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Online universities put 'learning resources' on the Web

[March 13, 2006]
(Billings Gazette (MT) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)

Mar. 13--Talk about flexible, Connie Keogh can work just about anywhere she can carry her laptop.

She's logged hours in coffee shops, airports and even while sitting on the beach.

"Pretty much, when I'm working, I have the laptop in front of me and I'm either on the phone or getting ready to make a call," she said.

Keogh, an Absarokee native, is a faculty member of Western Governors University, an online university headquartered in Salt Lake City.

"We call it an education without boundaries," she said.

Keogh is not a professor, nor does she spend much time teaching. Rather, she coordinates the orientation program and she mentors students as they work toward their degrees through the virtual university. The actual instruction -- or "learning resources" as she refers to them -- is outsourced, sometimes through established programs and sometimes to professors at other universities.

"I love teaching. I love being in the classroom, but I was ready for a change," said Keogh, who spent more than 20 years teaching in public schools before taking on her new career.

Now, instead of teaching in a brick-and-mortar classroom, she works with students over the phone, via e-mail or even in virtual classrooms that the university refers to as "communities."

What's flexible for Keogh is also flexible for her students. Most are at least 30 years old, mature and motivated. Many are working other jobs as they complete their online degrees. Like Keogh, the students can schedule their work and studies to their best advantage. And they can earn their degrees at their own pace. They interact with one another through online message boards in different communities set up for study groups, review sessions and other academic functions.

Early this year, Keogh celebrated graduation -- the virtual university holds a "real" graduation in Salt Lake City -- with one of her first students. It was the first time the two had seen one another in person.

"We just hugged and cried," she said. "You can't go that long without getting attached."

As a mentor, Keogh currently oversees about 40 students in the teachers college. She's seen photos of some, but many she knows as a voice on the phone.

"We really have to get to know our students well -- their background and how dedicated they are," she said. "We do everything we can do to make sure the students in the program are prepared."

That's where Keogh comes in. As a mentor, she talks with students about their concerns, she guides them through the financial aid process and she makes it clear what's expected of them. Because online learning demands organization, she covers time management issues and study skills "Just because it's any time, any place, it doesn't mean they can just do it," she said. "I tell them they have to give up something."

Students in the teaching school must also commit to completing their demonstration teaching component, a 12-week in-class experience that compares to the traditional student teaching.

Because the university is computer-based, students are assessed in two ways, she added. They're required to write papers and submit tasks, as if they're in a regular classroom.

"You have to demonstrate to us you have the ability, and that takes a heck of a lot of writing," she said.

They must also undergo objective assessments before a sanctioned proctor. The proctored assessments are often conducted at a community college or testing center easily accessible to the student.

Keogh joined WGU's faculty not long after earning her master's degree in learning and technology through WGU in the fall of 2002. The concept was fairly new at the time, she said, noting that when she started online classes, the university only offered a handful of degrees. Enrollment, which takes place once a month, was running about 30 new students at the time.

Now there are 31 degrees, including an MBA program. And this March, 450 new students signed up at the university, bringing overall enrollment to 5,500.

As coordinator for the orientation program, Keogh also trains new mentors. When Keogh was hired she was one of 10. Today, that number is up to 100 and growing by six to eight new mentors each month.

To prepare her fellow mentors, Keogh holds "live" meetings and training sessions over the computer. Participants can view Keogh's computer desktop on their own monitors as they converse with one another over the phone.

About once a month, Keogh flies to Salt Lake City to meet with university staff.

"It just never hurts to see the people you're working with," she said.

In fact, Keogh says, isolation is one of the drawbacks of her job.

Relying so heavily on e-mail and instant messaging, sometimes several days go by before she realizes she hasn't spoken with another faculty member.

"At some point, we have to sit and talk about the information," she said. "Sometimes we don't do that much working remotely."

Ironically, Keogh says the benefits of her job also present challenges.

The flexibility allows her to work whenever she wants, and for the most part she gets more done that way. But working "wherever" and "whenever" also makes it easy to get sidetracked.

"It's like any job. You have to set aside time and do it," she said.

Like many teachers, Keogh typically puts in more than a 40-hour work week. It's not unusual for her to be up at 5 a.m., typing e-mail messages. But, that's not because she has to, she emphasizes, but because she's up and the time works well for her.

She can take a day off here or there, but vacations are difficult because there's no substitute to fill in. On the flip side, she can coordinate the job with travel, so long as she carries her laptop and phone along.

"I have to be somewhat available, so I'm creative about covering my bases," she said.

Keogh says she likes to think she has a paperless office. To keep it that way, she types information into her computer as she's visiting with students or fellow faculty members over the phone.

In fact, she does save a few key documents, but her latest "paper trail" consisted of one handwritten list copied onto a single page in a spiral notebook.

"But I think I've gone through three computers," she said, smiling.

Keogh says the pay is comparable to her teaching salary in Wyoming, but now she's working year-round. Sometimes she misses the long summer vacation and the holiday break, but she prefers the continuity to the seasonal startup and shutdown of the traditional school year.

"I love it," she said. "This gave me the opportunity to move and live where I wanted. I get my laptop and my phone and get to work."


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