Focus, Higher Education, and Technology

Online strategy is essential element of education

Colleges say student-faculty engagement and assessment tools contribute to success.

October 17, 2014
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West Michigan colleges and universities are finding that online advanced degree programs are especially popular among nontraditional and professional students whose schedules do not allow for consistent classroom time. ©thinkstock

The online platform for education is a tool academic institutions can use to meet the needs and expectations of their students in an increasingly data-driven world, while providing an opportunity for nontraditional students or professionals to pursue a higher education.

Many of the colleges and universities within the state and the West Michigan region offer advanced degree programs using a hybrid or fully integrated online model to educate students in an engaging manner. To maintain accountability and success with those programs, the institutions are employing a number of methods to ensure student, faculty, program and employer satisfaction.

Baker College, an independent institution with historic roots in Muskegon, began offering its first online classes to students in the late 1990s and has now expanded to include advanced degrees at the graduate and doctoral level, including a Master of Business Administration, Doctoral of Business Administration, and Master of Science in Educational Effectiveness.

Jill Langen, chief academic officer at Baker College Online and Center for Graduate Studies, said the college focuses on small classes of between nine and 12 students.

“We really focus a lot with our faculty on a high level of student engagement. There is a lot of interaction that happens on the discussion board. We provide a lot of training and professional development for that,” said Langen. “It really only works if you have a lot of individual attention and classes are really small. It is a real core belief we have.”

Brian Miller, vice president of information technology services, chief information officer and interim dean at Davenport University, said the Grand Rapids-based university has offered an online MBA program since 2000 and attempts to keep class sizes similar to “in-seat” courses at 20 students.

“We feel the work for online courses is often more difficult than our in-seat, and certainly the outcomes are the same, so having a student-faculty ratio that is similar to in-seat is important because we need the level of faculty interaction with those students to stay the same,” said Miller.

The faculty-student ratio strategy is also used in Western Michigan University’s online education program, which offered its first graduate certificate program in educational technology in fall 2001. Andrew Holmes, executive director of technology and extended university programs at WMU, said the university adheres to the same classroom cap as a typical face-to-face course, except in large lecture courses.

“We try to keep it closer to 25 students with one faculty member,” said Holmes. “If demand or the program rotation dictates it, we will actually create an additional section with another instructor so all the students have a good ratio.”

A U.S. News and World Report story ranked advanced degree programs within the country using criteria that included student engagement, admissions selectivity, peer reputation, faculty credentials and training, and student services and technology. Of those schools having top-ranked programs in the U.S., Davenport University was recognized for its online graduate business program, and WMU was listed for its online graduate education program.

Baker, WMU and Davenport also evaluate a number of outcome-related criteria for each advanced degree to ensure program sustainability and success.

Davenport measures student objectives related to a specific course and an overall program, while also identifying the degree of graduate, employment and employer satisfaction. As an accredited institution, programs and courses are also reviewed by national organizations based on a set of outcomes, according to Miller.

“We are making sure the students can do the things we promised they could do when they started the program. The way we measure that would be through all of the same tools you would use in an in-seat class,” said Miller.

“We do a lot of measurement at Davenport. In all cases, our online students do as well or better than our in-seat students.”

WMU’s online education programs have internal program maintenance and review processes that are conducted annually, according to Holmes. Evaluating a variety of data points to determine the success of programs, the procedure looks at enrollment, student demand, academic support, retention rates and the needs of the regional area.

A similar process takes place at Baker, in which each program undergoes an annual assessment measuring student success, enrollment and graduation rates. To benchmark the level of success, Langen said the college looks to meet or exceed competitive programs.

“I think our programs are successful and we have a couple different ways to measure that. We always want our students to outperform other MBA programs,” said Langen.

“We are constantly looking for ways in which we can assess to make sure that our students are successful, that they are gaining employment and that they are achieving student learning outcomes.”

The Babson Survey Research Group published “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States” in 2013 in collaboration with Pearson, the Sloan Consortium and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The survey noted that, based on responses from more than 2,800 colleges and universities, 69.1 percent of chief academic leaders believe online learning is critical to their long-term strategy.

The importance of incorporating aspects of online learning into curriculum is based on a number of factors, including flexibility for nontraditional or adult learners, student expectations and accessibility of high-speed Internet. Having the option to enroll in online learning is an expectation of both students and prospective students, based on a variety of reasons, according to Holmes.

“They take it for the convenience factor in some cases. They have their personal life on top of their academic life where they are trying to balance it and their work life,” said Holmes.

“In some cases, it is about their learning style. They are more self-directed and want to spend time working independently toward their learning goals.”

In terms of the prevalence of Internet access, Miller said it is a major driver of change in online education and allows communication among students and faculty from anywhere, at any point in time, on any number of devices.

“As everybody starts to have broadband Internet, the traditional means of distance learning, which was largely text based … kind of fades away and we are allowed to do much more interactive, immersive and engaging online classrooms for students that I think really starts to bridge the gap between the in-seat and online experience,” said Miller.

“It is certainly not something we had at our fingertips five or six years ago broadly enough to deploy it in a classroom.”

As the difference between traditional face-to-face classes and fully integrated courses become a gray area due to incorporating online components in all programs, Miller said online education is certainly not a passing fad.

“I think online education is continuing to grow and I think we are getting much better at explaining what quality online education looks like,” said Miller. “Students find the medium very helpful but, again, the kicker is you have to have those class sizes that allow for a high level of interaction and engagement with the instructor.”

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