Online degree programs are coming soon to Wichita State University in Kansas. The institution created a new Office of Online Learning this year, with a strategic plan to launch a number of fully online degree programs in the next three to five years.
Wichita State already offers online classes that about 2,500 full time equivalent students are taking. According to university officials, since 2007, the number of online classes has doubled in size to 300, and they serve nearly 20 percent of the student body. By next fall, students will be able to take an RN to BSN program that will help registered nurses earn a bachelor's degree.
Mark Porcaro, interim director of online learning for Wichita State, felt with the support from university President John Bardo and faculty, the higher education institute is ready to broaden its online reach in the Midwest.
"Besides having a new president who's opened a lot of doors, we've already had a lot of faculty who've expressed great interest, and that is a testament to where we are now and how fast we can move is because the faculty have been the underpinning of all of this," Porcaro said. "It's not been a top-down approach; it's been a groundswell of interest from faculty."
Over the next few years, the university will evaluate the quality of its current online courses to make sure they match up with standards from the Higher Learning Commission, the Sloan Consortium and Quality Matters. After the first degree program launches, a number of other workforce programs will follow, including criminal justice, dental hygiene and aging studies.
Online learning research in higher education has been mixed, with at least two studies in the past decade showing no significant difference between face-to-face and online learning results. At least three studies have shown that students in face-to-face classes perform better, according to a search on the website No Significant Difference from the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies.
According to Porcaro, research over the last decade has brought online learning past the peak of inflated expectations and headed toward a plateau of productivity.
"The tide I think is turning from a negative opinion about online learning to a positive one where institutions of higher education are getting involved and engaged in online learning that never had before, and that's starting to say something — that it's not just a flash in the pan, that this is a little more mainstream now," Porcaro said.
While massively open online courses (MOOCs) have stolen the headlines over the past year, they really stem from the work that online learning practitioners have been doing for years, Porcaro added. When Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig taught their first MOOC at Stanford University, more than 100,000 people took the course. Both MOOCs and other forms of online classes have expanded access to education for interested learners around the world.
"If we hadn't had online learning for the last 20 years, we wouldn't have MOOCs, they wouldn't have taken off in the way that they did now 20 years ago," Porcaro said. "If somebody said, 'I'm going to offer a course to 100,000 people,’ everybody'd laugh at them and say, 'On dial-up? Are you kidding me?’"