Roy Thurston doesn’t need to complete his bachelor’s degree. He’s 57 years old and has a good, challenging job.

Thurston entered the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, right out of high school. He studied geology and engineering for nearly three years before dropping out.

A year and a half ago, he was promoted to quality manager at New Flyer of America, a bus manufacturer in Crookston. Last summer he went back to college, via his computer. Thurston is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in quality management entirely online from the University of Minnesota at Crookston.

“A lot of the stuff that I’m learning through this degree is helping me on the job,” Thurston says. “It’s a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. I’m actually enjoying accounting, and I never thought I would ever say that.”

Thurston has joined the ranks of online learners, increasingly adults aged 35 and older who want to improve themselves or change career paths while continuing to work full time. Some Minnesota higher education institutions, like U of M Crookston, jumped into online teaching early and have strong faculty and student support in place. Others have moved more slowly, but all feel the need to move forward. Students and employers are demanding it.

Adult learners in particular have found that online courses fit better with their work and home schedules than showing up on campus two or three nights a week. They still have quizzes, exams and projects, and they must participate in online discussions or their grades will suffer.

U of M Crookston offers 14 fully online majors to students like Thurston, many of whom began college years before but did not graduate, for financial, personal or work relocation reasons. Now quite a few are seeking a “lane change” in their careers, according to Crookston campus chancellor Fred Wood. Most take nine credits per semester while working full time.

“It really provides them an opportunity to continue their education that would not be possible through another modality,” Wood says.

He considers online education an extension of the land-grant idea that the University of Minnesota was founded on: to educate and train the state’s workforce. Employers whose workers are enrolled in online courses through Crookston include Medtronic, Polaris Industries, General Mills, Mayo Clinic, CHS Prairie Lakes, Wells Fargo Bank, Riverview Healthcare Association, Boston Scientific, Eaton Corp., Sanford Health, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy.

Overhauling online education

Online education in Minnesota has come a long way in less than a decade. In 2007, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced that he wanted 25 percent of all credits taken through Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) to be earned online by 2015. (MnSCU measures outcomes differently now and has approximately 30 percent of full-year-equivalent students in full or partly online classes.)

MnSCU schools and others in Minnesota and nationwide scrambled to add online courses, often assuming that content and presentation need not differ from the in-person versions. Students enrolled, got bored and dropped out. Online learning had to be more engaging and interactive to keep them coming back.

The focus of online education changed from quantity to quality, and traditionally educated faculty had to adapt. In many institutions, professors and other instructors struck out on their own to devise more stimulating and effective online coursework. It didn’t always work.

“Faculty are experts in their content area, but if we don’t provide them training in how to effectively deliver that content, that’s where we fall short,” says Kimberly Craig, associate vice president for cohort enrollment management at Concordia University in St. Paul.

Colleges and universities formed alliances nationwide to improve online offerings. The U of M turned to its longtime Big Ten partners, plus the University of Chicago, in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a leading academic consortium, to help each other reach online quality goals.

Smaller schools that lack such heavy-hitter friends assembled their own combinations of online education improvement tools. For inspiration, the University of Northwestern looks to massive open online courses, as well as to research and conferences, according to Tanya Grosz, dean of graduate, online and adult learning for the private Christian institution in Roseville. Grosz likes the Horizon Report for research, as well as conferences presented by Educause and the Online Learning Consortium.

All but a couple of MnSCU institutions subscribe to Quality Matters, a national nonprofit organization that offers standards against which colleges and universities can evaluate the design of online and blended courses. St. Catherine University in St. Paul has studied what other Catholic universities have done well in online education. The experience of Creighton University in Omaha taught St. Catherine’s leaders to select the courses and majors that will help adult students achieve professional success, according to Anne Weyandt, dean of adult and applied education at St. Catherine.

“How do you really start using technology to address the totality of student need and be as effective as possible standing in for that human exchange?” Weyandt says. “It’s a huge transition, but I think it’s really rich and rewarding. It’s a new world for all of us.”

Sharing college cultures online

Administrators and faculty at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul feared that expanding online course offerings would diminish face-to-face interaction. The university, which prides itself on a 14-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, needed to figure out how to maintain that culture while expanding and improving its online curriculum.

St. Thomas hired Ed Clark last summer to devise a system to help faculty and staff coordinate technology research and develop online courses. The new vice president for information technology services had done similar work for the U of M’s College of Liberal Arts and Minnesota State University, Mankato.

St. Thomas had two fully online degree programs and several scattered online offerings developed in-house with different instructional and online marketing approaches when he arrived, Clark says.

“I went around and met with all the deans and faculty and staff and administrators and discovered we had a lot of decentralized, uncoordinated efforts everywhere,” Clark says. “Lots of smart people doing really smart things but going in different directions.” Clark also met with students, some of whom wanted to take courses online over the summer to build momentum toward completing their degrees.

Clark has proposed opening a one-stop online course development and technology research service with a dedicated staff. The St. Thomas E-Learning and Research Center would be located on the first floor of the university library for easy access by faculty and students. If approved by university officials, the center could open in the fall, Clark says.

Some in higher education also worry about student outcomes. They needn’t, according to Siri Anderson, director of graduate programs for licensed teachers at St. Catherine.

Online Learning at the University of Minnesota

Across the University of Minnesota system, administrators and faculty are using online learning courses to strengthen the quality and availability of educational programs.

Here are some key numbers:

42
Number of completely online programs offered across the U of M system.

21,151
Number of unique student enrollments—students taking at least one online class per academic year—across the U of M system during 2015.

41,333
Number of duplicated student enrollments—each online enrollment counted—across the U of M system during academic year 2015.

1,538
Number of courses offered online across the U of M system during academic year 2015.

Source: University of Minnesota

Good results

“Solid research over time shows that outcomes from online learning and face-to-face learning are equal or better,” Anderson says. “Online learning generally achieves better outcomes than face-to-face because it demands so much more personal responsibility.”

It also engages students with instructors and with each other in surprising ways, according to Grosz of Northwestern.

“There’s a real opportunity for deep, reflective learning to occur online,” she says. “Online isn’t going away, so we need to make it the best it can be and implement continuous improvement.”

Higher education instructors could take a virtual page from their primary and secondary education counterparts’ lesson plans. Many K-12 teachers routinely attend professional development sessions where they learn a coordinated approach to teaching online. Recent high school graduates expect colleges to offer professional and easy-to-use online instruction and assume their instructors know how to teach well online, according to these experts.

“If you look at our K-12 students today, most of them are going through their schools and using Google Docs to collaborate,” Clark says. “If schools have a snow day, they have online assignments. Our students are used to doing this. And it’s natural that these upcoming generations come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m comfortable doing this.’ ”

As colleges and universities have become more comfortable with the medium, they have started to target their offerings based on student and employer demand. They invest a great deal in designing and delivering online courses, and online students pay the same tuition as those who attend classes on campus.

Institutions that do online education well attract more students, and not just within state lines. St. Catherine used national market studies to determine geographic areas that needed more occupational therapy assistants. In 2013, it offered a fully online associate’s degree in that field to residents of the Richmond, Virginia, area. In addition to providing online instruction, St. Catherine had to line up health care facilities in and around Richmond that would accept its students for clinical rotations.

The first 27 students completed their studies in December 2015. They converged on the St. Paul campus for the first time—for graduation. University officials were unsure of what to expect.

“The only real feel they had for St. Kate’s was online. They reflected on what it was like to be a Katie in a profoundly meaningful way,” Weyandt says. “I think that’s online learning done well. The mission and spirit and ethos of the institution came through.”

St. Catherine plans to target California next for its occupational therapy assistant online degree cohort. Closer to home, the U of M’s Carlson School of Business plans to begin offering its part-time MBA program fully online in fall 2016.

MnSCU is working on how to offer more industry-specific degree programs in the Twin Cities without necessarily expanding Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, its four-year brick-and-mortar presence in the metro area.

Metro State does not have the bandwidth to grow as much as MnSCU expects demand will increase, particularly for bachelor’s degrees in such fields as software development, biomedical education and health care information technology, according to Kimberly Lynch, senior system director for educational innovations. MnSCU has begun to consider whether it can meet this need fully or partially online through its offerings at outstate campuses.

“This is not a plan. It’s the future,” Lynch says.

Colleges and universities must continue evolving to stay relevant in a world where the general population has access to the same information as they do. One way is through competency-based education, which has a large online component and allows students to demonstrate to faculty that they have mastered a topic immediately, says Brooks Doherty, dean of business and general education at Rasmussen College, Bloomington. Diagnostic online education will allow institutions to customize curricula to meet the individual needs of each student, Craig adds.

“Online learning is going to become, I think, a lot higher-end technically,” says Anderson. “If you want to make a million dollars, it’s about people who can take non-narrative content and create it into a visual narrative construct.”

That may include virtual reality. Anderson experienced it on a ride at Epcot Center in Florida a couple of years ago.

“Imagine now how you would teach differently if the kids have the VR goggles on,” she says. “It’s profoundly memorable. You can look at things from all angles.”

Virtual and augmented reality could appear in classrooms within two to three years, according to the New Media Consortium Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition. Teachers, however, must still know how to teach.

“If you’re a good teacher, you’re probably going to be a good teacher online also, and if you’re a bad teacher, doing things online won’t make you any more effective,” Anderson says.

Nancy Crotti is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to TCB.

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