Online classes prove boon to employers, students

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Capital News Service
LANSING—Jeff Oliver has taught from a beach in Mexico, a Mediterranean island, home and his Alpena Community College (ACC) office. That’s one of the perks of teaching an online class, he said.
Oliver, an adjunct professor at ACC, said there’s been an increase in the number of online classes and students because of the rough economy and the need for training.
“People are training for current jobs and new jobs in new industries,” he said.
Don MacMaster, dean of workforce development, said laid-off laborers, especially in manufacturing, benefit because they can re-train for another job at their own convenience.
“A lot of folks that used to have good stable jobs lost them and are now moving into totally different industries they need training for,” he said.
Middle-skill jobs, which require more than a high school diploma but not a four-year degree, represent 51 percent of Michigan jobs, according to the Workforce Alliance in Washington, D.C.
Community college programs are among the best ways to train people for these jobs, and having classes online makes it even easier, said Ronda Edwards, executive director of the Michigan Community College Virtual Learning Collaborative.
Online courses allow community colleges to do more collaborative programming, as well, Edwards added.
In some programs, students take courses online at a community college that may not be in their hometown, and do necessary lab work or on-site assessments at a closer location, she said.
Edwards told of a police officer on disability in the Upper Peninsula who completed Jackson Community College’s online diagnostic medical sonography degree but did the required clinical work in his hometown. He was able to train for another career without commuting to Jackson.
The Michigan Community College Association hopes to expand these kinds of programs, as well as joint programs among community colleges.
Funding is slowing down the process, however, said Edwards.
“Faculty members who are utilized to develop new programs are working overtime. The only way to promote online collaborations is to go out for additional money to pay for adjunct faculty or hire more faculty,” she said.
Edwards said the plan is “to break up training programs into modules that community college professors from across the state can collaborate on. That way, one college isn’t doing all the work.
“We’ll be able to get a lot more done in a lot less time,” she said.
Enrollment is up at community colleges around the state, so the need is there, but progress will depend on available resources, she said.
The association is looking for grants from foundations and state grants to help with such projects.
ACC’s MacMaster said employers, especially those struggling to survive, like online classes for training purposes because they don’t have to pay employees’ costs for transportation, lodging or missed work.
“If these companies are scratching and clawing to hang on, they are less likely to spend money on training,” he said.
David Annestedt took an online control equipment class with ACC and said he was impressed.
Annestedt is regional operations manager for Block USA, a concrete products manufacturer in Birmingham, Ala, where he is based.
He said that “due to economic conditions the company I work for, like most others, has asked us to find ways to work smarter and reduce our expenses.”
Educating employees to fix technical breakdowns instead of hiring outside support is one way the company hopes to save money. ACC classes, especially online classes, can teach employees these skills in a cost-effective way, he said.
Annestedt said he recommends the class “to others to benefit themselves as well as the company they work for,” and  he “will definitely be enrolling several employees in the next offering.”
Many of ACC’s online classes are in concrete technology under a U.S. Department of Labor grant that lets the college offer courses for free until December, said MacMaster.  There are 19 online courses in the program and eight in-class courses.
Most college degrees, however, cannot be done completely online.
Oliver, the ACC professor, said courses leading to a degree must be “supplemented with hands-on classes—you cannot take away hands-on training.”
Oliver, who is also employed at Besser, an international concrete company in Alpena, said online courses help “the academic world and industrial world link up to better serve customers and students.”
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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