Teaching On Screen

Immersive online student engagement

Ford Burkhart, Jacob Chinn photo

Dark clouds kept Staff Sgt. Travis Baldwin on the alert in Iraq. As a military weather forecaster, he had to help Army helicopters stay safe, and dark clouds could mean deadly conditions.

“A lot of dust storms,” he recalls. “It was nasty.”
In Afghanistan and Germany, he had more time to watch storms — and make plans for his future. He set himself a goal: get a university degree in meteorology by age 30.

In December, Baldwin became the UA’s first graduate from the nation’s only online degree program for a Bachelor of Applied Science in meteorology, the science of the atmosphere. He’s part of a new wave of online-only UA undergraduates. By 2020, the University expects to have 5,000 such students making up nearly 15 percent of its undergraduate population. 

Fall 2015 was the first semester for UA Online, the ambitious new division that is making it all happen. The UA has plunged into a major effort to recruit globally for its online-only undergraduate degrees, which include administration of justice; care, health and society; information science and e-society; and multiple bachelor’s degrees in general studies, among others.

Baldwin arrived at the UA (virtually — he has never set foot in Arizona) with transfer credits also taken online. He is based in Little Rock, Arkansas, where  he’s in the National Guard and forecasts weather for the regional airport. His degree will open the door to attaining his next goal: becoming a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

He’s grateful to the UA for simplifying the paperwork, admissions, and advising involved in getting his degree. “They made it easy,” he says. 

What wasn’t easy was his coursework.

One of his UA classes covered this: “Introduction to sources and chemistry of atmospheric ions … electrical structure of clouds, thunderstorm electrification … lightning electromagnetic fields, mechanisms of lightning damage and lightning protection.” That class was his favorite, and maybe his toughest. 

He did the readings, watched the videos, uploaded his homework, and quickly got back comments on his work. “You can ask any questions you want,” 
he says.

This spring, UA Online is offering more than 60 courses, with 300 students selecting from 26 undergrad degree programs. 

“We are investing in high-quality, student-centered learning,” says Vincent Del Casino, the UA vice provost for digital learning and student engagement and associate vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. “We are putting courses and degree programs together, and, at the heart, we are discovering how students best learn interactively online.

“It’s not just a slice of the UA’s future, he says. “It’s essential to the University of Arizona.”

For many students, being an “asynchronous” student — not at the screen at any certain time — is a big plus. Class lectures are posted as videos that students can watch any time. One student, for example, logs on for classes in Qatar. When it’s 4 p.m. in Tucson, it’s 2 a.m. in Qatar — hardly prime coursework time. 

Even class discussions are asynchronous, using technology that lets students engage in video chat discussion boards. 

Online classes have been given at many U.S. colleges for decades. In fact, the UA has been in the online and distance education field for some time, offering 20 online master’s degrees and 26 graduate certificates. But offering 100 percent online undergraduate degrees is new and sets the UA apart from most other schools. 

Getting those degree programs online has been a gradual process. “The University as a whole is finding ways to make learning more engaging,” says Joshua Steele, associate director of online student services. “The medium is new. At some point, will we teach chemistry online? We hope so, but only if it meets the standards of the in-person chemistry class.”

For instructors new to teaching to a camera, Melody Buckner, the director of digital learning and online education, tells them to think about being in the movies.

“It’s like taking the same course content from a live theater to speaking on the big screen,” she says.

You can see one example on the website Coursera, which offers 1,400 free courses taught at colleges around the world. Select “Astronomy: Exploring Space and Time,” click “Start Learning,” and you can study the nature of the universe with the UA’s Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy. 

Impey’s class is an example of a MOOC, or massive open online course, a sometimes-controversial movement in global higher education. Some colleges question such efforts and shy away, but not the UA. As Buckner says, “We believe in open education for all ages.”

Getting instructors in front of the camera has unexpected benefits, Buckner says. “You can help the professor learn to get to the meat of the class and deliver it in ways that make it more digestible.”

In some cases, that means more, shorter lectures — or even filming outdoors, as happened with Geography 251, “World Regions: Comparative and Global Perspectives.” Del Casino, the course’s professor, filmed his lectures in locations along the U.S.-Mexico border. Through production by Luis Carrión, a UA videographer with eight Emmy awards, Del Casino’s short bursts of storytelling became minilectures of five to 15 minutes. The result is a dramatic and compelling online course. 

And what about the other benefits of being a UA student? For example, can online students get the same career advice? “Yes, absolutely,” says Steele. “Our professors respond to students by email and give encouragement right away.” To provide specialized support, the campus Career Services Center is building an entire online career readiness program for UA Online students.

Meanwhile, expenses for online students are lower. Costs per unit range from $490 to $550 for the Eller College online undergraduate business degree. Regular UA tuition is about $800 per unit for Arizona residents taking seven units or fewer.

Otherwise, everyone emphasizes, it’s the same UA degree. The diploma does not mention the word “online.” That’s why the UA’s approach insists that online programs be fully embedded in the University itself. Students face the same admission requirements.

They complete the same 120 units and face the same demands. 

In the past, higher education never fully served the potential student who could not make it to campus for classes, whether due to location or schedule. “Now we are helping to make education accessible to everyone, including those with family, work, and other barriers,” Steele says. “It is a global trend in higher education — and a good one.”

Travis Baldwin recommends UA Online to anyone, military or nonmilitary. “This is a way you can meet your own goals and stay where you are. It’s been awesome.”