can work against you when you don’t have that face-to-face contact.”

Saffron said she sometimes had a hard time communicating with class instructors via email when she had questions. “In a regular class, if you have a question, the (instructor) is right there,” she said. “But when you email, sometimes you could be waiting a while for answers.

Despite the differences in the way CTC and A&M-Central Texas operate their online courses, both Latham and Gazi agreed that distance learning might not fit all students.

“A good online student will be someone who can take responsibility and make sure they complete the work on time, even when there’s no instructor looking over their shoulder,” Latham said. “I think there’s an assumption with some students that these classes are easy, but there is a lot of work. It’s not just sitting around in your pajamas.”

Gazi said organization was the key to success in online courses at A&M-Central Texas. “A lot of the challenge is making a schedule and sticking to it,” he said. “You need the discipline to do the work and not fall behind.”

Saffron said online classes are as much work, sometimes more, than a traditional class, but she thought that colleges would continue to expand online learning choices for students.

“I think more traditional schools are going to need to offer students more flexibility,” said Saffron. “I think you will see more of that in the future.”

Online students speak up

Laura Julius — “I love it. Online classes have allowed me to finish my associate’s (degree), even though I moved out-of-state. I’m working on my bachelor’s (degree) now, and the longer I take online classes the easier they are to manage.”

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Suzanne Hoover — “I hate it! I don’t feel I learn as much as a classroom setting.”

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Craig Lifton — “With a full-time job, part-time in the Air National Guard, (and being) a husband, a father and a student, I sometimes find that I have very little time for me. Some weeks it’s easy, while other weeks, it is a true pain.”

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Anna Kamps — “I love it. I’m an Army wife, Army vet and mother of a toddler. I can work around my husband’s schedule and still have time with my daughter while going to school.”

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Michael Wright — “Taking classes online does give you a flexible schedule. With the demands of life already tugging a person from both ends, online seems the way to go. On the other hand, traditional classes give you the intangibles of the college experience.”