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U Arizona Girds for Online Undergrads

Now that the University of Arizona has launched an online campus, UA Online, the institution is ready to start up its first "General Education Academy" to help students prepare for their virtual education.

UA Online is intended to be a distinct division with 21 undergraduate degree programs, 18 graduate programs and 23 graduate certificate programs. In an effort to compete for students living outside of Arizona, the school has set tuition rates for online courses the same for out-of-state and in-state students.

The university announced the academy last year with several goals: to help the institution "manage the quality of its online general education offerings," "create a community for online instructors," and help develop "cutting-edge resources for online students and teachers." The initial emphasis will be on helping non-typical online students — first-year and early-transfer undergraduates — succeed in their online programs.

The academy will kick off with composition. The university has hired Susan Miller-Cochran, currently an English professor at North Carolina State University, where she directs the first-year writing program.

"The emphasis that the [university] has put on excellence in teaching and learning online is what drew me to this program," Miller-Cochran said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the faculty teaching online writing courses to develop courses that are inclusive of a diverse student population and provide students the best opportunity for success."

The institution also intends to hire a visiting scholar to oversee other aspects of the online writing program, as well as faculty in Spanish to support students who require second language training as part of their fully online degree program.

The university isn't new to online instruction. A team of writing program faculty has been experimenting with hybrid courses in preparation for moving classes online in the fall. This summer, instructors will also pilot several online English classes.

This "staged approach" — progressing from face-to-face to hybrid to fully online — is intentional, the institution noted, since it prevented other online offerings from being disrupted and allowed faculty to refine their courses during development while also testing out instructional models.

"The model to involve faculty in building the courses is really important in terms of the shift to online education," said Kimme Hea, the university's associate dean for instruction in the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences. "The benefit we have is involving faculty in research and in curricula design across the program. That provides a much stronger foundation moving forward, and has distinguished the General Education Academy from other online enterprises."

One of those faculty who has been revamping his teaching approach is Sean Bottai, a course director and lecturer in the Department of English. As he explained, some skills — engaging students in discussions and modeling behaviors — apply to all students no matter how they're learning. But engaging students online requires attention to other areas: peer-to-peer interactions, using more free flow writing exercises, adopting video and images in instruction and even having people undertake annotation projects.

"My approach to designing activities has changed," Bottai said. "This has reminded me how important all activities are in moving toward a goal the class is trying to meet, and I've become more technologically empowered."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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