In rural areas like Amador County, the convenience of not having to commute long distances to class is the often first reason residents seek online college programs.

As online teaching methods and technologies have matured and developed, many students are realizing that they prefer online learning to traditional face-to-face classes in a brick-and-mortar setting for other reasons, such as well-prepared and accessible faculty and “Universal Design for Learning “(UDL) concepts.

Well-Prepared and Accessible Faculty

Traditional lecture classes do not translate well to the online environment and for many learners such classes were not the best way to learn anyway. On the other hand, online classes are purposely designed to be accessible and engaging, through the wise use of instructional technologies, without sacrificing the quality and rigor of the best brick and mortar institutions.

Online institutions like Arizona State University Online invest heavily in faculty development to ensure that course design and teacher performance fully support learning. For example, ASU Online faculty members must participate in at least 80 hours of professional development and training and are required to work with instructional design staff when developing online classes.

Coastline Community College requires all faculty members to complete training in online learning and course design and use of CANVAS, the online course management system. A variety of ongoing online courses are available to all faculty via Coastline’s Faculty Success Center. In addition, Coastline’s Instructional Design Professional Team, credentialed in the fields of Instructional Design and Instructional Technology, is available to assist online faculty in the development of relevant, accessible and engaging online course requirements and activities.

Likewise, Foothill Community College requires its online faculty to adhere to a set of standards for all online courses. The “Online Faculty Responsibilities” require faculty to follow Foothill’s attendance documentation procedures and best practices for “Regular, Timely and Effective Student/Faculty Contact Procedures.” Foothill also maintains an extensive library of licensed third-party resources for faculty to use when designing and implementing online courses.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Anyone questioning the quality and rigor of online courses compared to classes in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting would be surprised by how sophisticated online teaching and learning has become.

One may think of online classes as just the use of assistive technology to make classes available to students with disabilities. For example, online college classes allow students who have physical disabilities to attend class without having to leave their homes. Students who are visually-impaired can use computer audio features to have written materials read to them and diagrams and illustrations described. Students who are hearing-impaired have access to scripts and PowerPoints for lectures and other audio materials to access course content.

Online classes that employ UDL principles, however, offer much more than assistive technology. Faculty and instructional design specialists use UDL principles to make online course content accessible but also to maximize learning for all students.

UDL design asks:

  • is the course content being presented in a manner to reach the maximum audience and reduce navigation Frustration?
  • Is the course conducted in an inclusive way to ensure that all students can participate fully and are not frozen by intimidation?
  • Are the course activities designed to accommodate different learning preferences, offering students a choice of how to demonstrate what they have learned?

How a student prefers to learn and demonstrate what he or she has learned varies. Some students prefer to write papers, others to give oral reports; some students need to engage in a lot of discussion to assimilate new information, others prefer to read and outline on their own. UDL principles guide teachers of online courses to offer students a variety of reasonable choices for accessing material and demonstrating what they have learned. Teachers of online classes know that offering choices increases student interest and engagement with the material.

In addition, the requirements around the use of communication tools such as class discussion boards tend to level the power relationships within the “virtual classroom” such that the contributions of the student who is shy and reticent can be noticed and appreciated as much as those of the outgoing “gunners.” UDL design promotes inclusivity in learning—exposing students to the varied communication styles, interests and opinions they are likely to eventually meet in the workplace.

Thanks to the wise use of technology and the teams of instructional design specialists who work with college professors to make course content accessible and engaging, online learning is so much more than the old-fashioned “film strip,” Sesame Street and other TV programming, Great Lectures on tape and even the more recent “iTunes U” downloadable lectures. Online classes are interactive and engaging without sacrificing academic quality and rigor. At $46 per unit for credit in the California community college system, what are you waiting for? Call Amador College Connect today to check into course offerings for this fall at 209-217-8239.