Focus and Investment are the Keys to Online Success
Today’s student population is older, busier and more price-conscious than ever before, creating the conditions for a massive surge in demand for online education. This surge is benefitting colleges and universities as well, providing a pathway to grow revenue and enrollments from demographics they would have otherwise had trouble serving. However, sustained success in the online environment requires more than courses—it requires an entire infrastructure supporting academic and administrative staff as well as a new population of students with different needs and expectations than those of the traditional 18- to 22-year-old population. In this interview, Kimberly Phifer-McGhee reflects on the decision to launch NCCU Online at North Carolina Central University and shares her thoughts on how she and her colleagues are building an infrastructure to support long-term success in the online space.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What were a few reasons behind NCCU’s decision to launch the NCCU Online learning platform?
Kimberly Phifer-McGhee (KPM): NCCU Online was developed to expand and enhance North Carolina Central University’s footprint beyond our regional boundaries. Online education continues to be a growing market with vast opportunities for universities to capitalize on advances in teaching and learning to expand the capacity to reach new student markets. NCCU began offering online courses in 1999 and currently has 10 fully online degree programs and seven online certificate programs.
To ensure NCCU remains a vibrant and competitive institution of higher learning, we realized it was necessary to provide our online student population access to the information and services needed to successfully matriculate through their online degree program, without having to step foot on campus. We understand students have a choice and that the traditional pathway for degree attainment has made a significant shift over the past five years.
It was important for us to have a platform that would allow NCCU to:
- increase online degree program offerings;
- support enrollment growth without placing a burden on the brick-and-mortar infrastructure;
- reach new student markets;
- generate new revenue streams for the university; and
- provide access to key information and student services.
With the establishment of the NCCU Online platform, current and future students now have access to a robust, turnkey virtual environment that supports and encourages their educational goals and degree attainment. This platform aligns with the university’s goal of fostering student learning through new programs and experiences, as well as the University of North Carolina system’s strategic directive of making higher education more accessible through distance education options.
Evo: As NCCU Online will fall under Extended Studies’ umbrella, how does it change the role of the division within the context of NCCU?
KPM: The Division of Extended Studies is responsible for the administration and oversight of online and distance education initiatives at NCCU. We support the mission of the university by providing an array of services to academic departments offering online courses and programs. This support allows the university to expand access to educational opportunities through a range of coordinated services to students enrolled in our online and site-based programs. Although Extended Studies has always provided these services to the campus, we are constantly surveying the needs of our students and faculty to determine how to best serve them. In collaboration with the academic departments, the Division of Extended Studies has now assumed the responsibility of admitting undergraduate students into our online degree programs. This change will provide a more streamlined process for our online students.
With the continued growth of online courses and programs at NCCU, we recognized the immediate need for a faculty enrichment hub dedicated to online teaching and learning. As such, the Office of e-Learning was established in the Division of Extended Studies. The Office of e-Learning provides centralized services, training, resources, and support to faculty engaged in the development, delivery and assessment of online courses.
Evo: What were a few of the critical steps needed to get NCCU Online launched?
KPM: The most critical step in launching NCCU Online was to ensure the university had the infrastructure and resources to support online course development, faculty and students. As mentioned earlier, the Division of Extended Studies serves as the central administrative unit to support online development across the institution. However, this work is not done in isolation and involves collaboration with the Information Technology department, the Office of Faculty Professional Development, academic departments, and student support units. The first step was to ensure online students could easily access the same services and functions as on-campus students, such as:
- Academic advising
- Tutoring and supplemental instruction
- Library resources
- Writing and Speaking Studio services
- Exam proctoring
- Student disability services
- Career services
- 24/7 Blackboard helpdesk services
- Undergraduate and graduate admissions applications
- Scholarship and student aid information and services
- Course registration
- Tuition payment and billing services
The Division of Extended Studies worked closely with the various units to support providing access to their services. In some cases, outside vendors were sought to provide services so as not to overstretch offices and their staff. For example, we have partnered with Upswing to provide online tutoring services. This partnership allows our online students to easily select and schedule a tutor for various subjects. This unique partnership also allows current NCCU tutors to participate in the services provided by Upswing. However, the Division has also provided additional in-house staff to support academic advising, career services, and the Writing and Speaking Studio. Once we felt comfortable that university resources and services were fully accessible to our online students, we sought the services of Blackboard Enrollment and Marketing Solutions to design and develop the NCCU Online platform.
Evo: What do you expect to be the biggest differences between the students who will enroll in NCCU Online programs and those who enroll in the traditional, on-campus offerings?
KPM: We have found our online learner population to be students who are mostly employed full time as goal-oriented adults with unique social and family commitments. The average age of our online student is 35, which varies in stark contrast to the traditional 18-year-old freshman living on campus. Our online students are increasingly becoming less location-bound, meaning many of them don’t live in close proximity to our campus. They, instead, are choosing to complete their degree online as a preferred alternative to the face-to-face educational experience instead of the only alternative. This is mainly attributed to the innovative learning environment and flexibility online instruction provides.
Consequently, we anticipate NCCU Online students to seek an engaging and inspiring virtual learning environment dedicated to their development into workforce-ready practitioners and life-long scholars. This environment will be one in which they are provided opportunities for practical application as they develop the skills necessary to excel in their chosen fields. They will come to us intrinsically motivated by the desire to solve real-world problems and will be prepared to enrich the online educational space by sharing their life experiences. Ultimately, our NCCU Online students will demonstrate their strong academic self-confidence by electing to take advantage of the stimulating option of online learning.
Evo: What kinds of administrative and student services need to be put into place in order to adequately support the online student demographic?
KPM: As the number of online courses and programs continues to grow, the academic experience changes for faculty, students and administrators. For faculty, online course preparation entails focusing on pedagogical aspects, course redesign, learning new technology applications, and adapting to the increased communications requirements with students to support quality online course development and delivery. This can create new challenges for faculty so it is critical for institutions to provide the support and resources for adequate technical and pedagogical training. At NCCU, we have addressed this through the establishment of our Office of e-Learning. The office is staffed with a coordinator and an instructional designer who are fully dedicated to providing training and support to faculty developing and teaching online.
In addition, the Division of Extended Studies provides the technology and infrastructure resources to support online initiatives campus-wide. Online learning changes the student’s college experiences, and access to student services is key to any successful online degree program. Online students can feel disconnected from the institution and may not know how to navigate the through campus processes and procedures, so having a portal such as NCCU Online allows them to access the services they need to matriculate through their degree program.
Administratively, the institution has invested in human and fiscal resources to support the launch of the NCCU Online platform. The Division of Extended Studies has added an admissions and student services unit to coordinate and facilitate the admissions of students into online degree programs, in consultation with the academic units. This unit also serves as the first point of contact for current and prospective students. We have invested various technology applications that allow us to easily connect with students via email and synchronously through web conferencing.
To ensure our online courses and programs are high-quality, the university has become a Quality Matters campus. The Quality Matters Rubric for Higher Education is used as the standard for online course development and assessment. Training is provided, through the Office of e-Learning, on how to incorporate the standards of the Quality Matters Rubric. Although NCCU has made great strides in staffing to support faculty and students, we anticipate hiring additional staff members in the 2017-2018 fiscal year to meet the demands created by the growing number of online courses and programs at NCCU—an instructional designer for the Office of e-Learning and two additional staff members to support the student services and admissions unit. In addition to staffing and infrastructure, the university is currently reviewing its regulations and policies for online learning. We recognize the importance of creating a cohesive institutional vision for online learning and are in the planning phase of developing a strategic plan for transformative distance education initiatives.
Author Perspective: Administrator