Q. Can you tell us a little about the online programs offered at your school?
At the University of Iowa, we feel what distinguishes us is that when we offer courses online, they are the same quality as when those courses are offered on campus. It's the same faculty teaching both courses, so students can be assured they are getting a quality education from a Big 10 university. We have had a distance or continuing education program since the 1920s, and we've grown tremendously in the last 10 years. We work a lot with community colleges in Iowa to transfer in associate degree holders into the University of Iowa. You can transfer in from a community college and have a junior standing. We are also working on adding more online graduate degrees.
Q. What advice would you give to students interested in an online degree program?
People need discipline for an online course, particularly guided online study. They need to keep working toward their goals and have milestones. Some are more effective at that than others. A lot of students in the online degree program are older, and they are working the studies into a very busy schedule, so they need to plan carefully. Our faculty plan an entire course ahead of time, and that allows students to work their schedule around the course.
Q. How do you anticipate online learning changing in the future?
Technology is changing at a fast pace. Virtual technology has changed how online learning is delivered. We will continue to look at the program need areas and interests in a particular discipline and work with the colleges to fill those needs. People are looking for ways to enhance their position in the workplace. As a result, decision making in the nonprofit university arena has become more strategic and focused; we are being much more strategic about what we are offering. People used to take courses for fun, but now degrees are becoming more important. Using mobile apps to reach these prospective students is also becoming more important; about 40 percent of the people coming into our website are coming in from a phone or an iPad. In the future, more people will be learning on mobile devices.
Q. How prevalent are online programs at your school?
We have a lot of master's and certificate programs. That's where our demand is right now, but we are looking into expanding our bachelor's degree programs as well. Certificate programs and non-conventional degree programs are in high demand, and we feel that's a good area of focus for us because we can accommodate those needs within our existing structure. By putting together a number of courses and packaging them as certificate programs, and then coupling some certificate programs into a degree program, we can create some stepping stones for our students that lead to a degree. The popularity of these certificate programs is a reflection of the job market today. The market requires that you be a specialist as well as a jack of many trades.
Q. How should students prepare for online programs?
If someone were to call me out of blue and say they were interested in getting an online degree, I would ask how long it's been since they were a student. That's because technology has really changed. If their expected mode of learning is to read a book, listen to a lecture, and take a test, then there will be an adjustment period for them. So I might suggest that they take a free online course or a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and see how comfortable they are with discussion forums and other online learning features. Test the waters in a low-risk situation to see how comfortable they are with the technology. If they were recently a student and are thinking of going back, then I'd ask about what their needs are: career advancement, lifelong learning, degree completion? There are a lot of different options depending on what your goals are.
Q. What changes do you expect to see in online programs?
Online learning will continue to be integrated and pervasive. I like to say "learning in the online world" because now most classes, even face-to-face classes, have some kind of online component to them. Almost all our courses rely on an online learning management system; it's become a chalkboard from 50 years ago.
What we are seeing is a trend with more and more residential students participating in some level of online enrollment. They may want to work off campus for a semester but need to take a couple of courses so they don't fall behind. Or they may be on campus and they take an online class for the scheduling convenience or because they just prefer an online class. There are a lot of reasons why so many students are selecting at least some online courses to complement their face-to-face classes.
We're also seeing an increase in blended courses, combining face-to-face with online elements. In a flipped classroom, traditional classroom activities like lectures may be delivered online so that class time can be used for discussions or for homework or for other activities that use the time spent with the faculty the most effectively.