UNA growth anchored to online success | Education

FLORENCE – On the window ledge in Ross Alexander’s office on the second floor of Bibb Graves Hall a book rests on a stand.

It has a long title, “Best Practices in Online Teaching and Learning Across Academic Disciplines,” and a familiar name at the bottom of the simply-designed cover — Ross C. Alexander, Editor.

The book was delivered this week, the same week Alexander, the University of North Alabama’s new provost, has stumped on the opportunity UNA has to grow the university’s online degree programs, and how important success in that endeavor can be for UNA.

“It’s probably a big reason I was hired,” Alexander said. Not his work on the book, but his involvement in the content of the book. Ross said he’s been an integral part in developing online programs at three different institutes of higher learning.

UNA is not looking to replace the traditional on-campus student who comes to UNA out of high school, or after studying at a two-year college.

Online growth will be focused on adult learners looking for a convenient, flexible way to complete a degree they started but did not finish, or a professional seeking an advanced degree to propel career growth.

“Our target for online (programs) is adult learners across the world,” Alexander said. “We can be a path to a degree for adult learners in Alabama and the Southeast region, across the country and across the world.”

The Lumina Foundation, a private foundation focused on making post-secondary education more accessible, found in its 2017 report, “Stronger Nation,” that more than 564,000 adult Alabamians have some college credit but no degree. There is another 750,000 Alabamians for whom a high school diploma as the highest education credential.

Those numbers multiply when Alabama’s closest neighbors — Mississippi and Tennessee — are added.

The people in that group are the ones UNA officials believe would be attracted to an online degree program that would allow them to complete a college education started but stopped. Or those who want to go to college for the first time.

Alexander said proper enrollment balance for UNA would eventually mean having an online enrollment that equals half the number of traditionally enrolled students.

The university has 13 online degree programs. The 14th — a master’s degree in mathematics — will go online next August. 

Some of them — the executive MBA in particular — have been exceptionally successful for the university. Others have incredibly small enrollment. The online master’s program in history had just one student this time last year.

Online enrollment numbers for the current semester were not yet available.

What other new online programs will be added is yet to be seen.

Alexander tasked deans of UNA’s four colleges — arts and sciences, business, education and nursing — to survey the offerings and make suggestions about which programs can be duplicated online, or might be better online because the local demand has dropped but regional or national demand could entice online students.

“I would argue that there’s really not a single academic discipline that you can’t teach online,” Alexander said. “If you give me a faculty member who is a really, really good, committed instructor in the traditional environment, we will give them the competencies and the skills and training to make them a really, really good, committed instructor online.”

Dan Hallock, a professor in the College of Business, said he was part of an initiative in Georgia to push online learning in that state. He said technology has changed so much in the 15 years since that effort, he believes online learning in some cases could be better than what is offered in a traditional classroom.

He said online students can get almost 24-hour feedback from professors and teaching assistants, and tools exists that provide real-time academic support.

“There is software out there now from the three major education providers, and they can do things that teachers could never dream of doing in the classroom,” he said. “I can give a series of learning objectives with multiple choice questions, and (the student) will take 50 of them on their own. If something is wrong, and they are weak on two or three learning objectives, (the program) automatically goes back and gives them more questions on that area. I could never handle a class with 30, much less 100, doing that.”

Online growth is a revenue producer because the programs do not come with the same campus costs. Growth in online enrollment would not necessitate new housing, new parking or new buildings the way growth in the on-campus student population would.

But some money will be expended to spur the enrollment growth.

The university wants to increase the course fee for online classes from $75 per class to $50 per credit hour. A traditional class is three credit hours, but some classes are two or four credit hours.

That fee has to be approved by the university’s board of trustees. Approval is expected in time for implementation in the summer.

Money generated from that hike will be used to pay for a contract with Collegis Education, a firm that specializes in marketing online programs and generating student leads for enrollment.

That contract is expected to initially cost UNA $200,000.

Collegis Education has an existing contract with the College of Business to market the online Master’s of Business Administration program. The success of that partnership led to the interest in these new opportunities. That program grew 69 percent — 242 students to 410 students —  between 2013 and 2016.

Any other funds generated by the course fee increase would be split in other areas, including UNA-based marketing; technology infrastructure; expansion of Quality Matters, a teaching the teacher program to better online instruction; faculty development; course development; and licensing and subscription costs related to online learning.

The key to success is finding students. That will be a priority of the Collegis contract, but also a university effort.

Ron Patterson, UNA’s chief enrollment officer, said online enrollment growth will be part of his department’s strategic plan.

UNA is a known name and brand in northwest Alabama, but moving outside the traditional service region of the university, UNA is not as recognizable. If UNA wants to be a world-wide classroom with its online programs, it has to reach across the globe.

Athletics will help. The university’s athletic programs are in the last year of Division II athletics and are set to join the A-Sun Conference, which means UNA games will be streamed online via ESPN’s streaming platform, ESPN 3. 

Bryan Rachal, director of University Communication, said there will be commercial spots and branding opportunities with that exposure that can be used strategically to plug UNA online degrees. 

The A-Sun Conference’s footprint is east of Florence with several schools in Florida and even the New Jersey Institute of Technology located in Newark, New Jersey.

“We have a plan for integrating UNA online with the marketing during athletics,” Alexander said. “Think about it, we will be in the Northeast market. Whether we run commercials or banners at games and what have you, we will have it predominately placed.”

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