Having spent much of the spring semester like their students -- learning -- Iowa State Online staff is using that information to improve the experience for online learners.
Iowa State Online director Susan Arendt said she is pleased with the results of a whirlwind first five months since its launch, and now has the data to back up those feelings. Every student in an online program received a survey this spring to determine their awareness of available services and overall satisfaction. It was the first time ISU compiled information about online-only students and will provide a baseline. A 2022-2023 Emerging Leaders Academy group collaborated on the survey.
Of 737 surveys distributed, 175 students responded, and 83% indicated they were somewhat to strongly satisfied with their online learning experience. Seven percent somewhat disagreed that they were satisfied but no student strongly disagreed.
"We took the overall results as a positive, but we were able to identify some areas that were not as positive and that is what we are really focusing on," Arendt said.
The bulk of information from the survey came from student responses to open-ended questions. Arendt's team identified five opportunities for improvement:
- Develop an online student orientation
- Strengthen the availability and consistency of online offerings
- Enhance community building and connectedness to ISU
- Clarify online exams and proctoring
- Enhance instructor understanding of the online student population
Orientation for students in online programs is being developed as part of a pilot project that began during the spring semester. It will remind students about resources they might not know about, like evening and weekend technical support and academic skills coaching. Programs can choose to use parts or all of the orientation as it fits their needs, Arendt said.
"The survey results showed us that if we can educate our online students on the services that are available to them, they will use them," she said. "We have on-campus orientations and orientations that are provided online for those coming to campus, but we are in the process of developing an orientation specifically for students in online programs who may never visit campus."
Other improvements will develop over time. The consistency of online offerings will improve going forward, but occurs at the college level. The online-only student -- many who are working professionals -- may put a different emphasis on education while juggling other responsibilities, such as caring for children. Arendt said students and instructors can work together on timely communication that works for both of them.
A universitywide support structure
For some, questions linger about what Iowa State Online is and isn't. It's one of four focuses of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT). The others are: instructor development, course design and quality, and enterprise instructional technology.
"We don't have programs or courses," she said. "We are a support and service unit to the entire university. Iowa State Online is a universitywide brand and support structure that brings online education programs under one umbrella."
Iowa State Online is not a Purdue University Global or another online university that has its own courses or programs, Arendt said. Her team does not determine what programs, curriculum or courses will be offered or initiate curricular changes.
"We do not offer degrees that say 'Iowa State Online,'" she said. "We are here as a support service to the university."
Iowa State Online has gathered its staff in one location in Howe Hall, but the task of transitioning all the information from the three former distance education units -- College of Human Sciences Online and Distance Learning, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Online Learning, and Engineering-College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Online -- continues. Websites for those units will remain active and direct visitors to Iowa State Online until the process is complete.
The number of graduate, undergraduate and certificate programs and courses continues to increase, and Arendt anticipates continued growth around the Degrees of the Future initiative that includes areas like digital communications, health care career opportunities and game design.
Improvements to the Iowa State Online website soon will include an online course catalog and a chatbot to answer current and prospective student questions in real time. Arendt said Iowa State Online also is providing colleges with marketing research to help make strategic decisions about online offerings and support.
"We are working for that consistent and identifiable branding of Iowa State Online so people not only know who we are, but that we have a look that aligns with our branding at Iowa State."