EDITOR’S NOTE: As the non-traditional student segment of the higher education market continues to grow, demand for greater program flexibility is following suit. Many colleges and universities have launched distance learning programs, but student success rates remain inconsistent.
What does it take for an extended campus to succeed? In this interview, distance learning veteran Nancy Rubin, Ph.D. shares her thoughts on what it takes to deliver a truly engaging experience for online students, both inside and outside the primary learning environment.
Nancy is Executive Director of the Extended Campus at the University of Northern Colorado and former Executive Director of Distance and Online Learning at Columbia Video Network (CVN) – the nation’s best online graduate engineering program, according to U.S. News.
TL: What are the hallmarks of a highly engaging online learning program?
NR: Strong content is obviously essential, but ongoing support for faculty and students is equally important. As many distance learning programs have discovered, online students can easily feel disconnected from an instructor, a course or the educational institution, itself. In fact, this is a common reason why students withdraw. Connecting online learners with the broader community of on-campus students, faculty and events is the best way to keep them on track with their educational goals.
TL: How did you accomplish this when redesigning CVN at Columbia University?
NR: Communication among learners, faculty and staff is vital. So we invested considerable time and effort to create and promote digital support resources that anyone can use on demand. The program leverages multiple channels, including regular website updates, email, social media, video conferencing and an online help desk. Together, these resources help learners advance their individual agendas while reinforcing a sense of community involvement.
TL: What are the biggest challenges in creating an engaging online learning experience?
NR: It’s imperative that a virtual learning experience mirror the on-campus experience. This includes the breadth and depth of courses offered, the level of access to faculty and teaching assistants, as well as the quality of instructional content, itself.
Getting any one of these elements right is challenging enough, but ensuring that they work together in a complementary way requires a deep ongoing commitment.
TL: How did you overcome these obstacles?
NR: The most fundamental change we made was to build a modern learning ecosystem based on three core tools – a new student information system (SIS), a new learning management system (LMS) and a new video hosting provider.
TL: Why did you decide to transform your entire infrastructure?
NR: The success of an online program depends on a number of things – but the most important thing is student satisfaction, and that depends on student success. If the learning environment is difficult to access, if faculty aren’t comfortable with an online teaching modality, or if support isn’t available when students need it, the program won’t succeed. To make success a reality for more students, we needed to rethink our systems from the ground up.
TL: How does an LMS support this objective?
NR: Many schools use a learning management system (LMS) to deliver online courses, which is true for both Columbia University and the University of Northern Colorado. A modern, robust LMS is important from a pedagogical perspective, as well as for effective student/faculty communication.
But implementing a new system is only the beginning. Training faculty and students is also essential. This empowers students to learn more efficiently and effectively, which in turn improves their level of comfort, engagement and satisfaction.
TL: What LMS requirements are most important for distance learning success?
NR: There are multiple considerations:
1) Mobile Design: A mobile-friendly environment is critical for any kind of digital experience today, and online learning is no exception. Students naturally expect to use a smartphone or tablet (or both) to read, watch and interact with instructional content, submit assignments and share questions or ideas. This means your LMS must be able to resize content on-the-fly to fit any browser on any device. Or the system may include a mobile app that delivers highly personalized content.
Even if your LMS is mobile-friendly, optimizing your content for mobile learning can be an uphill climb. For many faculty members, mobile design wasn’t even on their radar until a few years ago. But now it’s imperative to adapt course materials so students can consume content anywhere at their convenience.
For example, mobile users typically prefer information presented in shorter intervals. In other words, a 90-minute lecture is likely to be more effective when converted to a series of 10-minute videos. At Columbia, working with instructional designers made this conversion process easier for many faculty members.
2) Synchronous Learning Tools: Many learning platforms include a variety of real-time communication capabilities at the click of a button. For example, virtual classrooms are a great way to conduct office hours or stage live class sessions.
At Columbia, faculty members often use this feature as a forum for remote students who present research papers to their on-campus classmates. There’s no need to install or manage a separate application, keep track of student email addresses, add all students to a group distribution list or manually send notifications – these tasks are all easily handled directly through the LMS.
3) Asynchronous Learning Tools: Other communication capabilities such as discussion boards help distance learners exchange ideas with peers and faculty at their convenience. Columbia students often use these forums for frequently asked questions about homework assignments or to ask professors follow-up questions between live sessions.
4) Communication Tools: Most platforms offer multiple ways for students and faculty to interact directly, as needed. Built-in chat, messaging and video conferencing put one-to-one conversations at your fingertips. And email integration makes it easy for faculty and staff to send messages to an individual student, a workgroup, an entire class or even multiple classes.
5) Recording Studio and Equipment: If you want to provide a truly professional learning experience, you’ll invest in at least one recording studio and a high-end video camera. The quality is far superior to anything you can achieve with a webcam, a webinar video conferencing platform or even a lecture capture system.
At Columbia, we started with a more traditional green screen studio. But then we added two recording studios – a booth studio and a light board studio – both of which are used heavily to record content for online classes and flipped on-campus courses. Our early experiments with flipped classes were so successful, demand for more studio space skyrocketed.
Some professors have flipped entire courses by recording all lectures for students to view prior to class. Others use the studios to fill-in missed sessions or provide extra material they don’t have time to cover during the semester. This sometimes includes tutorial videos to help students develop specific skills to complete an assignment or to better understand important subject matter.
6) Remote Proctoring: With the popularity of online courses comes the need to proctor online exams, especially midterms and finals. Students who work full time or are in the military may not be able to travel to a testing center or library during their hours of operation.
Online proctoring is a viable alternative for remote students who need to take exams in a secure way that verifies their identity. Professors with online students are becoming more willing to let their on-campus students take exams using remote proctoring, especially if it is directly integrated into the LMS.
7) Data Integration and Analytics: In an increasingly competitive world, online education programs can no longer afford to fly blind. So rather than treating data as an afterthought, it’s important to consider key success metrics first. Regardless, an LMS alone probably won’t provide sufficient intelligence. You’re also likely to need a student information system (SIS).
Every time a student registers or pays for a class, submits a form or receives a grade, data is added to that student’s record. Ideally, this data is shared across systems, so faculty, teaching assistants and administrators can track individual and summary activity in reports and discover insights that are relevant, timely, accurate and complete.
8) Single Sign-On: Online students must have secure access to the learning portal, as well as their course files, registration and payment tools, progress reports and account records. Working with your organization’s information technology experts and your LMS provider, you should be able to offer easy access through a secure single sign-on process.
TL: What LMS did you choose at Columbia Video Network?
NR: We migrated the program to Canvas LMS. It wasn’t easy, but the benefits definitely outweigh the issues we had to overcome. The communication and notification tools in Canvas have improved interactions among faculty, support staff and students. And learning outcomes have also improved.
TL: Earlier you mentioned that you offer an online help desk. How important is that?
NR: It is central to CVN’s success. Online students should be able to solve their own problems with resources available to them 24×7, or receive a reply from someone they have contacted within 24-48 hours. Just-in-time support is a key component of the Columbia service model because it gives students immediate access to the information and guidance they need, when they need it.
Many people are drawn to online learning because it gives them the flexibility to pursue their educational goals in the evenings and on weekends. This means support must also available outside of regular business hours (8 am-6 pm Monday-Friday).
At Columbia, teaching assistants serve as dedicated rapid responders. They conduct virtual office hours, answer ad hoc questions and provide feedback so online students are aware of their progress in each class. This keeps participants engaged, and it directly affects overall program satisfaction.
TL: How do you develop online learning courses?
NR: Building a complete, cross-functional team is a smart investment that has definitely paid off at Columbia. Online faculty members work in collaboration with an instructional designer, a course developer and a multimedia specialist to design courses, develop content and experiment with new tools and teaching methods. This approach means every course is backed by a dedicated team of experts who are continuously assessing and improving its impact.
TL: What’s the next step for you and the online learning programs you manage?
NR: I recently moved to the University of Northern Colorado, where I’m working on new initiatives involving AI and automation in distance learning. These technologies are opening doors to an exciting future for students, educators and organizations that provide continuing education. I’d be happy to tell you more about what we’re doing in a future post.