Higher Education and Technology

WMU’s online programs continue to evolve

Western Michigan University custom designs online courses using synchronous technology, virtual reality for career acceleration.

March 17, 2017
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Western Michigan University launched its first online courses in 1998, when less than half of adults used the internet, and those who did faced slow connection speeds and limited usability.

Two decades later, online learning at WMU has evolved from professors uploading course lecture notes on a static site to instructional designers creating an immersive experience unique to online education — including video chats and virtual and augmented reality.

According to Andrew Holmes, executive director of technology with the extended university programs department, WMU offers 350 online courses in family studies, child family development, interdisciplinary health sciences, university studies, science education, educational leadership, educational technology programs, nursing and more.

The university enrolled 5,038 graduate and undergraduate online students last fall alone, out of its total enrollment of around 24,000 students — which represents 35 percent online enrollment growth since 2013 and an annual growth rate of 10 percent.

Holmes said the average age of an online student is 30 years old.

“We have a mix of ages, but our real target is those contemporary students,” who have “work, children and family obligations,” he said.

He said online students often are looking for learning they can apply immediately to their work.

“Some of our very popular programs really are more of the programs that people can use in a career to advance, to become a career accelerator — so the skills they learn in class they can apply the next day in their jobs,” he said.

“For undergrad, we have a degree completion program for those who dropped out and didn’t get a degree. It’s called our university studies program,” he said. “You meet with an advisor, and they listen to you and determine what your career aspirations are and then they help determine a path for you.”

For each online course, professors work closely with instructional designers to devise “a supportive learning community” using technology and incorporating the teaching styles, methods and personalities of individual instructors.

Holmes said WMU aims to create online programs strategically instead of just doing it because it’s trendy.

“We try to let the pedagogy drive the methodology,” he said. “We can’t just put courses online for the sake of having an online presence.”

Holmes said one of the tools that has developed for online learning in the past few years is the use of synchronous technologies.

“We’re finding ways to incorporate synchronous technologies — your Google hangouts, Skype, tools that allow you to speak in real-time, where students are working together,” he said, so that students who can’t be in the classroom still get a classroom experience.

Other tools WMU harnesses for online courses are virtual reality — a computer-generated simulation of an environment or 3-D image — and augmented reality — which superimposes a computer-generated image onto a user’s view of the real world.

“The most significant, powerful advances are the immersive technologies,” he said. “If you wanted to do a virtual lab and you wanted to look at the molecule chain, you can actually go into the chain and look at the bonds. If you wanted to do a virtual anatomy lab, you could do that (without needing a cadaver).

“Let’s say you wanted to go to a museum and walk around. Instead of looking at images on a computer screen, you can look around the environment. If you want to see a painting, you focus on it and can look at the details of the painting and the artist information (as if you were looking at it in the museum).”

Holmes said the university tested virtual reality early on for a practical reason: Educators and recruiters for the College of Aviation went to an air show in Wisconsin and couldn’t bring their students, so they brought the show back with them.

“You can’t really describe what it’s like to be there with all the hangars and airplanes, so they created a virtual reality video, and the students were able to experience it as if they had seen it in person,” he said.

“It’s incredible technology, so we’re trying to bring that into the classroom. These are the tools people will be using in the real world, so we want them to start using them here.”

WMU also blends online and face-to-face education in some instances.

“One example (of a hybrid program) is we have a freshwater science and sustainability program, where some of the course meets online and some of it meets in Traverse City where students go out on a boat in the bay and do research,” Holmes said.

“At one time, the pendulum shifted way too online, and then people realized they needed that face-to-face experience in many courses, so now the pendulum has come back to the middle,” he said.

Holmes said he doesn’t see any signs of online enrollment tapering off any time soon, and striking the right ratio of in-person to online learning is a continuous process.

“It depends on class-by-class and program-by-program decisions about whether (courses are) online or not,” he said.

“We have to ensure high-quality learning. We need to do what makes the most sense to ensure we’re meeting the intended outcomes of a course or program and that students are learning.”

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