In March 2020, the realization for Western Colorado University leaders was clear and daunting: traditional, face-to-face student interactions were out the figurative classroom window due to COVID-19, and learning would take place online until the end of the semester. All of K-12 and higher education, along with every other sector of society, was in a bit of a tailspin.
Looking back at those final eight weeks of that spring semester, Western managed (and even thrived) under the circumstances, thanks to existing technology and an adaptable staff, faculty and student body. Making that switch from on-campus to online learning for an estimated 1,000 courses was possible due to Canvas, a learning management system (LMS) designed to augment in-class instruction.
Increasing Online Presence
While most of us don’t identify Western as an online institution, there has been a steady increase of online programming over the last 10 years. “Traditional” instruction generally refers to physical, brick-and-mortar classroom experiences, while “online” means 100% digital platforms for student-teacher interactions. “Hybrid” instruction is a blend of traditional and online techniques, with students in the classroom part of the week and online for the rest.
“Learning online has been a crucial part of my academic experience at Western and obviously became incredibly important once the pandemic hit,” said student-athlete and senior Business Administration major Carson Mandrell.
More Control and Flexibility
“As an athlete, I have always had a busy schedule and being able to incorporate online courses has given me more control and flexibility over my day and has been an important part of my learning the last few years.”
According to InsideHigherEd.com and the National Center for Education Statistics, about 34% of the 20 million Americans enrolled in higher education in 2019 completed online courses as part of their progress toward a degree. That percentage has held steady for at least 10 years.
Pre-pandemic, no one would have thought of Western being poised to be a big player in online education. Despite the growing popularity of online options, much of Western’s unique value is specifically tied to the Gunnison Valley. While Western was dabbling in the space to add flexibility for students, it was never a primary focus.
As we transition out of pandemic-mode, the demand for online courses continues to rise and Western is committed to meeting that demand in ways that stay true to our values and mission as an institution. For instance, departments will continue to teach online sections of their General Education (GE) courses to ensure flexibility for students transitioning into college life.
Best of Both Worlds
This is about more than just adding online options to the roster. At Western, a key draw is still being physically in the Gunnison Valley and present in small classes with unbeatable academic support. Canvas enables faculty to do even more with the “brick and mortar” time they have with students. All instructors will continue to use the LMS to connect with their students in the future. While it’s up to them whether to post grades or to create elaborate online environments to enhance the classroom experience, the LMS will continue to be used to develop students’ overall learning skills.
The majority of online courses at Western have been offered in the School of Graduate Studies. Among the six graduate programs, there are currently eight low-residency online master’s degrees available. An estimated 350 graduate students complete online courses each year, which equates to about 55% of the overall coursework at the graduate level.
Working at Your Own Pace
Having a robust apprenticeship experience and delivering courses entirely online have been largely responsible for the success of these programs for well more than a decade now. One recent graduate of the program wrote, “the greatest strength [of Western’s MA in Education] is that I was able to work full-time while completing the program. It wasn’t easy, but I couldn’t have gone back to school otherwise.”
In one of the newest graduate programs, the Outdoor Industry MBA, students would be hard-pressed to get through the school week without going online. Director Scott Borden, Ph.D. added that Western has already integrated online learning into most of the courses which has allowed students to work at their own pace and collaborate with each other over space and time.
“Classes held as live video conferences allow us to poll students in real-time, quickly collect feedback through chats and bring expert speakers into the classroom from anywhere in the world,” Borden said.
Adult Degree Completion Takes Off
Another example of Western’s commitment to online learning is the newly launched Adult Degree Completion program. Intended for working adults who want to earn their bachelor’s degrees, the entire program will be delivered online, including a 48-credit major in Business Communication. Prospective students from across the region can now attend Western classes daily and move forward with professional advancement.
Relevant to online learning at Western, the Concurrent Enrollment program offers a hybrid delivery model. Four GE courses are built and housed completely online in Canvas and are then delivered to high school students across the state, with high school teachers who have agreed to teach college-level courses for Western. Boasting a headcount of 1,800 students this past year, Western’s Concurrent Enrollment excels with the online modality as it removes the access barrier for schools and students who have long been out-of-reach for colleges and universities.
Efficient and Effective
Like many other institutions of learning, Western has progressed further into the digital world of online delivery. There’s something efficient and effective about it, when designed correctly and aligned with the right student. As the years unfold, Western will continue to strike a balance between on-campus, in-person sessions and asynchronous video lectures seen from afar. After all, this is increasingly what education in the 21st century looks like.
Learn more about Western’s Canvas online learning resources.
Author Credit: Terry Schliesma
Photo Credit: Katie Lyons