Continuing Education | Feature

Evaluating Distance Learning at U Kansas

The University of Kansas offers more than 120 different online courses. Barbara Romzek, interim senior vice provost for academic affairs, said she wants that number to grow over the next year or two, but not before the Lawrence, KS, institution takes the time to thoroughly assess its distance learning program and the value it provides to those students who use it.

In place for several years, and in its current state since 2009, KU's distance learning program allows students to receive college credits using the same materials and instruction offered in the college's classrooms. The online courses cost the same as traditional classes, plus an additional mediated, per-credit course fee, which is used to fund the program. The online classes can be started at any time and must be finished within six months.

"We have been offering distance courses for quite a while but not in a systematic way," said Romzek. "In fact, KU's office of continuing education has a long history of offering distance learning, and it dates all the way back to when it provided correspondence courses to students via mail."

Revisiting the Program
While it may have a long history, KU's distance education program is now in need of reorganization and an expanded selection of courses for students to choose from. To address the issue, the college mobilized a task force, which has spent the last few months reviewing the program and coming up with recommendations for improving it.

Romzek said KU plans to take an active approach to the program's redesign and expansion phases. "Rather than trying to continually correct problems after the fact, we're trying to be thoughtful during the early phase and maintain an organized approach," said Romzek. "Instead of a student walking into an advisor's office with questions about the online delivery, we'll use [FAQs] and other options to address those queries right on the Web."

Faculty participation and support are also being addressed at KU, which pays a monetary stipend, and also offers instruction design support, to professors who make their coursework available online. Romzek said the incentives have helped the college expand its distance learning options and also create a sense of buy-in on the faculty's part.

"Many people assume that taking education online will be a difficult adjustment for professors, but in reality many of them are eager to participate and adapt their coursework to the online environment," said Romzek, who added that KU's online offerings go beyond individual courses. "We have several academic units that are offering degree programs online at the master's level."

Considering Students
When reviewing KU's current distance learning setup, the university's task force kept two different types of students in mind: those who are already on campus but wanting to take a course or two online, and those who are looking for self-contained online degree programs that require little or no face-to-face instruction. "Our goal is to hit both groups effectively," said Romzek.

To get there, Romzek said, KU will closely assess the task force's recommendations and factor them into the "fairly substantial strategic planning process" that will take place over the next few months.

Using technologies like lecture capture, she said faculty members will focus less on passive delivery of course content and more on active, student-centric teaching, both online and offline. "We want students to be engaged in the material," said Romzek, "and not just listening and taking notes."

Expanded Degree Offerings
More fully online degree programs are also on the agenda. "Our Board of Regents has asked us to develop plans along those lines," said Romzek, "in order to meet the changing expectations of those students regarding technology and its use in the classroom. We're hoping that by next year we'll achieve that goal of having more degree programs developed and available through distance delivery."

Romzek said the course redesign and recommendations will be released this summer, and implemented beginning this fall. She said feedback from administration and faculty to the new initiative has been positive. "We haven't issued any mandates stating that everyone has to participate," she said. "If we did, there would probably be some pushback."

"We're simply identifying opportunities and figuring out where we can make the most impact," Romzek continued. "Ultimately, we want to be able to accommodate the interest of students and faculty members with well-established technology tools that are adapted to our purposes."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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