Committee addresses challenges of online learning


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The Board of trustees meet in the President's conference room in the University Center on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.


Since the first online class was offered in 1994, Central Michigan University has expanded its online academic programs by more than 130,000 student credit hours. 

While undergraduate on-campus students taking online courses through Global Campus has increased, off campus numbers have decreased. In 2007, almost 110,000 student credit hours were made up of off campus students. In 2015, that number is just above 98,000. 

To address challenges of online education, the Board of Trustees initiated a task force to study national trends and competitor institutions for online academic programs. Dean of the College of Education and Human Services Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson chaired the new online academics program committee, launched in July. 

Though online courses started in the 90s, Pehrsson said it was a challenging topic to research.

"There's no roadmap because this is all new," she said. 

With $10,000 from President George Ross, Pehrsson and the other committee members looked at national and global trends, finances, potential programs and challenges and needed resources of CMU's online course offerings. The committee's goals are to ensure the university remains in the game among other schools with online courses, as well as to increase the quality and quantity of CMU's program. 

"In the national market, other institutions are doing much better than we are," Pehrsson said. "Competitor institutions are leading in the number of programs."

CMU offers 22 online graduate programs, 10 undergraduate and three doctoral. Competitor universities, such as Arizona State University and Colorado State University, have more than 37 undergraduate and 44 graduate programs. CMU is leading with its doctoral programs; competitors have two on average. 

Teacher education faculty Kathryn Dirkin, also a member of the committee, studied institutions across the U.S. She said there has been no research done on best online practices because it is a new concept. While researching, the committee saw areas of student interest that could be improved.

"Students would love it if advising was integrated into the management system," Dirkin said. "There is a demand from students for content that meets their local and professional needs." 

Latoya Lain, committee member and School of Music faculty, surveyed about 450 students. The majority of these students said they had never been offered online courses. Because of this, one of the committee's recommendations to improve online learning is a sound marketing strategy. However, Pehrsson said training for faculty is the committee's primary recommendation.

"Our competition is a lot more nimble and quick," Pehrsson said. "Students are our second concern. Faculty say they are spending a lot of time learning how to learn online and less on actual content."  

Presenting its findings to the CMU Board of Trustees was the committee's first phase. Next semester it will focus on creating work groups to tackle specific goals. 


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