Meeting Demand, Maintaining Quality: Developing an Online Degree Program
Through market research, the director of the University of Tennessee at Martin’s online interdisciplinary studies program—a former business faculty member—determined there was a need for more educational opportunities in the state for students with associate degrees to complete their bachelor’s degrees in management. When asked if he’d help create such an online program to serve these students, John Overby, chair of management, marketing, and political science, replied, “Give me the resources to do this and I’ll be glad to help.”
Specifically, the department needed additional faculty members in order to create an online program that would meet the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business standards. But, according to Overby, “I’m not going to rob Peter to pay Paul and ruin two good programs.”
Despite indications of strong demand, the administration decided not to create new faculty positions. And the idea was shelved for several years, until funding made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 made hiring additional faculty possible.
Overby was given approval to hire two limited-term faculty members. To integrate the online program into the department and to ensure that it meets the same standards as the face-to-face program, these faculty members were hired to teach in both formats. Before teaching online, the new faculty members were required to teach on campus. The other faculty members are also required to teach in both formats.
“When a [prospective] student asks about the program, I say that it’s the same degree taught by the same faculty. We require the same assessments. We require the same degree of rigor on campus and online regardless of which medium we use to distribute the course,” Overby says.
The online program was not the department’s first experience with online instruction. Faculty in the department had taught several online courses as part of the interdisciplinary studies program. This experience helped ease the transition to a full online program.
Overby credits the university’s IT center and the cohort approach to faculty development with helping the faculty learn how to teach online. “Our information technology center pushes us to use the technological devices and methodologies that we have available to us,” Overby says. “In addition, our faculty have worked together and learned from each other’s mistakes and each other’s [successes].”
In addition to the support available to the faculty, learning firsthand about the challenges adult learners face has been a big motivator for the faculty. From the start, the faculty members were supportive of the online students. “Our faculty seems to have a very sincere and deep appreciation for the working student. Our faculty bought into this program without any coercion,” Overby says.
Although the program is fully integrated into the department, it is also part of a broader online learning effort that is supported by UT Martin’s Office of Extended and Online Studies (ECOS). ECOS staff help with scheduling and enrollment projections, so Overby knows which courses to offer when.
Despite the creation of the program, and the addition of faculty members and students, Overby says that his job is not significantly more complicated. “The only complication I have is in scheduling and trying to provide an adequate number of courses on a basis where the students get what they need to complete the online degree, and to mix that in with the same demands on campus. But outside of that, in some ways it has made my job easier because the faculty are becoming innovative and creative with their on-campus courses because of the technologies they’re using in the online courses. It’s also given me a greater appreciation for the faculty. They know what their job is and they’re proud to help these students. They really like the online student because that student is there to learn.”
Making it work
According to Overby, three things have been essential to the program’s success:
- Administrative support. “You need top-down support. This fall we’ll have our third new faculty position in four years. I’ve had to justify the position, but the administration has given [it to] us,” Overby says.
- Faculty buy-in. The faculty have been proactive in learning how to be effective online instructors, and the culture of the department promotes an exchange of ideas on teaching.
- Market research. Administrative support and faculty buy-in depend largely on understanding student needs. “I feel we got buy-in from having some good market research that showed how many people need an opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree and that we have sustainable demand out there,” Overby says.