Howard Community College students who don't want to sit in classrooms and listen to lectures have a new option this fall -- taking their courses on the Internet.
Howard joins a growing number of colleges and universities across the country -- including the University of Maryland University College -- that offer courses online in an effort to make themselves more available to students.
At the west Columbia campus, where more than 5,100 part- and full-time students are expected when the fall semester begins Tuesday, eight classes will be offered almost entirely online, including composition, creative writing, music appreciation and economics.
"We thought the online classes would be great for people who have other obligations and didn't have time to make it to classes," said Henry F. Linck, chairman of the college's English and foreign language division and coordinator of the Internet classes.
"But we found that a lot of the students who signed up were just interested in taking a class in a different way that allowed them to go home to do their work," Linck said.
The classes typically will require students to meet their professors in person twice -- at the beginning to obtain the software for the class and at the end to wrap up the lessons.
Students are not required to be particularly knowledgeable about computers, but such expertise is an advantage.
Almost all communication is expected to take place online, from the assigning and completion of homework to "in-class" discussions and the grading of papers.
The courses are separated from the open Internet and are as secure as the college can make them. Students are required to have unique passwords and software to enter the college's online instruction area.
Online discussions take place at prearranged times in "chat rooms" that allow the professor and students to converse about the week's lessons -- whether a set of short stories or a musical selection.
The discussions allow the classes to become more than just high-tech correspondence classes in which students and teachers exchange electronic mail.
Peer groups can be set up within a class to allow a certain number of students to converse at a given time.
All discussions will produce instantaneous transcripts, allowing students to go back and review exactly what was said in class as often as they want.
"I anticipate that I'll learn a lot more about what the students in my online class are thinking than my day students" in traditionally taught classes, said John Bouman, who will be teaching a macroeconomics class online this fall.
The online classes build on Howard's reputation as one of Maryland's most high-tech colleges.
Last fall, the college opened a distance-learning television classroom that permits students in Columbia to take and interact with classes taught elsewhere in the state, and many of the school's courses in such subjects as English and math are taught in classrooms containing computers.
The decision to offer eight online courses this fall came after a successful trial class in the spring that earned praise from the instructor, Nicholas R. Barrett, and the students.
"I thought it was great because we could work at our own pace," said Lisa Baron, 19, an elementary education major at the college who has decided to take another online class this fall. "Even though we were only on computer, we all got to know each other really well and learn a lot from everybody."
Barrett said he ended up spending more individual time with his online students than with those in his other classes -- albeit via the Internet rather than in person.
"The computer creates a strong veil -- culture, race, gender -- that gives a lot of students the illusion they can say a lot of things they think that can't say in person," Barrett said. "It allowed for interesting discussions that never would have occurred in a typical classroom setting."
In the spring class, the original enrollment of 13 fell to eight by the end of the semester.
"The students really need to be self-motivated, because they're expected to do a lot of work on their own and be on the computer at the correct times," Barrett said.
This semester, the online classes are relatively small. Some have fewer than 10 students, a size Barrett and other professors say they welcome as they work out the kinks of offering such courses. Class discussions involving more than four or five students become unwieldly, prompting the division of larger classes into multiple online groups.
With interest in online classes growing across the country, enrollment in Howard's program is likely to increase.
"These types of classes are becoming more and more common," said Don Descy, an associate professor of library media education at Mankato State University in Minnesota and Internet columnist for the education-technology trade magazine TechTrends. "I think they offer tremendous possibilities for education, allowing students to take classes when they're most convenient.
"They also make it easier for students to take a class that's not offered at their school at another school."
It is not clear how many colleges and universities offer online courses, Descy said, largely because of the chaotic way the Internet is indexed.
But one Internet-based guide to online courses lists more than 700 courses offered by 30 schools, some as large as Pennsylvania State University and the University of Washington, others as small as Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Fla., and Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I.
For more information on the college's online classes, visit the college's Internet home page at www.howardcc.edu.
Pub Date: 8/29/96