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A new chapter for online learning at NLU

shutterstock_97376669The power of online learning in higher education is undeniable. Classes hosted via the Web grant more flexibility to students — particularly working adults, who are trying to juggle their studies with busy lives. They give faculty the chance to bring in other media — video, audio and message boards — to better engage students. And institutions may benefit by increasing their reach beyond campus without paying for new buildings in other locations.

And it’s growing. Based on responses from more than 2,800 academic leaders, the latest installment of the annual report from Babson Survey Research Group, “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States,” shows that 7.1 million higher education students took at least one online course in the fall 2012 term. (The authors defined an online class as a course where more than 80 percent of all content is delivered online.)

The Babson Survey shows continued growth in online enrollment at a rate greater than that for higher education overall. At National Louis University, online learning has been underway for years, but the University has recently taken steps to grow this delivery model to better meet the needs of students. It’s a faculty-driven, market-aware approach, said Provost Christine Quinn — one that doesn’t lose sight of student needs and the University’s overall mission.

“The ultimate goal at National Louis University will be to provide a highly engaged academic experience for students, whether it be online, blended or face to face,” she said, “and to provide a supportive environment that helps to build community.”

Focus on Quality

Andi Koritari is Director of Online Operations at NLU, a new position created in 2013. The University currently has nine programs that are offered fully online and many courses that are blended with online delivery. Its Koritari’s job to keep the development of online options for key programs on schedule, including shepherding them through new methods of quality control.

“The direction we’re taking is to improve our online offerings tremendously,” he said.

Since NLU’s 2013-14 fiscal year began last June, more than 100 online courses have been developed or are being developed, nearly three-quarters of those in the Master’s in Business Administration, B.A. in Criminal Justice, new B.A. in Applied Communications and M.Ed. in Specialized Endorsements programs. All of NLU’s online courses are delivered via the Desire2Learn (D2L) Web platform.

NLU has also made strides to ensure course quality. Earlier this year, the University received an official designation from Quality Matters (QM), a nonprofit quality assurance organization for online learning, to measure the quality of its online courses by QM’s rigorous standards. This includes an external, three-person review, a collaborative process meant to get each class to meet QM’s rubric, Koritari said.

“Utilizing the QM framework helps the University ensure that what we do in the online space provides a strong student experience,” said Provost Quinn. “It provides a strong framework for instructional design in our courses, which assures student engagement.”

Online course design is guided by the Quality Matters framework, courses are reviewed internally before offering, and after a one-time offering are improved and re-reviewed by an official QM reviewer.

Faculty play a key role in the development of new online classes, Koritari added. Instructors may enroll in their own online course, “Faculty Development for Online Learning Community,” and over 14 weeks get hands-on experience creating a real class that will be used in an NLU program. There will also be future opportunities for them to become QM certified.

“The thing that sets NLU apart in all things is not whether we are online or not or whether a course is fully online or blended,” Quinn said. “It is the relevance of the offerings, the level of student engagement and the quality of our faculty.”

Inside the (Virtual) Classroom

Associate Professor Catherine Honig has been teaching online for more than a decade, beginning at a time when the merit of Web learning was heavily scrutinized in universities. She said she had her own questions at the outset: Would she be able to make a connection with her students? How could she tell if they were really learning?

Honig has since made intensive engagement a hallmark of her courses. A six-week MBA class she recently taught generated more than 1200 substantive posts on its message board, she said. And such discussions continue over a longer period than face-to-face classes, so there’s more time to think, debate points and even bring in new digital resources.

“With every online course I teach, I ask myself what I’m bringing to the subject that makes it unique, exceptional and reflection worthy,” Honig said. “For me, the answer lies in presenting information as a series of experiences that introduce new ways of thinking about a subject.”

She points to the proliferation of Web 2.0 tools as a way to introduce varied and strong interaction opportunities into online classes, from wikis and podcasting to video and other open educational resources.

Richard Schak, Director NLU’s Criminal Justice program, agrees. He’s looking at incorporating more multimedia into the CJ program’s online courses, including audio aids and interviews with real-world participants in the field: a homicide detective, an appellate court judge, even an ex-offender, for example. One such CJ class in the D2L system includes an audio introduction putting students right into the aftermath of a gang-related street corner shooting.

Responsiveness is important to the CJ program as well, he said, which offers a Criminal Justice Administration major completely online, as well as many of its general education requirements. Students are able to send questions to their instructors via D2L.

“It’s as close to being a 16- to 24-hour everyday experience in a classroom as it can possibly be,” Schak said. “The instructors that we select to teach in this D2L online format are ones that will respond. They will check their message board at 8 o’clock at night.”

He added that the CJ program is testing out the Zoom videoconferencing Web app, and if it’s successful, CJ classes will have an optional element where students can videoconference into class if they can’t make it in person.

The growing options online might seem overwhelming, but NLU professors are adapting just as quickly. David San Filippo, Chair of Health Care Programs at NLU, has been teaching online since 2006 and played a part in developing a fully online option for the B.S. in Health Care Leadership program. San Filippo has had to adapt his teaching style to the Web, and he said it’s opened things up for him.

“I have made changes by using multiple resources to facilitate my students’ learning and to rely on digital social interaction more than on verbal communication,” he said. “Teaching online has improved my teaching skills and has helped to focus our attention on the learning outcomes of the programs and the courses.”

Thoughtful Strategy

While the benefits of online learning are apparent, the recent Babson survey also shows that some of the buzz of recent years may be wearing off. While that 7.1 million students studying online from fall 2012 is impressive, it represents the slowest growth rate, year over year, in a decade, which might suggest market saturation.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs), free Web-based distance-learning programs aimed at large numbers of geographically dispersed students, may also be playing a role in affecting the overall perception of online learning. Championed by MIT and Harvard as a way to democratize education, MOOCs — which often don’t award real college credit — have been questioned for their low completion rates and overall effectiveness. The recent Babson survey showed that less than one-quarter of academic leaders believe MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses.

It might be tantalizing for some institutions to go after the national market, MOOC or not, because of the ubiquitous reach of the Web. For NLU, “it’s not a goal to become the largest provider of online courses covering all 50 states, though we expect to expand our regional presence through quality online offerings that meet the needs of busy working adults,” Provost Quinn said.

The focus for NLU will continue to be relevant curriculum and high-quality instruction. It’s a proven formula that has served the University well since its inception in 1886 — and one that can carry NLU into the future, no matter what technology may bring.

“It’s my role to engage students, to sustain their interest and to help shape the rich exchange of ideas that transforms information into learning,” Catherine Honig said. “When you think about it, that’s the ‘sweet spot’ in any course — online or face to face.”