Enrollment, student demand fuels growth for online courses at ISU

ISU students on laptops

Iowa State has added more online courses giving students more options and flexibility to get the classes they need. Photo by Bob Elbert (Larger photo)

AMES, Iowa – Instead of walking across campus to attend class in a lecture hall this fall, a growing number of Iowa State University students will log on from home, the library or even a coffee shop. The university continues to offer more online undergraduate and graduate courses to meet the demands of record enrollment and student preferences.  

“The student experience is different than what it was 20 years ago,” said Tom Brumm, professor in charge of online learning for the colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Students have a lot of other things going on in their lives; they’re working jobs, some of them have families, they’re part-time or full-time. So the flexibility that online learning gives them is tremendous.”

Much of the growth in online learning includes students who are taking a mix of courses on campus and online. Enrollment among ISU students taking a combination of courses increased by nearly 40 percent in fiscal year 2012 and enrollment in online only classes jumped by more than 25 percent. In response, Iowa State increased online courses for undergraduates by nearly 30 percent and graduate students by 3 percent during that same time.

Online courses make it easier for students to get the classes they need to fit their schedule and help keep class sizes from growing by increasing capacity beyond classroom limitations. However, it is the goal of the provost’s office to make sure all students are engaged in face-to-face courses that provide interaction and hands-on experience, said David Holger, associate provost for academic programs and dean of the graduate college.

“I think some of the biggest potential for online learning, for traditional students, is in the realm of using technology to enhance a face-to-face class,” Holger said. “Instead of having three large lectures a week, you might have one large face-to-face lecture, augmented by the equivalent of a lecture in some online material, and then a third meeting that might be some kind of smaller group, active learning session.”

Holger sees the greatest potential for growth in online-only programs targeted at working professionals and graduate students. Iowa State currently offers 20 online master’s degree programs and more than 15 graduate certificates. While there is demand for online courses, Holger said now is not the time to expand online degree options for undergraduates. Instead Iowa State needs to provide adequate courses for existing online and on-campus programs that are all experiencing record enrollment, he said.

“We’ve got such a huge demand right now from 18-to-25-year-old students for our bachelor’s degrees. It would surprise me if those students all the sudden say, ‘No, what I gain in personal development outside class isn’t worth it,’” Holger said. “For them, the personal maturation and personal development that happens outside class is as important as what happens inside class and you can’t do that online.”

The best of both worlds

ISU students on computers

More and more professors are putting class lectures, homework and course materials online so students can access the information from anywhere. Photo by Bob Elbert (Larger photo)

Iowa State faculty and staff are incorporating online learning in ways that do not require a complete transformation, by shifting to blended and flipped classes to improve student learning and outcomes. This gives professors the flexibility to use technology best suited for the course material and the makeup of the class. For example, in a flipped class, a professor would post all lectures and course materials online for students to review outside of class and then spend class time working on assignments, group discussions or team-based activities. In a blended class, lectures and information are presented both online and in the traditional classroom setting.

“It’s moving from that sage on the stage, to that guide on the side. This is a new world; we are not the sages on the stage anymore,” said Brumm, who added that this approach does not work for every course. “It all depends on the situation and the class, but there are some real opportunities for better learning or different learning online that sometimes we don’t have face-to-face.”

Regardless of how the class is structured and delivered, providing students with a quality education is still the number one priority. Faculty members invest the same amount of time and energy in a course, whether it is online or face-to-face.  

"Our overarching philosophy is to infuse instruction across the institution with different kinds of technology, in ways tailored to each discipline, to augment individual courses and entire degree programs," said Jonathan Wickert, senior vice president and provost. "Our faculty care deeply about the student experience, and they are increasingly using online instruction to enhance the quality of their courses and improve access."

To accommodate the needs of faculty and students in flipped classes, the university recently renovated several classrooms and installed new technology. This makes it easier to reconfigure the classroom, if needed, so students can work in small groups. The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching on campus, or CELT, is also working with faculty to offer guidance in adapting new technology.

“It doesn’t have to be a monumental leap. You can take a course to a blended platform incrementally, so faculty can begin to infuse small amounts of technology into the presentation of the class. Over a period of three years or so they could phase in small pieces of technology,” said Ralph Napolitano, associate director of online learning for CELT.

Assessing value and outcomes

It is Napolitano’s charge to track use and evaluate the impact of online technology on student learning at Iowa State. His goal is to develop a method that will be a model for other colleges and universities. Assessment will be similar to the way face-to-face courses are evaluated for quality and outcomes and a coordinated effort among colleges and departments. 

There is already evidence of how online technology is working to improve student performance even in large lecture classes. In a recent presentation to the Board of Regents, Napolitano explained how changes to college algebra and trigonometry courses resulted in about a 20 percent decline in the number of students earning a D, failing or dropping the classes, over the course of two academic years.

Timothy McNicholl, an associate professor of mathematics, headed the effort to streamline the courses and coordinate exams, quizzes and homework so that all homework is completed online and at the same time across multiple sections. McNicholl said students benefit from being on the same page as their friends in other sections.

“We know a lot of learning takes place through social interaction between students. So when everybody is doing the same problems every week it gives more opportunities for students to compare notes on the homework and talk about what they’re doing,” McNicholl said.   

Because all homework assignments are completed online, McNicholl said students get immediate feedback on homework instead of waiting several days for assignments to be graded. The coordination also guarantees students in all sections of the course have completed the same material by the end of the semester. Class lectures are posted on Blackboard, an online learning management system, so students, in a traditional or online course, can review the material. Faculty can also post reminders about exams or assignments on Blackboard, which has proven to be helpful.

“Using the technology to communicate with students really seems to work, especially as far as getting the students to keep up with their homework,” McNicholl said.

By working with faculty to better understand what tools work best in the classroom, Napolitano wants to develop an approach to online learning at Iowa State that focuses on value, reach and service.

“We don’t want to use technology simply because it’s available,” Napolitano said. “But the more tools that are available, the more likely we are to find the right match to enhance student learning and success.”