SJR Column: Online Learning, June 2018
During the past few weeks, the University of Illinois held commencement exercises for more than 20,000 graduates and, whether walking across a stage in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago or Springfield, each student in their own unique way represents a celebration of effort and achievement. Among the 1,500 who completed their college experience at UIS, one group is especially intriguing. It’s the several hundred members of the 2018 graduating class who completed their undergraduate or graduate degree entirely online.
Elizabeth Andersen from Urbana, Illinois, who graduated Summa Cum Laude (with highest distinction) with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, is a great example. “As an adult with a job, a family, and a mortgage, a traditional college experience was going to be nearly impossible for me,” she says.
“The online opportunity at UIS gave me the option to work fulltime while finishing school; at the same time, it provided an affordable but high quality education.”
Affordability, accessibility and quality – those three characteristics have been at the heart of online education at UIS since the first online class was offered in 1997 – long before most other universities were even considering opportunities offered by the emerging digital knowledge revolution. Since then, UIS has moved to the forefront of universities engaged in online learning – offering 26 degrees and many certificates entirely online and providing access to a high-quality, affordable university education for thousands of students who, for a variety of reasons, cannot follow a more traditional path to the opportunities for success that a college degree provides.
According to Ray Schroeder, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning, online students were enrolled at UIS this Spring semester from more than 70% of Illinois counties, 47 U.S. states (exceptions were Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont), and 11 foreign countries. In addition, more than 70% of students in face-to-face programs also took at least one online course.
Rebekah Grosboll is one of several online coordinators who works closely with students like Elizabeth throughout their college experience. “I communicate with students every week,” says Rebekah, “helping them access resources, sequence their courses and balance sometimes conflicting obligations.”
“My goal is to create success stories,” she adds, “helping students make their professional goals a reality.”
In addition to providing online coordinators who support students in each program, the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service (COLRS) serves as a hub for the study and application of online teaching methods, research, and best practices. COLRS staff and associated faculty provide exceptional leadership in the online arena that, along with outstanding technical support and resources for both faculty and students, helps ensure the highest quality across online programs.
According to Dr. Vickie Cook, Executive Director of the Center, “UIS online programs are most distinctive because faculty teach using methods that connect them to their students and connect students with each other, utilizing a robust curriculum that enables learning to occur.”
COLRS has won many national awards for its leadership and contributions in online learning. The Center also houses the Illinois Online Network (ION), a statewide initiative whose mission is to provide professional development in best practices for online teaching and learning to faculty in public and private institutions across Illinois and beyond.
Dr. Layne Morsch, a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry who, like many UIS faculty, teaches both face-to-face and online, was recognized by the Center this year with the Oakley Award for Excellence in Online Teaching. According to Dr. Morsch: “The characteristics of outstanding learning experiences are the same regardless of mode of delivery.”
“Engaging students with relevant questions, challenging them to think critically and helping students learn how to apply what they are learning to what they will be asked to do in their future career,” he continues, “are as vital in the online experience as much as in the on-campus classroom.”
Online learning isn’t the wave of the future; it’s already here and it is providing affordable, accessible, high quality educational opportunities at the University of Illinois Springfield. Online students, like 2018 graduate Elizabeth Andersen, are earning their degrees with gifted UIS professors who are leading the way as new digital technologies and best practices continue to emerge, ultimately setting the stage for the positive contributions UIS online graduates, like their on-campus peers, will make to their professions and to their communities.
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois at Springfield