As Kansas University continues to build its online course offerings, many faculty members are moving toward more “hybrid” courses, combining online and in-class work.
While entire online degree options are still few and far between at KU, Julie Loats, director of KU’s Center for Online and Distance Learning, said those options are expanding. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is working on new undergraduate degree programs, and the education and business schools are working on possible options, including graduate degrees and certificates.
Meanwhile, more classes at KU are headed to the hybrid format, adding online components to complement class time, which is more devoted to discussion and in-depth problem-solving.
“This type of collaboration with faculty helps build familiarity and comfort with online concepts and options to build momentum for future growth,” Loats said.
Other universities such as the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University are partnering with websites such as Coursera to offer so-called Massive Open Online Courses, making introductory courses available to hundreds of thousands of students for free.
But the universities aren’t offering credit for the classes, points out Paul Atchley, an associate professor of psychology at KU who has taught online classes for years.
Engagement is also critical, he said. The massive online course approach isn’t necessarily new, he said.
“We’ve had public libraries for a long time,” he said. “Students could learn everything they could learn at a university in a public library. Moving the book online is nothing special.”
Atchley said that while there’s a feeling in the private sector that universities can move courses online and decrease costs, that’s not always true.
“Online courses don’t necessarily cost less,” he said. “They can, but that’s not always true.”
Though the university isn’t offering many online degrees, some do exist. Mary Morningstar, an associate professor in KU’s School of Education, said her online special education master’s degree is the only graduate degree offered online at KU.
Each group of graduates is about 25 students, though about 80 apply each year, she said.
“There’s definitely a need,” she said.
Just more than 230 miles west of KU on Interstate 70, Fort Hays State University has been in the online education game for years, said Ed Hammond, FHSU president.
The university has been involved in distance education reaching back to its early days in the 1900s.
“From the very beginning, it has been our mission to meet the needs of the citizens of the western part of the state,” he said.
It was initially done by shuttling teachers from place to place and then through two-way video before moving online.
Today, the university’s Virtual College serves more than 4,500 students, a figure that does not include a separate partnership that offers FHSU degrees in China.
Hammond said he has learned three main lessons as the campus expanded its online learning:
l Students want credentials. Just offering a random sampling of courses doesn’t meet the needs of today’s students. Degree programs are essential.
l You have to provide the same services for online students as you do for on-campus students. That means library access, access to tutoring services and financial aid support, among others, Hammond said.
l Training faculty is key. A good classroom teacher might not be a good online course teacher. The university monitors how frequently online teachers reply to students and other metrics, too.
Proper assessment continues to be a challenge, Hammond said. Many faculty members conduct oral exams using Skype to ensure the student is actually the one doing the work.
The future is bright for online education, as people continue to change careers several times in their lives, Hammond said.
“We’re going to need to service them three or four times in their lifetime if we’re going to be in a competitive state,” he said.