Regents look to expand distance education

By: - February 22, 2023 6:05 pm

Distance learning opportunities are increasing at state universities compared to pre-pandemic course numbers. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Iowa’s public universities should expand distance education offerings, including allowing students at one state university to take courses from another, Board of Regents staff members recommended Wednesday.

Regents Chief Academic Officer Rachel Boon presented the annual distance education report and representatives for the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa, and Iowa State University presented updates at the regents’ meeting. 

The report recommendations included an initial focus on expanding graduate and professional offerings before undergraduate expansion and promoting current offerings. 

“The board’s goal was (to) figure out how to do more distance education,” she said. “It seems to be a thing that’s serving students well.”

The regents’ task force recommended the Statewide Extension, Continuing and Distance Education Council also update its structure to align with the current and future means of distance education. The council should review its charge and activities on an annual basis to establish clear goals and tasks, according to the presentation.

Another recommendation was to design a general education course sharing opportunity. According to the meeting documents, it would allow students at one university to take courses from the other two universities.

Boon said this will come from looking at course utilization data to see where this will be the most beneficial to students and universities alike. 

“Creating an inventory of joint programs where the institutions already, sort of, mutually support each other with certain programs,” she said. “Right now we’re digging in on where some of the barriers are on some of the course sharing opportunities and focusing in really on the bachelor’s of liberal studies, which is a degree all three universities have that is structured fairly similarly across all three.” 

The overall report

The distance education report showed the number of programs has increased from 183 to 204 since the 2017-18 academic year.  Course sections went down in the 2021-22 academic year by more than 2,000 offerings from 2020-2021. 

Nearly 1.1 million students enrolled in non-credit courses in 2021 and 2022, according to the report, nearly doubling the 2020-21 numbers.

All three universities had more students enrolled in distance education courses last year than before the pandemic. 

“The 2020-21 academic year had a large increase in distance education due to pandemic response efforts, but in 2021-22 numbers reverted to the upward trend that began before the pandemic,” the report reads.

Universities update programs

Iowa’s three public institutions have updated their online and distance education programs in recent years to improve students’ experiences. 

ISU began Iowa State Online, a completely online education opportunity, in January. It was built in response to the regents’ 2021-22 Distance Education Task Force and and ISU Online Learning Strategy Task Force in 2021. 

Inaugural Director of Iowa State Online Susan Arendt said one of its goals is to grow ISU’s online market share while focusing program innovation and market development tailored to Iowa businesses and employees. Tailoring courses to regional workforce needs was one of the goals presented by Boon. 

The UI currently has 11 graduate and seven undergraduate online programs. There are nearly 3,400 students enrolled in only online classes. 

UI Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Tanya Uden-Holman said students take about three to five online courses during their time at the university. 

The university conducted the Online Course Review Project and audited more than 1,000 course sections that were not moved online because of COVID. Course review will now take place every three years and colleges will prioritize course development and redesign, which is inline with Boon’s presentation. 

“It still remains a smaller percentage of our course offerings,” Uden-Holman said, responding to a question about these classes replacing traditional in-person learning. “We do believe it’s very important to offer that flexibility, however we are obviously a residential campus and having that in-person experience is very important to our students.”

Karen Cunningham, associate dean and director of online education at UNI, said the UNI, Des Moines Area Community College partnership expanded to offer all online programs to students in the partnership.

UNI also launched a new Management: Business Administration online program in 2022. 

There are multiple new online undergraduate academic programs, including one for paraeducators and accounting. They were built in response to a lack of educators and accounting professionals in the state, Cunningham said. There are new online graduate programs for students looking to go into mental health counseling, education, and interdisciplinary studies.

Cunningham and ISU Associate Provost Ann Marie VanDerZanden agreed with Uden-Holman and said their online programs are not a replacement for in-person opportunities. Residential programs remain the core of the three institutions while online classes are offered to meet workplace and flexibility needs. 

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.