Lessons Learned Building an Online Degree Program

Lessons Learned Building an Online Degree Program

Ottilie F. Austin (University of Virginia, USA), Gail M. Hunger (University of Virginia, USA) and Julie J. Gray (University of Virginia, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2101-3.ch010
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Many universities and colleges are moving courses and master's programs to online formats. The Masters of Reading program at the University of Virginia has a history of providing professional development to teachers in the Commonwealth through course work and the online Reading Degree program. This chapter will outline the growth of a state outreach master's degree program as it developed courses online beginning in 1999 and moved to a fully online degree program. The authors will discuss the importance of using a sound instructional design model and taking a close look at course evaluations to examine the design of the course and the quality of instruction. This chapter will discuss the success of our design, lessons learned and some of the challenges faced.
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We live in a time when working adults who want to pursue advanced degrees or more professional training are looking to online options. Professional schools and higher education institutions find that economic changes have a positive impact on overall enrollments and resonate closely with increasing demand for online courses (Allen & Seaman, 2008). There is widespread agreement that demands on time and need for flexibility will lead to more students selecting online courses. Many universities recognize this area of growth for professionals who work full time and are adult learners. The reading outreach program at the University of Virginia has observed these needs and the growth potential for over a decade. One way for the University of Virginia to expand its geographic reach and increase enrollment is through online education. The reading program area is experiencing an increase in enrollments and the need for multiple sections of online courses as a growing number of teachers apply for the reading degree or certificate programs and take courses for professional development.

The reading program area at the University of Virginia has long recognized the importance of professional development courses for teachers in the field and the needs of these adult learners.

Adults are characterized by maturity, self-confidence, autonomy, solid decision-making, and are generally more practical, multi-tasking, purposeful, self-directed, experienced, and less open-minded and receptive to change. All these traits affect motivation, as well as the ability to learn. (Pappas, 2013, n.p.)

The majority of online students in the reading program area courses are teachers who hold full time jobs and take classes part time to earn a reading specialist certificate or a master’s degree. In addition to teaching full time, many of the teachers enrolled in courses have families and other life responsibilities. The availability of online courses makes it convenient for teachers to pursue professional development and further their educational aspirations.

The teachers in these courses have high expectations to learn meaningful content and strategies that will help them better meet the needs of the students they teach. They tend to be self-directed learners who are good at establishing a schedule and goals for completing their weekly assignments. These adult learners are results-oriented and have high expectations to learn practical information to improve their classroom instruction. They appreciate the assignments that can be immediately implemented into daily classroom practice. Research shows that adult learners draw on their own experiences and have opinions that are often already formed by their experiences. Adult learners need to see tangible evidence that supports the principles and content that is presented in their courses. This is true of the teachers enrolled in our online courses. As adult learners who are full time teachers, our students appreciate the hands-on practice with material that they have success with in classroom use. According to Pappas (2013), it may take older adults more time to learn new content but they are better at integrating new information because of past experiences and more world knowledge. Because of this, in-service teachers often learn with much greater depth than do pre-service teachers. Consistent with the research on adult learners, the teachers in our online courses are motivated learners. They pursue course work and professional development because they want to, not because they have to. This is especially true in degree and certificate programs where an application for the program is required.

The University of Virginia’s Reading Program has a history of state outreach that began in 1984. From 1984-2000, the state outreach program relied on adjuncts traveling to the university’s regional centers and to course sites at school divisions, and on satellite broadcasts of lectures from the university faculty to course sites. With the advent of online learning platforms in the late 1990’s, the reading education program moved into web-based course-design and offered the first online reading course in the spring of 2000.

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