Digital Learning: A ‘Secret Weapon’ for Many Casper College Students

By: Susan Anderson, columnist for the Casper Journal
Illustration of Digital Learning at Casper College

Crystal Watts’ typical evening as a college student and single mom of an 8-year old son went like this: “We do his homework, I do dinner, after he’s in bed I get to do my homework.” She had jobs as well in her three-year push that climaxed with the Casper College graduation ceremony on May 13, 2016, when the proud graduate got her degree in business administration.

Her secret weapon in tackling this challenge – taking courses online at Casper College.

For Crystal, the convenience of doing her work online until the wee hours of the morning was only one of the pluses. A little-known fact is that for shy people, online classes offer special advantages. Crystal, who says she would never ask a question in a classroom full of other students, can stop in the middle of her work and electronically ask for help. She never had to sit silently while the teacher moved beyond her understanding.

“I’m a socially anxious person,” she explains, “It’s hard for me to say ‘Wait, would you go back over that.’ You can check yourself to see if you got it right.” At Casper College she says she feels very connected with her instructors. For example, “At midnight if I’m having trouble with homework, I can send an email. It seems like we can have closer relations with online teachers, they expect they’re going to have to be there for you.” She says that accounting classes worked especially well in the online, go-at-your-own pace format.

A Growing Learning Style

Dave Siemens supervises digital learning at Casper College and the job is a natural fit for him. He earned his master’s degree in higher education online at Capella University. His own story is similar to many of the students he serves. He had four children at home and a full-time job when he went for his degree. “It fits around the student’s schedule,” he says of his years fitting in classes at night. “When dad’s doing homework, the kids go somewhere else in the house.”

When he started working in digital learning at Casper College nine years ago, there were four fully online degrees; now that number has increased to seven. The numbers of students have increased sharply. In the 2004-2005 school year, 13.18 percent of Casper College credits were earned online. Ten years later, in 2014-2015, that percentage had nearly doubled at 22.32 percent. The semester that ended in May 2016 had 622 full-time equivalent student hours.

How exactly does an online class work? Siemens says there are many tools, including tutoring where a student can go online at midnight or 3 a.m. to get help or watch videos that flow back and forth between instructor and student. Teachers are encouraged to post a welcome video for their online students at the beginning of the course. And emails to teachers are generally answered within 24 hours.

Tests are taken at a center that is proctored (monitored) by a testing professional. They can also be taken online, along with quizzes. In addition to classes that are taught totally online, there are hybrid classes that involve some on-campus work.

One of the major efforts by Siemens and his staff is training teachers to teach online. “It’s difficult moving from the traditional setting to the online environment; the instructor has to be involved,” he says. Some online techniques have spread throughout the faculty. “Just five years ago everyone used a gradebook that was paper. Now faculty and students are using systems such as Moodle, where the students log in and find their grades digitally and the teachers enter the grades online,” he says.

The Challenges

Students taking digital classes face particular problems. Spotty internet access is one. Kelsey Phillips, Ph.D. informs all her students at the beginning that “computer crashes and technical problems are not considered legitimate excuses for tardy submissions.”

Textbooks can be a problem for students taking online classes from overseas. A textbook sent to one student studying political science in Spain was held in customs for months. Some books are available for download from the internet, but not all. Phillips again makes it clear to her online students, “I will not delay deadlines on account of not having the required text.” Planning ahead is especially important for distance students, who can’t always visit the bookstore for what they need.

From Russia Online

Misty Corlett wins the prize for the most distant of the distance learning students. She is working on her agriculture degree from a remote part of Russia, where her husband is a foreign specialist beef cattle managing consultant and trainer for Miratorg Agribusiness Holding.

“Our internet service was a problem at times and I would have to drive about a half hour away from the ranch to do my coursework in the pickup,” she writes. And books? A nightmare. “I could only choose classes last semester where the book was offered as an e-text because it was too close to the start of classes for any books to be shipped. Also, shipping would be very expensive and the postal service here can  be sketchy.”

But she writes that the online option has allowed her to continue her education. And she would heartily recommend online learning to others. “In fact,” she says, “there are several people I know looking in to the ag program offered online at CC because of my experience.” The digital learning style worked for her. “I liked the supplemental videos and other media used,” she said, but she does wish she could “have hangouts with each instructor so that the learning seems more personal.” Her family’s experience in Russia was featured in a New York Times article at this link:

Brittany Bair is studying at Casper College from her home in Pennsylvania, where she works from a wheelchair. She chose Casper College because her courses will easily transfer to the university she hopes to attend. Digital learning is a natural for her for many reasons. “It helps because I don’t have to find doctors in Casper, Wyoming, just to go to school,” she says. And she is able to save money on housing and travel as well as work on her own schedule.

She wondered if the online classes would seem personal enough. “At first I thought that since I wouldn’t be in an actual classroom, that I wouldn’t have an actual connection with anybody, whether teachers or classmates. However, I didn’t have any problem connecting with my teachers and classmates,” she writes.  And she says that an unexpected benefit is becoming more “tech savvy.”

Learning from Pennsylvania is not much challenge for a woman who has been in a wheelchair since a spinal injury from a car crash in 2012. “I have overcome obstacles such as being able to show a dairy cow at the county fair and small obstacles such as picking up a spoon to eat,” says Brittany. For a link to a news report on her with her calf, go to

Surprising Learning

The variety of subjects that can be taught online is a surprise. Siemens describes how science labs develop boxes with all the tools for chemistry at home and ship them to the students. “Through discussions and the books online, students can do their experiments,” he says, adding that among the many online kits are fetal pigs that can be shipped to biology students for dissections.

Kelsey Phillips has taken pity on her science students and developed ways for them to do science experiments with ingredients they have at home, “so they don’t have to spend $200 on a kit.” Using such common household items such as vinegar and eggs, they can do experiments to learn about osmosis or surface tension. And she says one plus of the online biology classes is that parents can involve their children, making the work more fun and giving children an introduction to science.

Siemens imagines a future with 3-D printers playing a role for nursing students. And he’s convinced that “there’s going to be more of an acceptance of teaching at a distance.”

It’s already a lifesaver for some Casper College students such as Corlett, who writes from her ranch in Russia, that “being able to complete my coursework online was the ONLY option in pursuing my professional goals at this time. I am very thankful for the opportunity.”

Media contact: Lisa S. Icenogle

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