In March 2012, I stood with three journalism students in Times Square, taking in the lights, color, and scope of humanity. We had flown in from Indiana for the College Media Advisers annual conference, and the trip to New York City was a new experience for all of us. Two of the students from the private, Catholic, women’s college in Indiana where I was teaching were traditional, on-campus students, approaching or just past their 20th birthdays.
The third student, Stephanie, was a year older than I, both of us in our late 30s. She was an online student, and until that weekend all our communication had been through email, discussion boards, Facebook, and the occasional phone call. She took a couple of classes at a time while working full-time as a massage therapist in Indianapolis—one of the 6.7 million students taking an online class, many of whom would have a hard time getting a degree without this option.
Online enrollment across all academic programs has steadily increased for the past decade, according to a recent study by the Babson Survey Research Group. Journalism programs began to embrace distance courses relatively recently. The University of Texas is the latest university to expand its massive open online courses, or moocs, to include media-related classes. But few journalism programs at established universities offer a fully online degree.
Stephanie, bright and unmarried, was surprised but thrilled to be invited on the New York trip. She says she had never considered a career in journalism until, at her graduation from a massage-therapy program, an instructor read aloud an essay Stephanie had written. She says she overheard someone in the audience say, “Stephanie should be a writer.”
But like many nontraditional students, Stephanie initially lacked confidence. She was especially self-conscious and shy about conducting interviews. She struggled to step outside her familiar social circles to find sources for her stories. Without face-to-face contact, I had little way of knowing whether her sources were close friends or relatives. I had shy students on campus, too, but with them I was able to give in-person pep talks and, in one case, even write a script for a telephone interview and sit beside the student as she conducted the interview to help her overcome her fears.
In the lights of Times Square, I saw Stephanie push through the crowds and embrace her adventure. Her biggest challenge that weekend, she told me, was a conference workshop that required her to approach strangers for man-on-the-street interviews. But she conquered her fear, and between sessions went on her own to shops and landmarks she had only seen on TV, hailed cabs, and rode the subway.
Getting to witness Stephanie’s coming-out party was a luxury for me. I had taught a combination of traditional and distance courses for two years at that point. I loved working with students like Stephanie, who balanced school with some combination of a career, children, spouses, aging parents, and countless other real-world stressors.
During graduate school at Indiana University, I had grown accustomed to teaching upper-middle-class students, full of confidence and often a sense of entitlement, some of whom even had ties to New York magazines or other media legacies. My Big Ten students were sought out for opportunities.
My distance students, on the other hand, had to make their own way. Recruiters did not seek them out, but they had so much to offer. The stories they wrote addressed financial problems and economic trends that often never occurred to my traditional students. One wrote about battered women and the many legal frustrations they face in seeking help, not from an outsider’s perspective, but as someone who had worked with battered women. A working mom reported on issues of transracial adoption, based on the experiences of neighbors who had adopted. And while most journalism students report on community events, meetings, and social issues in their coursework, few cover school board meetings from the perspective of a parent, or bring the experience of being a tax-paying homeowner to a city council meeting.