Mid-Columbia students flocking to online classes

As a teacher, Danielle Belliston is required to complete continuing education.

But as a 35-year-old mother with two small children and a full-time job, it’s hard to find a two-hour block of time during the day to sit in a classroom.

So like many professionals, Belliston, of Pasco, found the perfect solution — her home computer.

More and more professionals are turning to online learning to expand career opportunities, enhance their abilities or make them more competitive in the job market.

According to a study released last October by the Sloan Foundation, more than 3.5 million people were enrolled in an online course during the fall 2006 term — a 10 percent increase over the previous year.

Deborah Meadows, assistant vice president for instruction at Columbia Basin College, said the college offers more than 100 online courses and they are the first classes to fill up in any given quarter.

“It’s becoming more and more popular all the time,” Meadows said.

Online enrollment is soaring in the state’s community colleges, said Cable Green, director of eLearning at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

“We are seeing new technologies being adopted in all kinds of ways,” Green said.

There were 463 students taking online courses during the winter quarter of 2002-03 at Columbia Basin College. During the winter quarter that just ended, there were 1,147 students learning from home — a 148 percent increase.

More than 32,500 students were enrolled in eLearning classes offered at the state’s colleges and tech schools.

The cost is comparable to traditional higher learning. But the hours are far more flexible, which appeals to busy students, especially working professionals trying to fit education in between their career and their family.

Belliston started work on her online master’s degree through University of Phoenix in December 2005 and completed it in March 2007.

“It was very fast-paced,” she said. “I’d stay up late and work after I had put the kids to bed.”

Chelsea Sandvic, 24, is working on an associate’s degree in business through University of Phoenix. The flexibility allows her to work full-time and focus on obtaining the degree, as well. Sandvic said she was considering going to Eastern Washington University, but decided the traditional university learning atmosphere was not what she wanted after she visited the school. She’s much more comfortable learning at home.

“It’s probably not for everyone, but I like not having to get up and go to class,” Sandvic said. “I can do it at midnight, and if I have questions I can talk to a teacher at any time during business hours.”

Not only do the online classes offer the same course work as on-campus classes, but students also interact with classmates in their courses and often are assigned to work together in teams, encouraging interaction among the students.

“We have a chat room and do discussion questions every week and do assignments together,” Sandvic said.

Belliston said while obtaining her master’s degree, she went through all but two classes with the same group of students and forged strong friendships with two women — one from California and one from Texas.

“I never felt like I was going through it alone — there was always a lot of discussion that went on,” Belliston said. “After we graduated, we met in Vegas to celebrate. We supported each other not just in classes, but in real life. We really kept each other going.”

Candace Bluechel, business service coordinator for WorkSource Columbia Basin, said the online classes are a great opportunity for workers to gain skills that could lead to a promotion, a raise or even a better job — especially for baby boomers struggling to keep up with the pace of technology.

“There is a lot of computer training that can be taken online to learn software, which is valuable to businesses,” Bluechel said.

And many companies pay some, and in some cases all, of the cost of the courses, if employees pass.

Bluechel said a vast amount of jobs today require knowledge-based skills, so the more education workers have, the more marketable they become, she said.