Students Can Earn Degree in Virtual Classroom

Dr. Randy Garner strives to create a virtual classroom for graduate students who pursue their degrees online.

"For students, they get the benefit of information provided in class, the skills, knowledge and abilities and they don’t have to fight geography," said Garner, who teaches both in the traditional and online graduate classroom. "I try to do as much as I can to make it personable and connected. When they hear my voice in a PowerPoint presentation, I try to make it as if they are there interacting with me."

Many of the students pursuing their degrees online are practitioners in the field, and they relate well to Garner, a former Police Chief in Pearland -- a Houston suburb. Garner has been in their shoes, earning both his Bachelor and Masters degrees by squeezing in classes and studying on his days off while maintaining a full-time career in policing. Now students can use distance learning and single courses that last 7-1/2 weeks to work toward their degrees

"What I try to do, as close as I can, is replicate the classroom," said Garner. "Online students will often see the same PowerPoint presentation, watch the same videos, and complete the same exercises as a face-to-face class. When doing group work, instead of sending them to the classroom corners, I send them in cyber-corners to work in groups."

Online students are given an introduction to the course and the course syllabus, and textbooks are assigned and can be purchased online -- usually all before the beginning of the actual semester so students can be prepared. Garner narrates chapter notes and other topical course information using PowerPoint and other presentation software. Videos and case studies are used to generate ideas among students and the instructor in the course Discussion Board. Quizzes and other assignments are often taken after each chapter or required reading in order to make sure the student is capturing the essential elements.

There is a Virtual Office where students can post questions and get answers from the instructor and even a Student Lounge area where folks can virtually hang out and meet their colleagues.

Garner is constantly checking the online course delivery program, reviewing and responding to student posts, answering e-mails, and reviewing course discussions.

"I am regularly checking my e-mails and Virtual Office even on weekends, including Labor Day weekend," Garner said. "I don’t consider any time off. I have to be accessible to them, especially with the shortened semester. The weekend may be the only time they can do it."

Garner, who has been teaching via distance learning for eight years, said online courses require more advanced planning and preparation. Professors have to be more structured, organized and well-prepared to teach in the cyber-world by anticipating student needs and being ready to provide answers.

For more common issues, Garner posts a Frequently Asked Questions section for all to see. He also extensively uses new technology to provide students with the total experience and technical tools to help them understand.

"You want to find what technology is available to give them the biggest bang for the buck," said Garner. "But not all students are Tweeters and Twitterers, so you have to know your audience."

Garner offers some simple advice for students who want to get their online degree via computer. Students need to dedicate the time and create an environment conducive to learning. Distance courses require a great deal of structure and focus by the student. Too often a student can get side-tracked by work, family, and other responsibilities. While distance courses offer flexibility, a student must realistically set aside dedicated time for their studies and completion of course assignments and requirements.

"If you don’t block time out, life creeps in on you," Garner said.

Member of The Texas State University System