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Chattanooga-area colleges are seeing continued interest in online classes for the fall 2021 semester, despite some classrooms reopening by the end of the last academic year and requirements for masks and distancing falling away as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.

The Tennessee Board of Regents has suspended online course fees for community colleges for the 2021-22 year, and colleges anticipate online courses to continue growing in demand, according to a June report by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury.

As of Thursday, Cleveland State Community College's enrollment for the fall semester includes 54% of students taking courses in person and 46% of students enrolled in online courses, said Barsha Pickell, vice president for academic affairs.

"Back in January when we weren't sure how things were going to go, we obviously planned for a variety of course modalities. We planned for about a third face-to-face classes, a third hybrid and a third online," Pickell told the Times Free Press last week. "Our thinking was to give ourselves some flexibility to see what happened, but also to give students flexibility in how they wanted to take classes and just to kind of see how those played out to see what the demand was post-pandemic."

Pickell said that while some students dislike online learning, others have found it to be a more suitable option for certain learning styles and lifestyles.

"As a community college, we have a lot of adult students and students who are working, and so an online class gives them the flexibility to maintain their work schedule and to do the classes on their own time, at their own speed," Pickell said. "So for a lot of working adults with families, or even our traditional college-age students who are also trying to work, online provides them the flexibility they need and so I think that's why it is growing in popularity."

Chattanooga State Community College's ChattState Online program offers more than 30 degree programs online through the school or TN eCampus, an option available to students enrolled in community colleges to complete their coursework online.

The school also offers a variety of course types: in person on a schedule; online anytime, where students learn in a fully online, asynchronous format and includes TN eCampus courses; some online, some in person (hybrid); and virtual with scheduled Zoom calls, considered fully online and synchronous.

Beth Norton, vice president for academic affairs, said Chattanooga State didn't have the virtual learning with scheduled Zoom calls option in fall 2019. The school has reduced the number of classes for that class type this fall to focus on in-person learning, but Norton said there is a growing demand for classes with online options, possibly due to ongoing concerns about COVID-19.

"I wonder, too, is it just students are afraid to come back on campus? We kept hearing students want to be back on campus and that's why we planned a largely in-person schedule, but I think with the news of the variant out there I think there's a lot of uncertainty still," Norton told the Times Free Press last week. "I think that could be a reason we're seeing more interest in online, or maybe students have just taken online classes due to the pandemic and then decided that they prefer those."

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offered about 80% of classes in a face-to-face setting and 20% in a hybrid or online setting before the pandemic, UTC Provost Jerold Hale said in an email.

In fall 2020, 63% of courses offered at UTC were completely online and mostly asynchronous, and for the coming fall about 22% of classes will be completely online and mostly asynchronous, Hale said.

At Cleveland State, Pickell said improvements to online offerings have helped improve the reputation of online learning.

"I think also the improvements we made in online education, for a long time it had a stigma of being not as good. But with COVID, we made a concerted effort to train our faculty, to help them create and design really good courses that were online, and so that's going to pay dividends moving forward. Those changes we made, the improvements we made are going to serve as well and our students well even after the pandemic."

In June, the UT Board of Trustees approved a new fully online degree program at UTC, the bachelor of applied science in applied leadership, which awaits approval from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The degree primarily will target nontraditional students with work experience and some college credits without a degree.

Hale said the school wants to continue growing online course offerings for nontraditional students while still appealing to a traditional campus experience.

"We'd like to bring those non-traditional students back and provide a vehicle for them to complete college," he said. "Those efforts will be in addition to, and not instead of, continuing to meet the needs of traditional students."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

Chattanooga State student enrollment by courses: fall semesters 2019-2021

*Note: Chattanooga State is still enrolling students for fall 2021

Fall 2019

In person on a schedule: 57%

Online anytime: 27%

Some online, some in person: 13%

Virtual with scheduled Zoom calls: 0%

Fall 2020

In person on a schedule: 2%

Online anytime: 34%

Some online, some in person: 10%

Virtual with scheduled Zoom calls: 51%

Fall 2021

In person on a schedule: 36%

Online anytime: 29%

Some online, some in person: 27%

Virtual with scheduled Zoom calls: 11%

Source: Chattanooga State Community College

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