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Online education on the rise at Iowa's public universities

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Iowa’s public universities collectively have continued to increase distance education offerings, driving up enrollment in courses and programs available online and aligning with Board of Regents goals.

The University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa all offer both noncredit and credit-bearing courses online in hopes of extending the campuses “beyond their physical boundaries to meet the needs of state, regional, national, and international audiences.”

The Board of Regents lists “increasing distance education opportunities” as one of its strategic goals, and the universities are reaching their targetted goals, according to a recent progress report and a distance education report discussed Wednesday at a Board of Regents meeting.

According to the new regent report, total duplicated distance-education enrollment in credit courses across the three campuses reached 65,428 in the academic year that ended last summer. That was 9.9 percent — or 5,886 — more than the prior year.

Duplicated enrollment of Iowa-based students in 18,976 online credit courses in the 2014-15 academic year reached 52,728 across 833 communities in all 99 Iowa counties, according to the regent report. That represented an increase in enrollment of 443, or 2.4 percent, and a rise in communities of 67, or 8.7 percent.

Duplicated enrollment refers to total class counts, even if some students are signed up for more than one online course and thus counted more than once. Unduplicated enrollment refers to students who are counted just once — even if they’re taking more than one class.

Statewide duplicated enrollment totals for noncredit courses reached 599,552 in the 2014-15 school year — 94,988 or 18.8 percent over the prior year, according to regent documents.

The focus on, and increase in, distance education offerings and enrollment also lines up with recommendations from the Pappas Consulting Group, Inc., hired to evaluate e-learning and other potential efficiencies among the regent universities.

In a recent Pappas report on the subject, the group made several recommendations, including formally adopting the “Iowa Regents’ Model” as a basis for distance education and e-learning.

That model, according to the report, holds to three main values: linking distance education programs to existing, traditional, “face-to-face” programs that are central to each university’s brand; using full-time faculty as distance education instructors; and ensuring all courses and programs offered online “are of at least comparable quality to programs offered face-to-face.”

The Pappas group also challenged the universities to set “ambitious goals” for substantial program expansion, enrollment growth, and revenue increases.

According to the new regent report, University of Iowa in the last academic year saw the highest unduplicated distance education headcounts, with 2,595 enrolled in only distance courses and another 5,270 enrolled in both distance courses and on-campus courses.

Iowa State reported 1,540 students taking only online courses and 4,733 taking both distance and on-campus courses, while UNI reported 1,424 enrolled only online and 2,200 participating online and on campus.

All of those totals were up from the 2014 academic year, although UI saw the biggest boosts.

The subjects with the most credit-course registrations in the 2015 school year included business, management and marketing — with 11,007; education — with 6,288; and family and consumer sciences — with 5,380, according to the regent report. Subjects with the most non-credit-course registrations included agriculture and related sciences — with 177,021; personal awareness and self-improvement — with 117,341; and family and consumer sciences — with 79,340.

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