The Republican -UMass growing online education presence

The Republican -UMass growing online education presence

By Diane Lederman

As the new decade begins, UMassOnline is closing in on completing its first 10 years of providing “distance learning” opportunities to students unable to come to one of the University of Massachusetts’ five campuses.

The online education program continues to grow and will continue catering to the needs of its students, offering new classes and degrees.

The numbers of online students has doubled in the last three years, spiking from 21,331 to more than 40,000 students in 2009 and more than doubling the tuition generated, program leaders say.

In fiscal year 2009 that ended June 30, $47 million in revenue was raised compared to $21 million in 2006.

Ken Udas, who took over as chief executive officer of the 9-year old program in September, believes those numbers will continue to grow and they’ll see an increasing number of those who would in the past have come to campus.

Online education has provided an option for older learners who, because of family or work commitments, couldn’t take advantage of attending a college or university program, said Udas. But, he added, even more traditional-aged higher education students are attending classes online.

In 2008, the largest group – 40 percent – were younger than 25, compared to 32 percent in the 25 to 34 age range.

Online education is an option for UMass to address physical space limitations at a time when applications are rising. Nearly 30,000 prospective students – a record number – applied for admission to the UMass Amherst campus for this school year.

While UMassOnline faces competition from other online programs, students enrolling here are “‘getting a degree of perceived quality.” The UMass brand, whether online or on site, means the same thing, Udas said.

All programs “are vetted and created within an academic enterprise.” There is no distinction in the degree awarded, he said.

Online programming can also offer a limited program on a campus to many more interested. UMass has just started offering a certificate program in autism, according to Jennifer Brady, UMassOnline marketing director.

The program from UMass Lowell’s Psychology Department in collaboration with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, offers a graduate certificate.

Udas sees UMassOnline growing in the field of professional master’s degrees as well. “There’s a national audience” for such programming and the online format works to attract those students from across the country, he said.

As the demand increases for online programs, the numbers and degree options will expand. The university online program currently offers two doctoral degrees, 22 master degree programs, 20 bachelor’s programs and more than 1,500 courses.

Some programs are more conducive for online learning than others, but there might be options to even offer those.

“How do you provide a relative lab experience in an online environment?” he asked. It might mean offering a simulated lab or experience in a nearby facility. Solving those kinds of issues just requires creative thinking, Udas said.

He also cited “a growing interest for blended programming.” That might mean attending a class on a campus once every few weeks. Such a learning style addresses students’ needs to do a bulk of the work on their own time but provides opportunities to bring them to campus, offering them a missing ingredient to the college experience – the campus connection. Those kinds of classes also take into account the increasing issue of limited physical space by requiring limited classroom time.

As UMassOnline moves into the future the question is “how do we make certain the value is not diminished,” Udas said.

Date: 2/12/10