Online learning a mainstream option for Delaware higher education

Joseph Bailey is pursuing a masters degree in sports management through Wilmington University.  The flexibility of online classes lets him do most of his classwork at home.
Joseph Bailey is pursuing a masters degree in sports management through Wilmington University. The flexibility of online classes lets him do most of his classwork at home.

By Christi Milligan

Joe Bailey has a busy schedule and lots of options. After a full day’s work for a national swim clinic, the Wilmington University graduate student heads to class … either in the quiet space of
his bedroom or at the local library.

Bailey is one of thousands of students in Delaware and around the country turning to online courses for flexibility not found in traditional on-campus programs.

With online enrollment outpacing traditional college enrollment in 2014, colleges and universities are expanding their distance education courses to meet the increasing demand for them as a mainstream delivery option.

Wilmington University offers 750 online courses, while the University of Delaware offers a number of graduate programs online, including engineering, nursing, and teacher leadership, and will add additional programs in 2016. Delaware State University plans to launch four full online graduate degree programs in August.

For Bailey, who graduated from West Virginia University with a bachelor’s in sports and exercise psychology, the chance to work full time and pursue graduate work was an ideal combination.

“I was really interested in the best way to get an education and real-world experiences,” said Bailey. “I wanted to start working after I finished my undergraduate degree. I wanted to get out there and learn.”

According to the 2014 study by Babson Survey Research Group, the number of students taking at least one online course is up a modest 3.7 percent — the slowest rate of increase in 10 years.

But online learning accounts for nearly three-quarters of all U.S. higher education’s enrollment increases in 2014. Babson’s annual survey is considered the leading indicator of online learning in the United States.

With tuition costs of online courses virtually the same as those of traditional credit hours and transcripts that reflect no bias favoring degrees pursues on-campus, flexibility for the nontraditional student is the driver of online enrollment.

Wilmington University is one college at the forefront of distance education in Delaware, with officials noting an 84 percent increase in online enrollment in the past four years. The college has also received national attention: it ranked third last year for the “Best Online Bachelor’s Program” in the Mid-Atlantic region, and number 48 in the nation.

Nursing students at theUniversity of Delaware can pursue coursework online. These students have taken a Nursing Refresher Program, but take their exams at the UD’s testing center.
Nursing students at the University of Delaware can pursue coursework online. These students have taken a Nursing Refresher Program, but take their exams at the UD’s testing center.

The school’s online R.N. and B.S.N. degrees are its largest in terms of enrollment.

“We have evolved significantly,” said Dr. Eileen Donnelly, assistant vice president of technology and dean of the college of online and experiential learning. Donnelly said the school invests heavily in tech training and staff development to offer engaging, cutting-edge classes.

According to the Babson study, the overall increase in online enrollment isn’t without its challenges, as schools try and address retention rates and energize a faculty that must come to terms with the idea that online instruction can be as effective as that found in a traditional classroom.

To that end, some Delaware schools like Wilmington University, UD, and Delaware Technical Community College turn to teams of in-house designers that help them modify their courses.

“Every two years we redevelop courses to make sure content is fresh and timely and accurate,” said Donnelly. “We do a tremendous amount of work to engage the students through a virtual classroom.”

Personalizing their courses points to a shift in the faculty, some of whom were skeptical years ago about whether online programs could be as effective as those pursued in a classroom setting, according to Donnelly.

“We met with some faculty resistance that couldn’t understand how the learning environment online could be as good,” she said, noting that mind-set has changed.

“There’s a lot of strategic planning to provide services to students at a distance,” Donnelly said. “We want to make sure their experience is as good off-campus as it is on-campus.”

Wilmington University began offering online courses more than a decade ago. Today it offers 95 programs for associate’s through doctoral degrees, many of which are taught by the school’s staff. But Donnelly said the private school attracts not only students but also faculty from all over the country.

For Delaware State University (DSU), which will roll out several full graduate programs online this fall, expanding its reach is a strategic move that officials say will broaden the school’s appeal while offering programs to a new demographic.

“We see an opportunity to expand our educational offering through not only our site in Wilmington but to begin offering online programs, primarily for nontraditional students looking to advance their career or to expand their career options,” said Dr. Michael Boone, associate vice president for distance education at DSU.

Boone is at the helm of DSU’s online delivery initiative. While the school has long offered a hybrid model of instruction that merges online assignments with in-class instruction, broader demand for the former has forced them to plan strategically.

“If you’re not a player in that area, you’re missing out on an opportunity to broaden your student base,” said Boone.

Beginning this fall, prospective DSU graduate students can pursue advanced degrees online in business, public administration, sports administration, and possibly social work, according to Boone.

The University of Delaware (UD) first offered online learning in 1987, when professors would videotape their lessons so students could view them later. In the mid-’90s, the school moved from videotape to online and Web-streaming delivery systems.

Today the school’s online programs feature mostly graduate degrees, including master’s degrees in business administration, electrical engineering, nursing, and education. According to UD officials, the school experienced a 14 percent jump in online enrollment from 2014 to 2015.

In 2016 the university will introduce three more programs, including master’s degrees in public administration, computer engineering, and cyber security.

James Broomall, UD associate vice provost at the division of professional continuing studies, conceded that the retention rates have historically been an issue in online education.

“It still remains a challenge, trying to maintain integrity of choice but not letting students go by the wayside,” he said.

Built-in checkpoints are part of the online infrastructure, with professors and students required to respond to emails within 24 hours. It’s a pressure point that’s also part of the training for online instructors used to the schedule parameters of an on-campus classroom setting.

DSU’s Boone, who has taught several online classes, recalled a Saturday morning email he received from an online student. “They sent me an email at 11:30 a.m. and then a follow-up email at 5:30 p.m. to see if I’d received the first one,” said Boone.

“You wouldn’t have that with a regular setting, because you would have established office hours. But part of the difference in teaching online is a different set of expectations.”

Those differences also allow colleges and universities to leverage their existing capabilities, faculty, and level of expertise, said Boone.

It also creates a separate revenue stream.

With stagnate college enrollment numbers, colleges and universities must look at other options to leverage their quality and reputation in the online market place, according to Broomall, who said the intent is ultimately to increase the number of students they serve.

At Delaware Technical Community College, officials said they approach online classes in a different way.

“Primarily we’re an associate’s degree institution,” said Dr. Richard C. Kravelich, associate vice president for information and instructional technology. “When determining if it’s the appropriate format, we look at whether it will fit the students’ needs first.”

The school does not offer complete online programs, but just about every program has several online courses. Kravelich said those courses are designed, developed, and delivered by Delaware Tech faculty.

But the online distance education strategy hasn’t been a good fit for every Delaware institution.

The 2014 Babson study revealed a direct correlation to the size of the institution and the proportion of distance education: Over 95 percent of institutions with 5,000 or more students reported online offerings.

Private, not-for-profit Goldey-Beacom College, which has about 2,100 students, does not currently offer online courses as part of its curriculum. That wasn’t so about 10 years ago, when they briefly offered a distance learning option under a partial agreement with MBNA. The former banking powerhouse was looking to offer its full-time employees the chance to finish undergraduate courses.

It didn’t last. Bank of America bought MBNA, and Goldey-Beacom discovered that its students wanted traditional classes.

“With the market we attract, it just wasn’t working,” said Alison White, academic dean at the school. “We discovered it wasn’t our niche. We’re a small school and we offer personal attention.”

White said classes at the school utilize many forms of technology, and the school will continue to evaluate whether incorporating online classes makes sense for the school.

Graduate student Bailey said he hopes that juggling online graduate work with a full-time job will give him a leg up in future interviews.

“I think they’ll ask me about how I balance the classes with my workload,” said Bailey. “And I’ll tell them how I schedule it all out and make it all work.”  ♦

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