Balancing online, face-to-face learning experiences

Nov. 15, 2011 at 5:15 a.m.

While there remains a certain level of comfort in writing or receiving a hand-written letter, most of our current daily communications come to us electronically - whether through email, texts, websites, television or Tweets.

Communication has changed drastically during the past 20 years, and we at the University of Houston-Victoria also must change to meet the demands of student education.

On Nov. 6, a UHV communications student wrote a guest column lamenting the lack of face-to-face courses available at the university. As a 47-year-old returning student, she expressed doubts and anxieties about her capabilities when it came to participating in online courses.

Most of us older than 30 can relate to her. We may be more reluctant than our younger colleagues when it comes to adopting new computer technologies (personally, I have yet to make my debut on Facebook). However, in contrast to our column writer's request for more face-to-face classes, I am also regularly approached with the opposite request: students asking for additional online courses rather than face-to-face.

These students cite conflicts with work schedules or transportation issues or the need to approach material at their own pace as reasons they prefer to take classes online. They enjoy the multimedia presentations and digital resources offered in online instruction. They have a level of comfort with the digital media they use daily to communicate with friends, family and employers.

At UHV, we aim for a balance between online and face-to-face classroom experiences. As professionals in the contemporary workforce, our students will need both the public speaking and face-to-face discussion skills developed in the classroom and the facility with technology refined in online courses, a skill that is required in the 21st-century workplace.

For students less familiar with technology, online classes can at first be daunting - these students are at an initial disadvantage and must put in extra work to learn the digital skills required for online courses. For me, the most heartening part of our student's column was to see how many technical skills she had acquired and how much effort she had put in to learning the new technology.

For students pursuing bachelor's degrees at UHV, there has been a move to more online courses during the past decade, a move necessitated by student demand. But we are responding in many ways to meet student demand for course delivery, and we seek to find that balance between face-to-face and online courses.

The welcome addition of freshmen and sophomores has necessitated additional course offerings; all of our 1000- and 2000-level classes are face-to-face. But the demands of a digitally savvy, increasingly mobile student body have led to offering more online courses, in some cases the only such option.

In our master's publishing program alone, we have students from the Victoria, Houston and Katy areas, but also from out-of-state locales in Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and New York, to name a few. Without online offerings, those students would be at a different institution.

In a recent national student satisfaction survey, when asked if they would choose the same university, 96 percent of UHV graduates responded that they would attend the university again. Though some of them took face-to-face courses, many completed their degrees entirely online.

Nevertheless, providing more face-to-face offerings for 3000- and 4000-level courses is one of our new goals. Through UHV's new "50-50 Pledge" we will offer at least two face-to-face, upper-level courses for each undergraduate major by fall 2012. This means that our juniors and seniors will have the opportunity to take 50 percent of their courses face-to-face - and the other 50 percent online.

This is a period of rapid change in communication technologies, and universities must keep apace.

In just the past five years, social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have changed the way we communicate.

The exchange of information is now instantaneous.

Like many of my generation, I harbor nostalgia for familiar things, whether they be turntable records, vintage automobiles or hand-written letters.

But the world has changed, and we at the university must lead our students as they prepare for the 21st-century work environment.

Jeffrey Di Leo is dean of the UHV School of Arts & Sciences.



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