Online Distance Learning: A Q&A with Dr. Matthew Olson


We’ve discussed a lot of the advantages of community college education on this blog, from the practical, hands-on approach for learning to the smaller class sizes and affordability compared to four-year programs. But one factor we haven’t touched on yet is the convenience that community colleges afford students who are working full-time but still want to further their educations. In fact, The New York Times reported recently that much of the current community college boom is going on in classes held at odd hours — in some cases, in the middle of the night.

Another way that community colleges are catering to students schedules is by offering more classes online. In this week’s episode we discuss that trend with Matthew Olson, Director of the Middlesex Interactive Online Learning Network at Middlesex Community College.

We asked Dr. Olson some follow-up questions about online distance learning, and he was kind enough to elaborate for us.

The American Association of Community Colleges says that community colleges’ enrollment rates are booming in almost every state. To what do you attribute that, and how is online distance learning contributing to that?

It is clear that the increased enrollment rate in community colleges can be attributed to the current state of the economy. People are coming to community colleges — and all of higher education, really — in order to increase their employability in this highly competitive job market. At a community college, people can quickly gain up-to-date technical skills, and they can also get the certifications and academic degrees they might need to keep their existing jobs or move into better ones.

Online distance learning is giving people increased access to education and allowing them to take courses from times and places of their choosing and to complete programs more quickly. According to the Sloan-C report, Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, the enrollment rate for online courses far outpaces the rest of higher education.

How is Middlesex bringing ATE learning to students? What tools are valuable to learning: Blackboard, social media, blended learning? Is there an ideal setting for distance learning?

I don’t believe there is one ideal setting for online distance learning. Effective teaching and learning can be done many ways, depending on the subject being taught, the style of the instructor and the needs of the students.

Of course, all courses rely on a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Blackboard, but new tools including social media sites like Ning and Groupsite are adding another dimension to the online learning environment. Among other things, social media can provide a forum for informal connections and peer support.

Also, many schools, including my own, are getting involved with virtual worlds such as Second Life. These 3D, interactive, virtual environments allow students a way to experience each others’ physical presence and participate in new forms of collaboration. Virtual worlds also allow students to interact with online simulations, and with people from all over the world. One of our faculty members, psychology professor Don Margulis, has posted a short YouTube video about why it is so important to use virtual worlds to engage the new kinds of learners we are now seeing.

You also mentioned blended learning. From my perspective, the future involves bringing together all the best that the specific technologies have to offer and combining them with what we know works well face-to-face. Today, online distance learning is certainly meeting an access need for our students, but future learning environments are going to need to blend virtual interaction with face-to-face contact, much the same way that many businesses do.

How do you primarily interact with the students with distance learning courses?

As I said, there are a variety of tools that can be used in online learning, but the central feature of these courses is the Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS — in our case Blackboard — provides a place on the Web for students to see course materials, including lecture notes, with embedded videos and links to other Web content.

The LMS also features a discussion board for students to post responses to questions or to critique each others’ work. People can post messages at different times of the day from different places but still communicate and collaborate with each other.

Some people think it will be an isolating experience to take an online course, when in fact, just the opposite is true. Online students must interact with each other and with the instructor on a regular basis. The learning is highly collaborative. In addition to the discussion board, students often have online access to shared whiteboards, real-time chat, and sometimes voice and videoconferencing. Students can all submit assignments and get grades and feedback through the LMS, so it is in fact a very rich experience for students and professors.

Are you encountering new types of students who can learn online and take classes on their own schedule?

I’m not sure that they are so much new types of students as students who have preferences to learn in new ways. Many of our students have jobs and family responsibilities, but that has always been true at community colleges. Online distance learning has just met a need for these folks that was already present. That is probably why community colleges are providing the majority of online instruction in higher education today.

And while undoubtedly one of the factors that brings students to online courses is that they can work on their own schedule, this does not mean that they don’t have due dates. The highly collaborative nature of the online learning environment requires students to have their work done on a set schedule. These are not independent, self-paced courses.

So students often come to online courses for the access, but I think in many cases they stay for the learning. Lots of people who take online courses find they learn well when they can take their time and focus on writing the answers to discussion questions or when they can make personal connections and apply course material to real world contexts.

Do you have a success story or a situation where you saw a student take a course through online learning which he or she wouldn’t have been able to attend on a regular schedule?

I can think of many such stories. In one case, a student had to move to England before completing her degree and was able to finish by taking courses online from London! Similarly, another student moved to California and was able to complete her degree online.

Each semester we have many cases of students who are deployed from the local Air Force base and continue their courses in Afghanistan or Iraq. We offer a number of complete degree programs online, but I think that most students would still prefer to combine online distance learning with face-to-face instruction.

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One Response to “Online Distance Learning: A Q&A with Dr. Matthew Olson”

  1. [...] courses to better meet the varied schedules and learning styles of their students. Check out our separate blog post on the subject, where we get into some of the details with Dr. Matthew Olson, Director of Online [...]

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