Distance learning gaining popularity


WGU Chancellor Rebecca L. Watts

WGU Chancellor Rebecca L. Watts

Sam Shriver | The Lima News

Melissa Green, Bluffton University

Melissa Green, Bluffton University

Sam Shriver | The Lima News

Maria Cronley, Ohio Northern University

Sam Shriver | The Lima News

LIMA — Students have plenty of options when it comes to how they get their education — and many of the options include not sitting in class at all.

Many colleges and universities are offering online components to their studies.

Some schools, like Western Governors University, are entirely online.

WGU was founded in 1997 by a group of 19 U.S. governors who were looking at ensuring residents have greater access to a college education that would fit their schedules.

“They wanted to focus on working adults and they wanted to focus on education pathways that led to in-demand careers,” said Rebecca L. Watts, chancellor of WGU Ohio, who recently visited The Lima News offices.

While Ohioans can take courses online through WGU, they’ve also made strides to have a presence in individual states.

WGU Ohio has offices in Columbus with a staff of five and has been in operation since June of last year, but their reach across Ohio is growing.

The online-only university has an enrollment of 3,269 students, 58 of those are from Allen County, 11 are from Auglaize County and 18 are from Putnam County.

The average student age for a WGU student is 35 in Ohio and more than 75% of the students hold full-time jobs.

The future of education

“I certainly think this is the future of education for some people. I think it is the model of the future and you will see other universities, traditional universities starting to look more and more at these models. They are recognizing that the needs of students are going to change over time because the needs of business and industry are changing over time,” said Watts. “There will always be a population of traditional 18 year olds that are going to want to go to a residential university and have that experience.”

WGU offers competency-based degrees in business, health professions, information technology and teaching. They offer both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

The students learn at their own pace and can take as many courses as they can over a six-month stretch for one price.

“It’s not about seat time. It’s about demonstrating you have the skills and knowledge that our employers are looking for and those competencies are demonstrated through assessments that vary, depending on what the competencies are,” said Watts.

In a traditional college, a student’s day may include a math class in the morning, a biology class in the afternoon or maybe a history class in the evening all during the same semester. That’s not how things are done at WGU.

“Our courses are taken sequentially, not simultaneously. We have six-month academic terms. We don’t have traditional semesters and you can start at the first of any month and you graduate in the month you finish your program,” said Watts.

WGU students deal with three people

A student will initially talk with a program mentor.

“You and your mentor plan your academic plan literally for that six-month term, which courses will you be completing in that term,” said Watts.

Tina Weaver, of Findlay, is a program mentor. She interacts with 90 to 100 students during a six-month term, contacting them at least every two weeks about life- and time-management skills and talking with the students about the subject matter.

“We don’t delve much into the subject matter because there are course instructors who are subject matter experts so we don’t really, as program mentors, talk about the courses in depth. We give them some vague sense of the courses and what it deals with and we can help brainstorm ideas with them,” said Weaver.

“The course instructor provides access to the learning materials which are all online and included in our tuition and fees so there’s no textbook charges on top. They are providing a variety of learning engagements. They provide one-on-one support for students,” said Watts.

The final faculty role is that of an evaluator.

“They grade everything. So the program mentor isn’t grading anything for the student but neither is the course instructor. They can’t teach to the test because they’ve never seen the test,” said Watts.

The tests are done live and are monitored.

“The student has their camera on in their room and there’s a live proctor on the other side. If there’s too much noise, the proctor will shut it down. If they feel someone else came into the room and somebody is feeding the student answers, they shut it down,” said Watts.

Students don’t receive letter grades at WGU. It’s either pass or fail.

WGU students can obtain financial aid

WGU Ohio holds a certificate of authorization with the Department of Higher Education. This affiliation allows Ohio students to be eligible for Ohio-funded grants, like the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, the Ohio War Orphans and Disabled Scholarship, the Ohio National Guard and Reserve Scholarship and The Ohio Nurse Education Association loan program.

Rhodes State College students can transfer to WGU

One option for local students is getting an associates degree at Rhodes State College then taking those credits earned in Lima and finishing the degree through WGU Ohio.

Rhodes State College is part of the state articulation agreement with WGU, so those credits are transferable.

Rhodes State has its own online course offerings as well.

Chris Boyette, associate vice president for academic affairs, said they approach online learning differently than WGU.

“WGU is a giant. There’s a big presence there but what we do is different from how they approach distance learning,” said Boyette. “We have six completely online associate degrees and we have eight certificates that are completely online and for us, a certificate could be a one-semester certificate, it could be a one-year certificate it just depends upon what you’re wanting to do. We have some programs that are hybrid so those programs would require a student to come to campus for some classes or activities,” he said.

Some of the fully online programs at Rhodes are in accounting, human resources, business administration and corrections.

“Many of the degrees that we have that are online now are geared toward the workplace, towards the business degrees or towards the public service degrees,” said Boyette.

Bluffton University launching new online degree programs

In August, Bluffton University is launching an accelerated 12-month and 24-month leadership master of business administration program and masters of arts in organizational management, which will be online.

“Both of those programs are an online interactive video conferencing program where students can take the complete program through a virtual classroom,” said Melissa Green, associate professor of business and director of graduate programs at Bluffton University.

“What we have found is the challenge for many students who want to pursue a master’s degree is that they have busy lives and they need some way in which they can take classes without having required serious travel time. The virtual classroom provides them the opportunity to connect via the computer to Bluffton University to an actual classroom with a faculty member one night a week for three hours and actually attend class and it’s an eight-week format,” said Green.

Ohio Northern University is testing the online waters

Ohio Northern University is also dipping its toe into the distance learning experience.

“We certainly have embraced online education but we use it to supplement and enhance our traditional education that we offer to students in our residential setting,” said Maria Cronley, provost and vice president for academic affairs at ONU.

“The majority of online courses that we offer, we offer during the summer to our undergraduate students. We’re also in the process right now of developing a J-term or what’s called a January term or winter term … and that will be another extra term in our calendar in 2021 where students will also have opportunities to take courses (online),” said Cronley. “We ran about 33 courses in distance learning or online format this summer. There were around 200 students in those courses.”

The online experience at ONU is carefully planned.

“We really focus on high-quality online and those standards have to match what we offer in the residential setting classroom so all of our online materials are vetted by faculty peer review group to ensure they meet the expectations that we have set for online instruction,” she said.

Comparing apples to oranges

WGU is a different animal compared to what is available locally.

“I think the other thing even outside online that makes ONU, and I think the local universities and colleges distinctive from Western Governor’s (University) is, of course, the competency-based learning approach. Traditional four-year undergraduate institutions such as Ohio Northern — while we believe that competency-based learning has a place in education, we are working to prepare the holistic student that just doesn’t have concrete skills in certain areas but is a wholly educated person. They can then use the skills that they learn in terms of critical thinking, communication, creativity, analytic reasoning … into any environment and succeed,” said Cronley.

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