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MOST STUDENTS HAVE NIGHTMARES ABOUT ATTENDING CLASS in their pajamas, but for Lisa Henson it’s a common, real-life experience.

She’s not crazy. She’s just enjoying the perks of taking classes over the Internet. After she deals with her three energized little boys and her husband, teaches three classes of eighth-graders, runs the computer lab and helps out the school librarian, taking her college courses in comfort is a blessing.

“I can put on my favorite pajamas, slide into my slippers, and I’m ready for class,” says Henson, who teaches literature in Monahans, Texas. “And the best part of taking classes over the Internet is that I can do it anytime, anywhere.”

Henson is one of nearly 1,000 students taking UNT web-based courses. These distance learners are coming online from as far away as India and Thailand to take courses in every one of the university’s colleges and schools.


Education at the click of a mouse

In these fully interactive classes, students may view lectures via Internet video feeds, interact with faculty and other students through chat rooms and e-mail, and download class assignments at their leisure, says Phil Turner, associate vice president for academic affairs for distance education. The Center for Distributed Learning, which reports to Turner, assists in creating and managing the university’s entire line of web-based courses.

“We’ve definitely established a name for ourselves,” says Turner, who is also dean of the School of Library and Information Sciences. “On account of our success, other universities are seeking out tours of our programs to see how it’s done.”

For Henson, web-based courses provide a means to fulfilling a dream.

“Being a librarian is the culmination of what I’ve studied throughout college — English, reading and kids,” she says. Henson is working on her master’s degree in library science, a degree she can earn entirely on the web.

“I can hop on the computer and work on assignments during lunch breaks or in between teaching my classes,” Henson says. “And even when I took my kids on vacation to visit their uncle, I could go to class. I just logged in on my brother’s computer.

“Web courses are a blessing. Pretty soon I’ll be the full-time librarian.”


Carol Simpson, assistant professor of library and information sciences, teaches all of her courses online.  

Virtual hermits and Internet junkies

Henson’s blessing is Carol Simpson’s challenge. Simpson is one of Henson’s library science professors. All of Simpson’s courses are online. She still keeps office hours, but most of her students prefer to contact her via e-mail since they’re spread out across the country. Simpson says the lack of personal contact with students is the only downside to teaching this way.

“I keep some goodies on my desk to bribe students into coming by,” Simpson says with a quick glance at a platter of mini chocolate bars collecting dust. “What can I say? I’m a people person.”

And Simpson says that sometimes she just feels like a “virtual hermit.”

Despite it all, she feels her students get as much from e-mails and chat rooms as they could from face-to-face interaction. She says a misconception about online courses is that they are automated instruction. In reality, Simpson spends hours on the computer, monitoring student discussion forums and reviewing assignments.

“When I began teaching this way, I was online 20 hours a day, partly because I was still learning the ropes,” she says. “After a year and half, I’m online only six hours a day. These classes take just as long as regular courses and are just as much work for the teacher and the students.”

Henson agrees, saying her web courses are intense.

“You can’t sit in the back of the classroom and hide with these courses,” she says. “Participation is everything in a web-based course.”


Comfortable lectures

Distance learners also interact with guest speakers, who lecture online at a scheduled time. The students can pick the minds of the lecturers in chat rooms, and the speakers love the simplicity of logging into a class. “

An expert in California lectured to one of my classes last semester,” Simpson says. “Normally, it’s impossible to get five minutes in person with this speaker, but online it’s a different story.

“After her lecture, the staffing expert sent me an e-mail saying, ‘This is the first time I’ve lectured in my pajamas — it was great.’”

Henson commends the web-based library courses for bringing interesting people online to share their points of view and expertise. Recent lecturers have included a Texas Education Agency representative and a 15-year-old hacker. It all adds to Henson’s librarian education.

“It’s just such a great way to learn,” she says. “All of my eighth-graders know about my online classes and they all keep saying that’s how they’re going to college. I keep telling them, let’s just work on going to class right now.”


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