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You can learn almost anything from almost everywhere with online classes

Online learning programs can be helpful for students who must also meet real-life obligations, live away from colleges or other schools, or simply do not thrive in traditional classrooms. These are Red Canyon and World Academy grads.
Daily file photo

Students working online in western Colorado may feel like they’re on an island, but perspective is everything.

You could be in Antarctica, as some University of Denver students are.

“We’ve had students stationed in Antarctica pursuing degrees in environmental policy and management. That’s the most far-flung,” said Michael McGuire, a dean with the University of Denver.

Technology can make the world smaller. It can also mean universities and colleges are competing worldwide for online students.

Live locally, learn globally

Eagle County Schools’ World Academy is mostly online, although it’s blended with traditional brick and mortar classes for some students, said Troy Dudley, World Academy director and Red Canyon High School principal.

World Academy puts students through a vetting process to make sure they’re studying online for the right reasons.

Dudley’s World Academy students range from traveling families to kids expelled from school but who still want to graduate, as well as kids playing high-level club soccer or hockey in Denver.

“They need that flexibility,” Dudley said.

Some students like the flexibility and rigor. Others like the curriculum that can be customized for each student’s ability level. Students often take a test to learn what they don’t know, and classes can be customized to fit that, Dudley said.

“Some of the new programs are so good that they can assign an appropriate level of work, regardless of whether (students are) ahead or behind their grade level,” Dudley said.

Dudley is still a big fan of teachers and classrooms.

“You cannot stick a kid in a room without human engagement,” he said.

Some Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy students often spend much of their time on the road. This year, Kai Owens is a road warrior as a member of the U.S moguls team. At the other end of that spectrum, a student had cystic fibrosis and could not sit in a classroom. Online learning helps both keep up with schoolwork, Hill said.

Still, the nation’s first public school sports academy uses online learning sparingly, said VSSA Principal Wade Hill. They prefer doing it old school.

“There’s nothing that beats a teacher in front of kids. We’re proud that there’s a teacher still instructing and grading,” Hill said.

Learn everything everywhere

Ray Dixon could be the poster child for online learning. He lives in West Vail and he’s wrapping up a University of Denver degree in GIS, Geographic Information Systems. He’s 45, likes his job with Vail Resorts and didn’t want to move to the Front Range for college. So he didn’t.

He took a couple classes with another university. One was taught by a graduate student, he said, and he wanted more for his money and time.

DU’s professors do this full time. Their job is to teach it. His job is to learn it. Everyone is doing their jobs, he said.

“I’m impressed with the DU program. Professors and advisors are available. Technology works well, especially for this subject,” Dixon said.

Some of his courses are hybrid, combining online and face-to-face time.

“I get to meet current classmates and potential future colleagues,” Dixon said.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, studied the impact of technology on education. He wrote that price competition is already here, and increased competition and technology are great for anyone trying to learn anything.

The University of Denver launched its online learning program in 1996 through University College of Continuing and Professional Studies.

Colorado State University — Global started offering online classes in 2008. Colorado Mountain College already has regional campuses across western Colorado but is deep into online learning with classes ranging from accounting to trigonometry to Western Civilization.

Online programs have evolved, and so have students. Many modern American workers can do anything from anywhere they have internet access. Online students can earn almost any degree from any university.

Many online students have roots in their communities and are content to let a university come to them instead of upending their lives. The average University of Denver graduate student in an online program is now in their mid-30s, McGuire said.

“Online learners tend to stay in their communities, or they can move and still stay in the program,” McGuire said. “Adult learners who have jobs and families often cannot be on campus three days per week.”

DU’s University College does not distinguish between online and face-to-face classes. Most universities don’t.

“One of the benefits of fully online programs is that it gives access to rural communities,” McGuire said.

For example, DU’s social work has a distance-learning graduate program that focuses on the Glenwood Springs area, McGuire said.

Online Program Management

Most colleges that offer online education do not tackle the technology challenge themselves but use “online program management” companies that can not only handle the tech but offer marketing and other services.

McGuire explained that DU uses a Maryland firm called. 2U, which is likely the largest and best known. The 2U firm’s “partner” colleges and universities range from the University of London and London School of Economics and Political Science to Harvard and Michigan State University’s computer coding camps. 

The offerings can become fairly specific. For example, the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies launched a financial tech training program, designed to prepare people for technology jobs in the financial services sector. Another example: Arizona State University launched a cybersecurity Boot Camp geared toward adults. They shouldn’t have much trouble finding work. The cybersecurity research firm (ICS)2says the U.S. is short 500,000 workers right now. 2U cites a LinkedIn report on 2020 Job Trends putting cybersecurity specialists among the top 10 emerging jobs with an average annual salary of $103,000.


Game-based learning is serious stuff in online higher education. Technology creates alternative ways to present course material, such as gamification that includes interactive videos and written materials, and recorded lectures.

Advocates say it increases enthusiasm, promotes better understanding of the course material and is more interactive. As they would in other games, students get to make mistakes and review class content as they correct those mistakes.

At Arizona State University, students play “Spent,” an online game in which players make the kinds of tough decisions needed to live on $1,000 for one month. For example:

  • Do you eat a relatively expensive healthy meal, or pay the light bill?
  • Do you let your kids play after school sports, or do you save the money you would spend on fees and uniforms?
  • Do you make a credit card payment, or cover the rent?

You win if you have money left over at the end of your month. You lose if you don’t.

Love it/hate it

There are reasons to love online learning, and reasons to hate it.

“You have to be quite motivated and disciplined. You have schedule time. If you don’t your grade suffers right away,” Dixon said.

There’s the flexibility to arrange classes around jobs and families, lower college costs since students don’t have to travel or live on campus, networking across countries and continents, and increased face-to-face (or at least monitor-to-monitor) instructor time, says Aurora Community College on Colorado’s Front Range.

It might not be best for traditional teenaged college freshman who might lack the self-discipline needed for online learning, and who would benefit from a little positive peer pressure and a professor’s friendly reminders.

Like traditional brick and mortar classes, dialogue is a key to successful online learning, Mark Edmundson, University of Virginia English professor, argued in a New York Times Magazine opinion piece.

“With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue,” Edmundson wrote.

Distance learning, Harvard’s Christensen wrote, has always been with us.

“Anything beyond the 10th row in a large lecture hall is distance learning anyway,” Christensen joked.

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