Iowa public universities should expand distance learning offerings, including allowing students from one state university to take courses from another, Board of Regents staffers recommended on Wednesday.
Rachel Boon, the Regents’ Chief Academic Officer, presented the annual distance learning report, and representatives from the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa, and Iowa State University provided updates at the Regents’ meeting.
The report’s recommendations included an initial focus on expanding graduate and professional offerings prior to undergraduate expansion and promoting current offerings.
“The board’s goal was to figure out how to do more distance learning,” she said. “It seems like a thing that serves the students well.”
The Regents’ Task Force recommended that the Statewide Extension, Continuing and Distance Education Council also update its structure to accommodate current and future means of distance learning. The Council should review its mandate and activities annually to set clear goals and tasks, the presentation said.
Another recommendation was to develop an opportunity to share general education courses. According to the meeting documents, students from one university would be able to take courses from the other two universities.
Boon said this will come from looking at course usage data to see where this is most beneficial for students and universities alike.
“Creating an inventory of joint programs where institutions already support each other with specific programs,” she said. We’re really focusing on the Bachelor of Liberal Studies, a degree that all three universities have and has a fairly similar structure across all three .”
The overall report
The distance education report showed that the number of programs has increased from 183 to 204 since the 2017-18 academic year. Study sections fell by more than 2,000 offers from 2020-2021 in the 2021/22 academic year.
According to the report, nearly 1.1 million students enrolled in non-credit courses in 2021 and 2022, nearly doubling the numbers for 2020-21.
All three universities had more students enrolled in distance learning courses last year than before the pandemic.
“The 2020-21 academic year had a sharp increase in distance learning due to efforts to combat the pandemic, but 2021-22 saw numbers return to the upward trend that began before the pandemic,” the report said.
Universities update programs
The three public institutions in Iowa have updated their online and distance learning programs in recent years to improve student experiences.
ISU launched Iowa State Online, a fully online educational opportunity, in January. It was established in response to the Regents’ Distance Education Task Force 2021-22 and the ISU Online Learning Strategy Task Force in 2021.
Iowa State Online’s first director, Susan Arendt, said one of her goals is to increase ISU’s online market share while focusing program innovation and market development tailored to Iowa businesses and employees. Adapting courses to regional workforce needs was one of the goals presented by Boon.
UI currently has 11 graduate and seven undergraduate online programs. There are nearly 3,400 students enrolled in online-only courses.
UI Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Tanya Uden-Holman said students take about three to five online courses during their time at university.
The university conducted the Online Course Review Project, reviewing more than 1,000 course segments that were not moved online due to COVID. Course review now occurs every three years and colleges will prioritize course development and redesign, consistent with Boon’s presentation.
“There still remains a smaller percentage of our course offering,” Uden-Holman said, responding to a question about whether these courses replace traditional on-site learning. “We believe that offering this flexibility is very important, but we are obviously a residential campus and having this personal experience is very important for our students.”
Karen Cunningham, UNI Associate Dean and Director of Online Education, said the partnership between UNI and Des Moines Area Community College has been expanded to offer all online programs to the partnership’s students.
UNI also launched a new online program Management: Business Studies in 2022.
There are several new online undergraduate programs, including one for teaching and accounting. They were built in response to a shortage of educators and accountants in the state, Cunningham said. There are new online graduate programs for students who want to pursue psychological counseling, education, and interdisciplinary studies.
Cunningham and ISU Associate Provost Ann Marie VanDerZanden agreed with Uden-Holman, saying their online programs are not a substitute for in-person opportunities. Residential programs remain the core of the three institutions, while online courses are offered to meet workplace and flexibility requirements.
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