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Colleges breaking new ground in distance learning

Students benefits when state systems integrate online education programs, report says
University Business, August 2013
Using collaborative marketing, contracting, and course development strategies, colleges are redefining online education.
Using collaborative marketing, contracting, and course development strategies, colleges are redefining online education.

Before 2012, students who wanted to pursue an online degree at one of Florida’s public colleges or universities would have to navigate through a maze of websites, trying to cobble together a set of classes that would meet the requirements for their program.

Now they can simply click on the Florida Virtual Campus website to view more than 700 online degree programs offered by the public higher education institutions and access a range of student services. “We are a one-stop place for students to go to get their services, rather than have them hopping around to different websites,” says Donald Muccino, executive director of FLVC.

Florida’s new online clearinghouse is one of several groundbreaking distance learning initiatives in U.S. higher education. Using collaborative marketing, contracting, and course development strategies, these programs are redefining online education while eliminating duplication among campuses.

An April 2013 report written by Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, stated that there are considerable benefits when state systems follow a more integrated approach toward building online education programs. These collaborative programs work to create “something that looks less like an unorganized collection of internet-based classes, and more like a true public university built around the tools of the information age—a kind of State U Online,” Fishman wrote.

Dr. Darin Kapanjie, managing director of online and digital learning at Fox School of Business at Temple University, talks about the virtual flipped classroom model. 

These state education leaders have created searchable clearinghouses for online courses and degrees, are sharing contracts and student services, and are fostering faculty buy-in for distance education, Fishman says. The results are programs in which students can seamlessly move among state institutions while completing their online education.

Here are four state systems with innovative approaches to online education:

Wisconsin: Flexible Option and eCampus

By the end of this year, a new program in Wisconsin will allow students to take competency exams and test out of course requirements for online bachelor’s degrees in nursing, biomedical sciences, and information science and technology. Students in the University of Wisconsin Flexible Option program will be able to start on their degrees at any time and progress at their own pace after completing assessments in their courses.

The program was initiated by state officials concerned that only 27 percent of adults aged 25 and older in Wisconsin have a bachelor’s degree. That percentage lags behind the proportion of adults with bachelor’s degrees in neighboring Minnesota (32 percent) and across the country (29 percent).

“It really is a new way for adult learners to gain new skills that they need to become degree holders,” says Rovy Branon, associate dean of online learning at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which has helped lead the program. “And we know that equates to great economic success.”

Because of its flexibility, the program allows students to enroll in a MOOC and then take a competency exam to test out of a related course in the Flexible Option program. Students may also have acquired skills through prior workplace or military training.

Even before launching this competency-based program, Wisconsin was an early proponent of coordinating online education services across its system of 26 campuses.

In 2010, the state launched e-Campus, a centralized portal that connects students to more than 100 of its online degree programs. The website provided a unified brand for the system’s online programs, which faced increasing competition from for-profit institutions advertising on television. And for students, the portal simplified the search for programs, as all of them were now listed on one site.

Georgia: ONmyLINE

Nearly 10 years ago, officials at the University System of Georgia noticed many K12 teachers enrolling in out-of-state, for-profit online programs to earn their master’s degrees in education. To combat this trend, USG in 2007 launched seven online master’s of education programs in collaboration with 17 higher ed institutions across the state.

At the same time, USG created GeorgiaONmyLINE (, a searchable website listing all online degree programs and courses offered by the 31-institution USG system. An integrated registration system was set up, allowing students to enroll in courses offered at institutions beyond their home campus. “That made it a seamless process for our students,” says Jon Sizemore, assistant vice chancellor for distance education at USG, which now offers 271 online degree programs.

Before GeorgiaONmyLINE, USG had already established another innovative program, eCore, which allows students to take required introductory courses online. Instead of offering different versions of English composition at each of its institutions, USG officials decided to create one standard online course for each of its core classes. Faculty teams developed the online courses, and a required two-week certification class was created by the eCore administrative unit at the University of West Georgia for instructors who wanted to teach in the program.

Another key component of eCore is the support offered to students. In 2005, 68 percent of students had completed an eCore course, and by 2012, that number had climbed to 85 percent. What improved retention rates was the creation of a student success team. When a professor notifies the team of an issue with a student, that student gets a call from a member of the team.

Several hundred of these phone calls are made a day, says Mike Rogers, USG’s assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs, adding that the success team advisors encourage students to get back on track.

Kentucky: Learn on demand

With 187,000 working adults in Kentucky lacking a bachelor’s degree, state officials believed a new type of distance learning program could reach this group of potential students. So in 2006, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) began developing a set of modular, three- to five-week online courses called the Learn on Demand program.

Students could enroll in a modular course at any time during the year at one of the state’s 16 two-year colleges. After completing this mini-course and taking a competency exam, they could progress to the next module, accumulating credits toward a degree.

Launched in 2009, the program has quickly attracted its targeted demographic. Of the 1,000 community college students now enrolled in the program, 88 percent are adults aged 25 and older without a degree. KCTCS is working with the state’s universities so students can continue in the program for their junior and senior years.

Learn on Demand students tend to be successful with their grades as well. Among students in the competency-based program, 88 percent earned a passing grade in the 2011-2012 year. That was higher than the success rate for students in face-to-face classes (85 percent) and those in typical online classes (77 percent).

“It’s the virtual campus that helps them be successful,” says Jay Box, chancellor of KCTCS. “We feel that the competencies are really important in the online environment, and it could be replicated in a face-to-face environment. The difference is, in an online environment, the technology helps you manage the course for each learner. In a face-to-face environment, that’s very difficult to manage.”

Florida: A virtual campus

Created in July 2012, FLVC replaced four state organizations that were either offering support for distance education or for library services across the state university and college systems. The online clearinghouse was launched to link students with degree programs, courses, and services such as advising and financial aid, as well as provide access to library holdings from all public colleges and universities in the state.

The website offers an 800-number for students to call with any questions, ranging from requests for a new password to information about transferring. The help desk is currently open 12 hours each weekday, but FLVC is moving toward 24/7 support.

In addition, a real-time degree audit allows students to submit completed courses and, within minutes, receive an assessment of what they need to earn their degree. “Two years ago, not many people could do a real-time degree audit that way,” says Muccino, FLVC’s executive director.

Florida’s common course numbering system, which it adopted in the 1960s, helps speed up the audits. At every college and university, for example, PSY 2012 refers to Introduction to Psychology, which means students can easily transfer credits for common courses from one institution to another.

With 40 percent of students in Florida having already taken one online course, the state is continuing to grow its online programs and use FLVC to centralize administration of them. “We eventually want to become transparent to the students, so we are just facilitating their work,” Muccino says. “Hopefully we are capturing them earlier and capturing them longer so we can become their destination for information and services throughout their educational career.”

Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, N.Y.-based writer.