UT Knoxville Improving Online Education to Benefit Students

KNOXVILLE—The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is restructuring its online education program so students will find it easier to take courses, qualify for financial aid for those courses, and have more ties to the mainstream campus.

The Department of Distance Education and Independent Study is being phased out, and independent study courses—some of which are still done on paper and mailed back and forth between students and the office—will become fully online.

The last day for students to sign up for current independent study courses will be June 30, 2011. Students must complete those courses by December 31, 2011.

“We looked at how Top 25 universities handle distance education and independent study and realized we needed to make some changes in our program to better serve students and faculty,” said Sally McMillan, vice provost for academic affairs. “We also needed to be more efficient in how we enroll students and more consistent in how we run these courses.”

Independent study began decades ago to provide self-paced coursework in a flexible and accessible manner to students who were usually not on campus. Because it used the US mail as the delivery method, independent study was often referred to as “correspondence school.”

Annual enrollment in independent study has been steadily declining since fiscal year 2004, with only about five hundred students enrolled last year. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that the Hope Scholarship does not cover independent study and because online courses offered by other institutions have risen in popularity. All of the courses offered through UT’s independent study are the same as campus-based classes, and many have been converted to online formats in recent years.

Independent study courses will be transitioned into online courses that are fully integrated into the campus registration system. College departments will take full ownership of these courses.

“Although we’ve seen an overall drop-off in the number of students taking independent study in recent years, we’ve noticed that more of the students still taking these classes have been on-campus students,” McMillan said. “As we transition to online, the primary audience for these courses will be UT students. However, students who are not admitted to UT can take up to fifteen hours of online courses as ‘visiting students.’”

Some of the new campus-based online courses may be available as early as summer 2011. The goal is to have all of them offered at least once each academic year starting with 2011–2012.

UT’s Office of Instruction Technology and the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center will be offering summer workshops for faculty interested in creating and teaching online courses. Faculty who complete the workshops and then teach online courses will be paid stipends of up to $3,000 per class.

Different styles of online courses will be offered.

Some may be conducted completely online with some flexibility in when students review materials and complete assignments. However, students will be expected to complete all classes within the term they’re registered—a full semester, a half semester, summer, or mini-term. Some classes will follow the same timing and structure as face-to-face classes and have online students participating in the same lecture or discussion section as students who are in a classroom. Other courses will use a variety of hybrid delivery methods that require students to do some work in a classroom and some online.

The term “distance education” has been used at UT in recent years to refer to degrees and certificates (usually at the master’s level) that are offered to students who are not on campus. In the future, the term “distance” will refer more to students than to programs as UT enhances online offerings for both on-campus and off-campus students.

Two task forces have reviewed UT’s independent study program and made many of the recommendations now being implemented.

Six of the positions in the Department of Distance Education and Independent Study will be eliminated as of July 1; the remaining three will be eliminated as of December 31. All of the employees have been notified and have been encouraged to seek employment elsewhere at the university.

The office closure is not a cost-savings measure. Funding now associated with running the office will be reallocated to administer the restructured online course program.

CONTACT:

Amy Blakely, (865-974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu)

 

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