Online learning gets a giant boost at UAA

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Dave Dannenberg directs the Center for Innovation & eLearning. He and colleague Heather Nash will use a $2.25 million U.S. Department of Education grant to build a suportive online learning environment at UAA for faculty and students. (Photo by Philip Hall.UAA)

Dave Dannenberg directs the Center for Academic Innovation & eLearning. He and colleague Heather Nash will use a $2.25 million U.S. Department of Education grant to build a supportive online learning environment at UAA for faculty and students. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Online learning at UAA is about to take a giant leap forward. You can thank the team of Dave Dannenberg and Heather Nash, both of the Academic Innovations & eLearning Center, for their audacious reach.

These two crafted an application for a major federal grant, $2.25 million over five years, from the U.S. Department of Education. Just a few weeks ago, they learned their innovative daring paid off. On October 1, the grant began providing money and energy-$450,000 each year for five years-all devoted to strengthening UAA's online education environment.

"If you look at the data," said Dannenberg, "we know that UAA students are more successful and graduate if they take an eLearning or distance-delivered course. Knowing that, how do we get more online courses available? And how do we do it efficiently and successfully?"

Dave and Heather's answer was simple: "We got this crazy idea to write a grant," and targeted the DOE's "Strengthening Institution Program." Successful universities must use their funding to significantly improve their campus infrastructure during the grant's five year cycle. UAA is focusing that enrichment on online learning.

Heather and Dave knew their effort was a long shot. "We wrote it knowing there was a very small likelihood we'd get it," Dave said. Competition is national and stiff. Before schools can even apply, they have to be deemed an eligible institution. Along with UAA, at least 1,100 other schools sought that designation, Dave said.

He doesn't know exactly how many schools actually applied for the grant money, but he assumes somewhere between 300-400. Out of that pool, UAA was one of just 36 schools to win funding.

It's a huge success and signals big opportunity for UAA faculty and students. Students can expect more consistent online courses, along with a robust online learning environment that includes what traditional classroom students already know to expect: advising, tutoring and mentoring. Faculty can expect more support for online initiatives, including a new facility, a media development lab, stocked with the tools they need to create effective online content. Tools will include digital audio and video recording and editing equipment for use by faculty and potentially students. He expects the grant will allow the lab to hire student workers to work with individuals creating content. The grant will also fund a mobile recording studio.

UAA's successful proposal aims to overcome some key challenges, including low retention of minority students, Alaska's challenging geography and Anchorage's large cohort of busy, working non-traditional students. The flexibility of online coursework helps in all these situations. Their expressed goal with the grant is to increase graduation rates from the current 28 percent to 33 percent.

Dave and Heather were uniquely suited to make this bid. He has a doctorate in instructional design and technology and directs the Academic Innovations & eLearning Center. Heather is an assistant director of instructional design services. Their background and experience led them to tackle what for decades has been UAA's completely decentralized online learning environment.

"We like to say we have well over 100 online programs," said Dave. "But the truth is, only a handful were truly designed for online learning. The rest were simply put online by enterprising faculty who wanted an online component to their teaching."

Their proposal involves three strategic initiatives. First, they want to find a way to scale up cost-effective online learning, including training, certification and support for faculty.

The instructional design team will help create 26 online "master courses" for high-demand GER classes. "By focusing on those first 26 bottlenecks, we'll be able to open up those pathways for students," Dave said.

The instructional designers create a template for these master classes, building in a consistent high quality framework."Say we are creating a master course for English 110. We could be working with Dan Kline and his faculty in the English Department.  They are the academic content experts; we just design the framework for their content."

Practically, master courses in key bottleneck areas can mean time and money savings. "A high quality template reduces the time it takes to build a course, so faculty can be more successful doing other things than spending 10-20-30 hours designing the same course over and over again," Dave said. "We are ensuring our students are meeting the outcomes we want and hope for them because we have the academic rigor created by our tenure track faculty."

The instructional designers hope the time and money-saving success of these first 26 pilot master courses will entice wider participation among faculty and academic departments. They are looking to forge partnerships across campus to facilitate high-quality student experiences in the online learning environment.

Another key strategy is providing comprehensive support services for students studying online. Besides adding the services brick-and-mortar students have come to expect, these master course enrollees will be further supported by joining a cohort of other online students.

"Basically, as we look at designing these services, how do we make our distance education students feel part of the community. And going back to that UAA brand, how do we really make them feel like a part of that? We want to create programs that foster communities of students," Dave said.

In an age of MOOCs (massive open online courses, often free) and accelerated distance learning, the role of the university in student experience remains an important element.

"Higher education is trying to figure out how to harness the power of online education in its true form," Dave said. "It's true, I could learn how to code by simply going online. But if we think about what we want our students to learn, it is the classic value of a liberal arts education. People don't just want to hire the skills; they want people who can think. So how do we package that as our online college experience?"

A final strategy is finding ways to make online learning sustainable, including creating a center for online learning and a new resource lab for faculty to create classes and content.

"What I am most excited about is we are actually going to create an online distance education portal for students," Dave said. "The portal will allow us to market our distance ed and the programs and  services that online students need. They will be able to find all the answers they need in one place, or the portal will  point them where they need to go. We have not had that."

Steps the first year will include adding some positions to the existing eLearning center, and creating a resources advisory committee of interested parties across campus to help shape the development of a more cohesive online infrastructure. Let the fun begin!

Written by Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement

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