Enrollment in for-credit distance education programs at Iowa’s three state universities has increased more than 54 percent in the past five years, and officials say interest in online courses is driving much of that growth.
As distance education booms, officials at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa said they monitor those programs to make sure students get quality instruction, whether it be on campus, via the Internet or face-to-face at a site elsewhere in the state.
“We’ve all committed throughout our distance offerings that the quality of off-campus courses and educational programs will be the same as on campus,” said Dave Holger, ISU associate provost for academic programs.
Professional development and training for faculty is a big part of that, officials said. UNI several years ago started using Quality Matters, a framework for best practices in online course design. And ISU recently appointed a faculty member to a half-time position in the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching to focus on quality online education practices.
Faculty who teach distance education courses for the regent universities are, for the most part, faculty who also teach on campus, officials said. They are appointed via the academic departments, and the colleges review distance courses to make sure content, assignments and expectations meet the same standards as on-campus courses.
“The faculty that teach in the programs go through the same process of being reviewed as people that would teach in Cedar Falls, Ames or Iowa City,” said Chet Rzonca, UI associate provost and dean of continuing education. “We’ve been very careful, very stodgy, about how we’ve done it.”
About 125 UNI faculty members have gone through Quality Matters training, and more than 30 faculty have taken the additional step of becoming certified as peer reviewers, so they can review online courses of other faculty, said Kent Johnson, UNI’s dean of the division of continuing education and special programs. Faculty attend a 10-hour workshop for Quality Matters training, and there is ongoing support for online course development.
“It’s really a critical strategy on the part of the regents, to ensure we can say with complete confidence that the courses we’re offering through distance education have the same outcomes, have the same quality as other courses,” Johnson said.
Vickie Robinson, UNI professor of educational leadership, said Quality Matters helped better her online teaching but also her on-campus courses as well. Robinson also completed the training to become a peer reviewer through Quality Matters. The program focuses on course standards, effective instructional practices, clearly identified objectives for student competence, course assessments and instructional materials, she said.
“It isn’t the old-fashioned stereotype image of what people think an online course is,” she said. “It’s much more complex and much deeper than that. We really set up the learning environment so students … are interacting and actually discussing with one another and giving each other feedback.”
Along with a focus on faculty development, the universities also use student feedback to better the distance education experience. The UI has developed an online orientation program and is working to facilitate more online communities among distance students, for example.
Leesa Fair worried she “would be left out in the cold” in UI online courses — that she would have a hard time connecting with professors or having good class discussions. But Fair, 50, found that was not the case, and she said the online program was a good learning environment for her.
She was able to keep her full-time job at the Iowa City Veteran’s Affairs Hospital and take classes on her own schedule. And she did form bonds with professors and fellow students, during chatroom group discussions. She earned her bachelor’s of applied studies in December.
“In the chat room, I felt like I was connected, everybody could see your responses and everybody could respond to you,” said Fair, from West Branch.
Convenience and location are big factors for many students who use distance education. The three regent universities offer nearly 100 degree or certificate programs through online or other technology-based learning, or at locations around the state, including in Des Moines. Graduate degrees and professional certificates are the majority of those offerings.
Des Moines resident Kerby Hanson is earning a master’s degree in social work without ever traveling to the UI’s Iowa City campus. Hanson, 39, has been taking courses for several years at the UI’s Pappajohn Center in downtown Des Moines, where the university offers five degree programs.
“I’m a single parent, so I have to rely on family and friends and babysitters and things like that for some of the night classes,” he said. “So to be able to do it all right here in town has been very important for me. It’s made it all possible.”
While distance education enrollments have grown each of the past five years at the universities, officials say future growth may be limited by the faculty resources available. The demand is there around the state, but keeping up with that demand is the question, officials said.
“We want to make sure the resources we have are used effectively,” Rzonca said. “I think the online stuff is really going to make a difference in terms of the university really being able to serve the people of the state.”