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Understanding the Inner Workings of a High-Quality Online Program

Though it was perhaps a quick fix to the problems the pandemic posed, online education has taken higher ed by storm. But its proper implementation requires the same focus on quality programming given to on-campus classes.

The pandemic forced many higher ed institutions to adapt to the online environment, but that doesn’t mean programming uploaded online qualifies as online programming. In this interview, Lisa Templeton discusses the growing demand for online education, what it is exactly and what’s required to deliver high-quality online programming that meets learner needs.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to focus on their online programming, especially when it comes to serving learners at scale?

Lisa Templeton (LT): The population of online learners is growing nationwide. That’s primarily due to growth in the adult learner population. If you look at the enrollment trends of traditional-aged learners (18-year-olds) who enroll for a traditional on-campus experience and compare the numbers to adult learners enrolling to start or finish their degree, adult learners are growing at a faster rate. Higher ed must think about how to best serve and support both sets learners.

It’s especially important to understand that adult online audience. These learners are often working and caring for family members all while taking their online courses. They’re very busy and juggling so much in life. They need access to higher ed, but with courses and programs that fit into their busy schedule. Online education is a great solution for these adult learners, which include the 40 million adults in the U.S. with some college no degree.

And while we must focus on serving adult learners, we also need to support those traditional-aged students who also want access to the flexibility an online education provides. Since the pandemic, we have seen a significant increase in enrollment from these younger students, and we’re also experiencing many students coming to campus but looking for hybrid learning options.

Evo: What do learners expect of their institution when it comes to online programming or education as a whole?

LT: Learners expect and deserve a high-quality learning experience in their online courses. Online programs should have the exact same learning outcomes as their campus counterpart course. So, for example, if I’m a student taking a business course, the learning outcomes should be the same no matter what format that business course is delivered in. That’s critical for the learner and the employer hiring those with online degrees.

At OSU, we believe that a high-quality online course is designed to incorporate three forms of interaction. One, designing a course with opportunities for student-to-student engagement and interaction. Two, having student-to-faculty interaction. And three, having student engagement and interaction with content. We believe that having these three types of interaction will ensure an engaging learning experience.

Evo: What are some challenges to developing and scaling a high-quality online program?

LT: Sadly, due to the pandemic and remote learning experiences, there are numerous misconceptions about online education. Many people think designing an online course is very easy. They may think, “I’ll just turn on my camera and record myself talking.” But that’s not what we consider to be quality online education.

Designing and delivering a high-quality online course is time-consuming. At Oregon State University, faculty take two full terms to develop an online course, and they must complete training on developing and teaching online. We provide an instructional designer who works with the faculty member. The faculty member is the content expert, and the ID works closely and collaboratively with them. We then bring in our talented multimedia team as needed. All this can be challenging, as it is both time- and resource-intensive.

To scale quickly, we have seen some institutions buying courses and content from OPMs or other institutions. That approach can absolutely help you scale quickly, but it’s not our approach. We feel strongly at OSU that curriculum belongs university faculty and that developing our own courses better ensures quality. Other higher education institutions in our country are taking various approaches to serve this growing population of learners that prefer online education.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome some of the obstacles you mentioned?

LT: We’re motivated by our mission. Oregon State is the land-grant institution of the state, and our access mission makes it critical that we continue to develop and deliver online degrees and programs. So, while it takes a significant amount of work and time to develop an array of quality online and on-site programs, it’s important to who we are as a university.

Whether a student is an 18-year-old moving to Corvallis and living in a dorm or a 55-year-old working mom in Portland with family and work commitments, they’re all our students. We need to give them all access to the best learning opportunities we can. Our faculty are busy, so we try to provide support services to ease their load as they develop our growing portfolio of online programs.

Evo: What are some emerging trends you’re seeing within online programming or online education as a whole?

LT: It’s an exciting time to be involved in online education! There are many new and innovative technological advances out there for online teaching and learning. Things we couldn’t imagine doing three to five years ago, we’re now doing. We’re investing resources in developing online labs and focused on figuring out how to develop new solutions for learning outcomes that have posed challenges for online learning.

Of course, we can’t have this conversation without mentioning AI. I’m personally excited to see how AI can improve the work we do in online education. Another trend we are seeing is the massive expansion of alternative credentials. Knowing that not all learners have the time or resources to take on an entire degree but still want to upskill, reskill and advance in their career, alternative short-form credentials have become an important part of online education offerings. We’ll always continue to provide degrees, but we’re also expanding our offerings and developing many shorter and more affordable microcredentials. We’re really excited about the potential of stackable microcredentials.

One final trend we’re seeing is the growth of employers, corporations, government agencies who are creating collaborations with universities that have online education units. These employers support and fully or partially fund their employees’ online education. We have a corporate education unit in our division that’s growing significantly. These corporate/higher ed collaborations are helping adult learners earn their degree and graduate with less debt or no debt because their employers are contributing.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.