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Online Classes Divisive but Growing at Michigan Universities

While some students feel ill-served or short-changed by virtual learning, the state’s 15 public universities expect those options to expand in the coming years as other students demand flexibility.

Western Michigan University
Western Michigan University
(TNS) — College students across Michigan are returning to campuses, but not all of them are making their way back into classrooms for all of their classes.

Some are OK with that, others are not.

More than a year after colleges and universities were forced to offer nearly all classes online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools are continuing to offer significant numbers of hybrid and online courses as an alternative to in-person classes.

Officials say offering fewer in-person courses is part of the future for some higher education institutions, a change that is being driven not just by the pandemic but by student demand.

“We have always wanted to offer courses online,” said Ora Pescovitz, president of Oakland University, where nearly a third, or 29 percent, of classes are being offered virtually this semester. “One of the things we learned from the COVID year was that (online) was a good modality for the courses themselves, and it was the preferred way of learning and teaching (for some courses).”

Virtual classes for the fall semester vary widely across Michigan’s 15 public universities, from 3 percent at Michigan Technological University to 56 percent at the University of Michigan Flint campus, from 10 percent of classes at UM Ann Arbor to 46 percent at Central Michigan University.

Eastern Michigan University, which is offering 35 percent of its classes online, expects its percentage to increase in future semesters.

“We definitely see more students interested in online learning opportunities — in some cases, even students living on campus want an online class or two to balance their schedules,” EMU spokesman Walter Kraft said.

The percentage of online classes might be higher this semester at some colleges and universities due to health concerns or some faculty not feeling comfortable teaching in person, said Brendan Cantwell, a Michigan State University associate professor in educational administration.

But the trend of online college classes was happening before COVID-19 and the pandemic just accelerated it, he said. Colleges and universities had to make significant investments in the technology and faculty had to learn how to use it, Cantwell said.

He predicted online course offerings will dip as the pandemic gets under control but will become an increasing part of student life at some universities in the future.

“What we are going to see is an integration of delivery models into what we normally think of as traditional programs,” Cantwell said. “We’ve often had these hard lines between what is an online program and what is a face-to-face program. That distinction will become blurrier over time.”

Classroom still beckons

Salvatore DiMaggio transferred from UM-Dearborn to UM-Flint this year and had mixed feelings as he moved to campus for his sophomore year.

DiMaggio, who spent $12,000 for one semester of tuition, a meal plan and a dorm room he’ll share with three roommates, said he is disappointed because just one of his five classes is in-person.

“I feel like I am not getting a full return on my investment,” said DiMaggio, who is from Shelby Township and studying information technology and informatics. “I’m paying all this money for what? To go on my computer? I do think there’s still a long time until we are done with the virus. It’s also important that we get students back in the classroom in a safe way.”

He said he learns better in the classroom. He also did research and knew that UM-Flint had fewer in-person classes this semester than other public universities.

“But I didn’t know they were pushing for (more) online,” DiMaggio said of the school where more than half of the classes are being held virtually this fall. “It’s a little weird Flint wants to grow their online program when they have housing on campus.”

The university expects online education to continue to grow, said UM-Flint spokeswoman Jennifer Hogan.

“Online will be a key part of our future, and we continue to work to increase the number of online program offerings,” Hogan said. “The pandemic absolutely revealed that many students prefer the convenience of the online learning experience, and our university has responded to the demand and will continue to do so.”

Many students enjoy online classes, she said, noting UM-Flint’s program offering a bachelor’s degree for registered nurses is popular and is entirely online.

Catering to online students

Michigan Technological University is offering the majority of its courses in-person this fall but just hired David Lawrence from Davenport University to serve as the Upper Peninsula school’s vice president for online and continuing education.

“We want to make sure we are meeting the needs of non-traditional students,” said Michigan Tech spokeswoman Stefanie Sidortsova. “The learning modalities are continuing to evolve.”

Virtually all colleges and universities offered online courses in March 2020 when the coronavirus spread across the United States and into Michigan. Most offered virtual, hybrid and limited in-person classes during the 2020-21 school year with mask mandates and social distancing since the first vaccine did not get emergency authorization until December 2020.

Among those who enjoy online learning are nontraditional students like Amy Timmons, a second-grade teacher at Ethel Bobcean Elementary School in Flat Rock.

Timmons, 44, has aspirations of becoming a principal.

Timmons, who is married and a mother to three children, said she was attracted to an accelerated master’s degree program in educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University because it is entirely online. She said she was a little nervous at first because she thought she would learn better in the classroom. Instead, she found she learned as well online and was able to invest her commuting time into her studies.

“This program really worked out for me, and the teachers were amazing,” Timmons said.

Evolution of online instruction

Among the colleges that don’t expect a majority of classes to be online is the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where 90 percent of classes will be held in-person for undergraduate students during the fall semester.

Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said a lot was learned during the pandemic and some faculty are considering how to include some remote components into their courses.

“That said, UM is primarily a residential university where the in-person class experience for students from all parts of Michigan, all 50 states and 115 countries around the globe is at the core of their educational experience,” Fitzgerald said.

UM-Dearborn is offering more than 50 percent of its classes online this semester.

“For some time, the university has been working to add more online course offerings to meet the needs of our student population,” UM-Dearborn spokeswoman Beth Marmarelli said.

“We’ve seen success with online teaching during the pandemic and have identified more courses that can be successfully taught in an online modality. While some courses may move to an online format, there may be times when students will need to come to campus for specific hands-on or experiential learning.”

Grand Valley State University President Philomena Mantella said the Allendale-based university wants “to meet students where they are and with a method they need to learn.” It is planning to offer 76 percent of classes in-person this fall; the rest will be hybrid and online.

“Online teaching is the answer for some students and that number will likely grow,” Mantella said. “Grand Valley is anticipating that need. We are investing in ongoing professional development for our faculty to make sure our students get a high-quality online experience.”

The university believes in the value of the on-campus experience for many students, she added.

“Strong online curriculum can offer flexibility and supplemental instruction, enhancing face-to-face learning,” Mantella said.

Michigan State University is offering 83 percent of its undergraduate courses in-person after the university asked each instructor to look closely at each of their classes and determine which teaching method — in-person, hybrid or remote — could be implemented successfully, said MSU deputy spokesman Dan Olsen. The result was a diverse set of classes across all four years of the curriculum this semester, he said.

“We learned throughout the pandemic that our faculty and students deeply value an in-person experience,” Olsen said. “We also learned that many students value the benefits offered by ... online courses.”

Online courses give students the opportunity to take advantage of other activities such as internships, study abroad and work while they continue to make progress toward their degrees if they need to be away from campus, he added.

Added Olsen: “These offerings also allow students to fit a larger number of courses into their schedules if they choose, which reduces the time it takes them to complete their degrees as well as their overall costs.”

Percentage of online classes at the state’s 15 public universities

Michigan Technological University: 3 percent
UM Ann Arbor: 10 percent
Northern Michigan University: 13 percent
Lake Superior State University: 13 percent
Ferris State University: 15 percent
Michigan State University: 17 percent
Saginaw Valley State University: 20 percent
Grand Valley State University: 24 percent
Western Michigan University: 25 percent
Oakland University: 29 percent
Eastern Michigan University: 35 percent
Wayne State University: 43 percent
Central Michigan University: 46 percent
UM-Dearborn: Less than 50 percent
UM-Flint: 56 percent

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