Best Practices Moving Forward
Cocco feels that is what happened with many of the UC system’s current online courses, describing the quality as being “mixed.” That’s why her committee “wanted to make sure any online degrees that are offered are planned out.”
Mathes advises those in education not to confuse emergency remote learning with deliberate online learning.
Despite the lull, Bertoline sees higher education as being in a state of transition given just how open traditional college-age students are to online instruction. He said leaders like himself are obligated to experiment to figure out what the next version of higher education will be.
“I think there’s a place for online education. There are certain students that can’t travel or have work schedules,” Cocco admitted. But she cautioned that the best online programs are small and have lots of engagement activities.
For online learning to be successful, Mathes noted, courses and programs must be designed with online modalities in mind.
“It comes down to teacher engagement, she said. “If the teacher is still engaged in online learning, the students are going to be more successful.”
Dooley feels Purdue Global’s online degrees can be looked to as an example of what Mathes has referenced.
“We take in mind the student experience and the time they have,” said Dooley. “We want them to be focusing on studying and learning the material, not trying to navigate.”
To ensure quality is maintained, the institution has a three-year review cycle in which departmental faculty and instructional designers look at the entire curriculum.
“Our goal is to have the finest online experience possible,” Bertoline said.
Bertoline noted that he has approximately 50 staffers, called teaching and learning technologists, who are “constantly looking at best practices and emerging technologies.” Investment in similar positions could prove helpful for institutions that are looking to increase their online offerings.
Bertoline added that the division he runs also decided against offering fully online undergraduate programs. However, the idea of doing so is being discussed internally. “We would probably only do it for the programs with the most interest. We have about 80,000 applicants for about 8,000 students every year,” he said. “We’re getting to the point where we’re having to turn away a lot of very, very talented students that would like to come to Purdue.”
The question of how an online degree will be viewed by employers largely seems to come down to the institution. Highly respected institutions that offer online degrees shouldn’t be confused with online diploma mills, Picciano insisted.
“If they have a good reputation and move some of their programs online, they will be respected for it,” said Picciano.
The UC system’s approach to offering a hybrid option resonates with both Bertoline and Picciano.
Hybrid learning likely has staying power, Bertoline stressed, “Especially coming out of the pandemic, there have been many surveys of students that said they like doing some of their courses online, not all of them but they do want to do a few. It gives them flexibility in scheduling and more time to do other things.”
Picciano noted that the entire higher education enterprise, including advising, counseling and administrative services, has meaningfully integrated online elements into its DNA. “
We’re in the blended university environment,” he said. “I think we’re going to continue this way.”
He also agreed with Cocco’s justification that undergraduates often benefit from some in-person instruction because they have a deficit of basic skills.
“If you put those students in a fully online environment, they may not be as successful. They may have severe reading problems or can’t write,” said Picciano. “There’s a big difference in undergraduate and graduate degrees.”
Despite the uncertainty of the future of online learning, Bertoline feels there’s room for both online and in-person learning.
“I predict you’re going to see a crossover at some point where the amount of interest in online programs is going to be greater than that for traditional residential programs,” said Bertoline. ‘I’m not predicting residential programs are going away.”
Either way, the residential experience is being narrowed to the academically gifted who earn scholarships and those who come from families that can afford it, Picciano explained.