The popularity of online courses and degree programs at American colleges and universities has increased in recent years.

In fact, this trend was illustrated in a 2012 study by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board that found that more than 6.7 million students in the fall term of 2011 took at least one online course. That number was up by 570,000 from 2010.

The UAB School of Education offers several graduate degree programs online, including Elementary Education, Early Childhood Education, Reading, Community Health Education, Physical Education and the Collaborative Teacher traditional master’s program in Special Education.

One popular online class is Language Development, a graduate-level course taught by Associate Professor Emerita Kathleen Martin, Ph.D., in the UAB Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

“This course usually fills quickly,” says Martin, “and some semesters we have to have two sections.”

Language Development is a required course for students in the Reading Specialist Master’s program and in the master’s level English As a Second Language program. Students in the ECE/ELEM master’s program, however, have the option of taking the class to fulfill their requirement for a child development course.

Martin’s class has 20 students. Most are in Birmingham, she says, although several live in other cities around Alabama. One student works as a school teacher in Shenyang, China.

Over the years, some university educators have criticized online classes for the lack of face-to-face interactions between students and instructors. Martin, however, says she has overcome that challenge by requiring her students to post their responses and reviews of the class readings as part of their grade. No one, she says, can “sit in the back of the room” and hope not to be called on. Some weeks she has as many as 300 posts to read through.

“We knew that we needed to move to online teaching,” she says. “It’s what our market wanted, and we had to figure out a way to do it. But, I was unwilling to develop courses that didn’t have the social element because I think that’s how we learn. I think that we learn when we interact with other people and when we interact with text.

“I think the largest benefit of teaching online is that I can think more deeply when I respond to students,” Martin says. “Additionally, both the students and I can revisit ideas. In a face-to-face class, all is in the moment. I sometimes leave a face-to-face class thinking, ‘I should have said this,’ or ‘Yikes! I forgot to make the connection between A and B.’ Online, I can always go back and develop an important point I may have missed.”

Martin says all online classes in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction are on the graduate level. Undergraduate students must take their courses on campus.

“We made the decision that we would not put any undergraduate courses online in our department,” she says. “That’s because students are going through that initial teacher certification, and we felt it was important to see the students in the classroom.”

Martin says that while a few students have said they prefer meeting on campus, online learning will continue to have a place in higher education.

“I know that [online classes] are not going away,” she says. “They will at least be a part of the way that we deliver a good university education.”