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LSC-Online at North Harris College Takes Center Stage


As the curtain opens on Act I of the National Broadway Tour of "The Phantom of the Opera," the audience is thrust into the middle of a rehearsal for the opera Hannibal. Monsieur Lefèvre, the retiring manager of the Opera, is showing the new managers, Monsieurs Firmin and André, the great stage. As the prima donna, Carlotta, is singing, a backdrop falls to the floor, nearly killing her. The cry is raised, "It's The Phantom of the Opera!" Upset, Carlotta refuses to sing.

Between acts, Kim Stengel, the actress who plays the role of Carlotta, opens her laptop, goes online and continues working on her next assignment for a psychology class she's taking at North Harris College-several states and many miles away from the site of tonight's production.

By the time she receives her cue for "The Phantom's" finale, she's completed the assignment, sent it to Professor Glenda Smith for grading and checks her make-up and costume one last time before rushing to the wings to make her entrance.

Stengel, originally from Humble and a certified sommelier, is now based in New York City, but has been touring with productions of "The Phantom" for the last 11 years. "I wanted to return to school to finish my degree," the actress explained, "and to eventually pursue a master's degree so I would have more work options in addition to my current career."

Recently accepted into the screenwriting program at The New School in New York, Stengel turned to North Harris College and its distance education program to complete some of the core courses she needs to continue her education.

Glenda Smith, a professor of psychology at North Harris College for more than a quarter of a century, began teaching online courses four years ago, but little did she know where this venture into LSC-Online would take her.

Since beginning her psychology classes online, she's had students who -- like Stengel -- because of their jobs, traveled some or most of the week and needed the flexibility of online learning.  She's also had students who work graveyard shifts and were not available for the traditional daytime or evening classes.

"I've had people who are pregnant or otherwise restricted in terms of their activities," the psychology professor said.  "A few semesters ago, one of my students was involved in an accident and had to be at home for the remainder of the term, so the online courses provided an educational opportunity for students who couldn't have taken the class otherwise." 

"Another student traveled in Greece during the semester, and with access to the Internet, could follow the lectures, keep up with assignments and take tests, wherever she happened to be," Smith said. "In Kim's situation, it's much the same way."

Admitting her initial skepticism about teaching students totally online, Smith attended LSC-Online training sessions, mastering the software and different online teaching and learning styles before she began offering psychology classes online.

"It's been rewarding beyond expectations," the professor said. "Interactions with students and among the students are rich, richer than you ever thought they would be. The students are communicating, more one-on-one rather than one to 35. In some ways, I can follow their individual progress more closely than I could have as a group.

"Now, as I'm teaching distance courses, I love the freedom LSC-Online provides-including sitting at home and having a cup of coffee as I respond to e-mails, grade projects or post grades," Smith added.

Dr. Smith recently discovered the flip side of LSC-Online when she decided to take an online course through the University of Houston. "My professor at the University of Houston did online reviews for exams, used chat sessions, had a live chat with a well-known researcher in the field, and were able to ask questions about research," she said.  "So, from a student perspective, I experienced-first hand-just how rich the online learning experience could be."

Stengel, who is also a single parent, has traveled around the world with "Phantom" and appeared in the Houston production two summers ago.  "I'm excited about being able to complete some of my education online but was a little nervous in the beginning because it's been awhile since I was in the classroom," she said, "and Dr. Smith's psychology course has helped me understand a lot more about people in general."

"Kim's demanding schedule of travel and performances haven't impeded her from taking the course," Dr. Smith pointed out.  "Students are provided with every imaginable learning tool, from electronic flash cards to chapter summaries and learning objectives as well as media clips and access to online psychological journals. 

"I've wanted to study psychology for many years," said Stengel, "but-up until I found out about this LSC-Online course-had no way to be in school."

The actress credits her father, Kris Stengel, a professor in the NHC computer sciences department, as her role model. "My father went back to school in his mid-50s to transition into a career he loved," Stengel continued, "which is how I found out about the online programs at North Harris."

"In our online courses, each class member also has access to every other classmate and, as long as they have Internet capability, they can access the learning environment, 24/7," the professor explained.

"The first class is all about creating community by getting the class members engaged right away,
she continued, "so I ask them to introduce themselves, using the discussion board, and they usually indicate why they're taking the class. In her introduction, Kim told us she has a daughter, is originally from Humble and that she was traveling in a production of ‘Phantom of the Opera.'  She's an exact example of someone able to go to school who wouldn't be, otherwise, because of her extensive travel."

But, is taking an online class convenient?

For the student, perhaps, especially when they don't have to adjust schedules to attend classes on campus or another central location. But, what about the professor?

"I've learned to make every instruction as detailed as possible and to anticipate questions," Dr. Smith confessed. "This semester I am teaching three sections of LSC-Online and have just under 100 students...which means I've received somewhere around 500 e-mails over the last four months, read at least 500 posts on the discussion boards and have sent out more than 300 e-mails, providing information, progress reports and updates to individual students. 

"Ultimately, my job is to make the experience as rich as possible without physically standing in front of every student," Dr. Smith explained, "and, through the incredible power of the Internet, the continually improving the teaching platforms we use and our resources here at North Harris College, I think we're achieving that goal across the miles."

North Harris College is located at 2700 W.W. Thorne Drive, one-half mile south of FM 1960 East, between Aldine-Westfield and Hardy Roads. Registration for summer and fall 2007 is now in progress. For more information about the college, call 281.618.5400 or visit http://northharris.lonestar.edu.

NHMCCD, among the five largest and fastest growing community colleges in Texas, comprise, Cy-Fair College, Kingwood College, Montgomery College, North Harris College, Tomball College, six satellite centers, and The University Center.



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