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Rick Fehrenbacher at desk

Embracing Online Education

As more technology is being incorporated into the classroom, more classrooms are being incorporated into technology. To keep up with these trends, the University of Idaho recently appointed Rick Fehrenbacher as director of distance and extended education.

“The need for quality distance education is out there and we have to be prepared to meet that need,” says Fehrenbacher.

As part of his new role, Fehrenbacher is working hard on online education classes; over the past year, online class enrollment rose 17 percent nationwide. While the technology is new, the idea of distance learning is quite old; Fehrenbacher says letters and correspondence have been used to provide instruction since ancient times. Nowadays though, the Internet can be used to create learning communities that make distance learning more interactive and engaging.

“A U.S. Department of Education study found that student satisfaction and learning outcomes in online classes are the same or better as in face-to-face classes,” says Fehrenbacher.

Fehrenbacher has taught online courses that combine blogs, wikis, discussion boards and websites in order to facilitate student participation. In other classes, his students have published their projects online, where they are available as educational resources for a worldwide audience. Fehrenbacher says online discussions are often more in-depth, and also engage students who normally wouldn’t speak up in class. As part of his job, Fehrenbacher is working with faculty to create new classes and adapt their old ones to an online format.

And while courses may be online, Fehrenbacher says they require just as much effort and work from students and instructors than regular courses – sometimes more. In fact, several classes on the Moscow campus have become hybrids of online and in-class instruction. Online classes will also help working professionals to obtain their masters degree or continuing education requirements.

As the University offers more online courses, Fehrenbacher is looking forward to full degrees, certificates and programs online – which would be no different than a degree earned at a campus or center. He adds that it takes a lot of discipline to take online classes because deadlines are slightly different and there are no class periods meeting, but the benefit for those who cannot be on-campus will be great.

For a variety of reasons, not everyone can attend college on-campus, and learning has also become more of a life-long endeavor,” says Fehrenbacher. “We need to provide that growing audience with quality higher education opportunities as well. Distance education allows us to do that.”

In addition to working on distance education and online courses, Fehrenbacher also provides support for extended education programs like dual credit – where high school students earn both high school and university credit for a course.

Dual-credit is becoming increasingly popular both nationwide and in Idaho, since it provides such benefits as lower costs ($195) per class, a head start for incoming college students and a chance for students to engage with college-level discourse while still in high school.

“Overall, it’s a great situation for students and teachers who are looking for higher educational opportunities at reasonable costs,” says Fehrenbacher. “The classes offer them an opportunity to engage in a higher level of discourse.”
Dual-credit also helps students transfer into college life.

“The transition from college to high school can be a tough one, both academically and emotionally,” says Fehrenbacher. “Being away from home and on your own for the first time can be challenging, and if dual-credit classes can help students with the academic aspect of that challenge, then we’re ahead of the game.”

The University is also looking at strategic development of dual-credit and summer courses to provide learning opportunities throughout the year. Summer program offers could include the more classes and professional development opportunities.