Online Focus

Outsourcing IT for Online Education

Small and medium-size institutions looking for ways to beef up technology programs without adding staff might consider outsourcing some or all of IT. At Ocean County College on the coast of New Jersey, an outsourcing partnership has resulted in a popular and growing selection of online courses.

With some 9,000 students across the county, Ocean County College is in many ways a typical mid-size community college. A public, two-year college with a main campus in Toms River, NJ, two secondary centers elsewhere, and more than a dozen off campus sites throughout the county, the growing college serves as an educational center for the area.

SunGard Higher Education handles all of Ocean College's information technology needs, from telephones to managing its Datatel contract to the overall strategic IT plan for the campus, all through  SunGard-supplied IT staff on campus.

Best Practices for Distance Education
Online education is clearly one direction for the college, which has 57 online sections lined up for the fall semester. But in the eyes of Frank Wetta, Ocean's VP of academic affairs, creating successful online education offerings today requires a structured approach; the days of scattered, disparate courses created by instructors working alone is over. "We want to ensure that we're using best practices, that we have a coherent approach to distance education," he said. That means a consistent look and feel, Wetta explained, along with consistent ways in which information is displayed, and by which students access it.

To achieve that, Ocean is working toward developing a team approach to course development. "We don't want instructors to have to become experts in course design," Wetta said. Rather, the college sees instructors as serving as content and delivery experts, working closely with a team that might include an instructional designer and technology expert from SunGard HE, someone with copyright expertise as needed, and the instructor as subject matter expert.

Working with the team, "the instructor says, this is what I'm teaching, these are the concepts I want to get across, these are the ideas I have," Wetta said. The team then helps implement those concepts within a consistent format. The result: The burden is removed from the instructor of choosing the best way to present information.

Hybrid Courses Expand Enrollment Capacity
Ocean's nursing program is one example of the type of online programs the college is gradually building. As with many community colleges, nursing is one of the college's most popular courses. In 2005, however, there were more applicants for the program than the college could accept. Owing to physical space constraints, enrollment could not exceed 250 to 300 students, despite a waiting list of up to 800 students.

To accommodate additional students, Ocean decided to create a hybrid nursing program that would allow faculty to teach the majority of the course online. Working with SunGard Higher Education's Strategic & Academic Consulting Services staff, the college created a "One Day" program in which students spend a day of class time each week at a clinical site for lab work, then attend the remainder of classes online. The hybrid section was added to the traditional day classes and evening program already offered.

Intending to target students who couldn't attend traditional courses owing to work and family commitments, Ocean started the program with students who already had patient care experience in hospitals. The hybrid program is now open to all nursing students.
Some 20 students enrolled in the pilot; another 40 students were added the following semester. With the hybrid section now solidly in place, the college has admitted an additional 60 new students each spring, allowing a 40 percent enrollment boost.

A full-time instructional designer, part of the staff supplied by SunGard HE, was absolutely key to building the nursing courses online, Wetta said. "You can't do this well without an instructional designer.... We need someone who's here, who has good rapport with the faculty, who understands the way faculty think about course delivery, and who works well with them."

With a day class, evening class, and hybrid program to choose from, perhaps 25 percent of nursing students are taking advantage of the hybrid course, Wetta estimated. Even better news: Every student in the hybrid program passed the state nursing licensing exam, a pass rate that exceeded that of nursing students in the traditional courses. That helped validate that not only is the online course popular and meeting student needs, but it is a well crafted learning system.

"That was big for us," Wetta said. "We want to make sure that not only is distance education convenient for students, but that it's effective. What distinguishes a good online course? It might be different from what distinguishes a traditional classroom course."

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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