Online program at Wayland growing, following national trend 

Release Date: January 8, 2009    

PLAINVIEW – The founders and shapers of Wayland Baptist University in 1908 likely could not even imagine a machine like the computer would come along in nearly 70 years and revolutionize the way schools work; so the idea that college coursework could be received completely over that same machine was likely not even in their scope of understanding.

A century later, Wayland is among many schools who have found the Internet and its technological advances changing the model of higher education and impacting enrollment. In fact, the fall enrollment at Wayland experienced a 2.2 percent increase over 2007 in total, but the university’s Virtual Campus – which offers online master’s degrees and many sections of classes for undergraduate and graduate degrees – experienced a 17.78 percent hike. In terms of student head-count, the VC is now the largest “campus” in the Wayland system, though many of its enrollees are connected to one of its 14 campus locations.

That growth pattern is not unusual for Wayland – which launched online courses just eight years ago in 2001 – nor for its many counterparts nationwide which enjoy success in online education. And according to WBU officials, the trend is not expected to slow down much in the future.

“Students take classes online because they want to manage the events in their lives as they happen,” said Jay Sample, director of the Virtual Campus. “People really dig online classes because they allow you to be at your best when you’re ready to engage the material. They have the opportunity to reflect upon a discussion thread and respond thoughtfully when they are ready.”

That option, Sample said, is one that the traditional classroom format does not easily allow, and for students who want to participate with little of the fear of rejection that often keeps some from sharing in class, the online format works well.

“The ground in online education is level. You have a moment to consider your response, check for spelling and research before you answer the question. Those kind of things pull everyone to the table,” Sample said. “Another strength to asynchronous learning is the ability to break and come back to the material when it’s convenient.”

Like traditional education models, online education is not for every student, and Sample said the typical online student definitely has a defined demographic. The median age is around 30, reflecting a generation raised with computers and a familiarity of the ease of Internet technology in the workplace and home life.

But Sample said another draw is the cost of virtual classes when compared to traditional education. For those without the flexibility of moving away to a residential college, like adults with families or military personnel, online options open the doors to continued education regardless of location. And work schedules don’t get in the way of online coursework either, since students can log-in anytime to complete assignments, participate in discussion threads or read lectures, do research or take exams.

And while traditional colleges have felt some aftershocks of the economic crunch nationwide, particularly in terms of student loans and educational financing for families, Sample said online programs are really not taking the same hits. Fewer commuting expenses, coupled with a format that allows for more courses completed during a calendar year and faster degree completion (the VC follows the four 11-week terms annually format of the WBU external campuses), mean online education sometimes rises to the top of the options when stacked side by side.

So while some of Wayland’s Virtual Campus growth reflects a national interest in online education, Sample said the program’s own rapid evolution and adaptation to the market and the medium are key to keeping students coming back.

“We’re becoming better at employing the technology in our course design, which will be the biggest contribution the VC can bring. We’re becoming masters of content delivery, which is the most important service for Wayland,” he said. “We’re helping teachers assess course information and how it works with students, looking at student learning outcomes and helping professors make courses more user friendly.”

The new Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, which started officially in the fall, is a crucial addition for Sample, who said the tools that professors will receive there will help many of them transition from the traditional classroom format to online delivery easier. The spring term will see the kickoff of an effective design initiative, with special training sessions on course design and evaluation pivotal to the process of constant refinement.

Keeping content delivered well to students is key, Sample said, though worries early on about the effectiveness of online education compared to the traditional format have been put to rest.

“Every time a disruptive technology hits the scene, there are all types of studies launched to see whether we’ve given up the farm in academic integrity,” Sample said. “The remarkable thing is that online courses have survived the test. Studies have shown that there is no significant difference in student outcomes whether classes are offered online or face-to-face or in a hybrid format.”

Instead, the real determiner of success in the online format lies with the students themselves. Sample said the two strongest predictors for any format are task value – the ability of the student to see the material as relating to their world – and self-efficacy, or their belief that they can succeed.

“If they can make the bridge between what they’re learning and how it relates to the real world, you’ve hooked them. And if they bring that predisposition (to succeed) to the table, they will learn the materials and take from it what is valuable and it will equip them for their career goals,” Sample said, noting that the same rules hold true for the traditional classroom format.

Still, online education brings unique challenges to universities. In particular, schools are facing new governmental requirements in the area of student authentication efforts – the ability to verify that the student answering questions, taking tests and doing the coursework is the same student who enrolled for the course.

“As the technology becomes cheaper and more mainstream, it has to be adapted, and there are several options,” Sample said, noting that 360-degree viewing Webcams, biometric devices, voice authentication software and other options already exist. “The ugly side is that all of these present a risk to the privacy of students.”

Another challenge for WBU is keeping a two-year course rotation in the online format and continuing to grow course offerings to accommodate the demand of the market. At least Sample said he is never lacking in faculty, with many approaching him to teach online rather than him having to recruit teachers.

So what does the immediate future hold for the Virtual Campus at Wayland? Sample said the market continues to support a completely online undergraduate degree, and Wayland is moving toward that goal for the coming calendar year. He expects a general degree like the Bachelor of Applied Science with majors in business or human services or maybe even Christian Ministry, though the specifics aren’t settled just yet.

In any case, Sample said the move is crucial for Wayland to keep up with the market and compete in the changing academic arena. Already, he said, the university has advantages that have proven strong selling points in the traditional format as well: its size, faith basis and concern for student success.

“Many classes will see 50-60 students enrolled, but ours are limited to 25 students. Plus, our professors have a demonstrated faith in Christ, and they bring that to the classroom,” Sample said.

“We get to do an online education in a Wayland way, and we find over and over that our way is very appreciated by students,” he added. “They like the fact that we care about people, and that comes out in the classroom online as well.”