As thousands of students swarm the University of Arizona campus in advance of the start of classes on Monday, thousands of others in remote places from Opelousas, Louisiana, to Corrina, Maine, and Ghana to Slovenia will sit down and log in. Now in its third year, UA Online is enrolling a record number of students who will benefit from a top-tier academic experience on the UA's virtual campus.
Since its debut in fall 2015, UA Online has seen 280 percent year-to-year growth, and it is on target to meet or exceed the Arizona Board of Regents' goals for online enrollment. Vincent Del Casino, vice president of Academic Initiatives and Student Success at the UA, expected enrollment figures for fully online graduate and undergraduate students to surpass 3,000 this fall. Much of that growth can be attributed to the addition of complete undergraduate programs available at UA Online.
"When the Arizona Board of Regents urged all three universities to expand access through the enhanced development of fully online degree programs, the University of Arizona responded quickly," Del Casino said. "Today, we are pleased to say that we have not only met our ABOR metrics but are starting to exceed those metrics through our successful outreach to students who previously attended the UA, our development of six corporate and nonprofit partnerships, and our tireless work to provide a more seamless pathway for Arizona transfer students.
"The UA has world-class people teaching amazing things, both on campus and now online."
One of those people is Roger Miesfeld, professor and head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the UA. Miesfeld, whose biochemistry classes regularly draw 400-450 students on campus, now teaches two classes — BIOC 384 and BIOC 385 — online.
"One of the goals of online education, which I really embrace, is the online course should be as rigorous and as content-driven as the in-class one," said Miesfeld, who has taught at the UA for nearly 30 years. "I am passionate about teaching. In the process of writing what is my third textbook, my publisher, W.W. Norton, created a fully functional e-book. I developed the e-media with them, and there was so much there that was ready for online.
"A lot of my passion comes from that project. So about two years ago, when the UA Online opportunity came along, I jumped at it."
With the coaching of his assigned UA instructional designer, Josie Strahle, Miesfeld built interactive lectures through VoiceThread, a digital discussion board technology that allows instructors to create slides supplemented by voiceovers, on-screen animations and videos. UA Online students can watch Miesfeld write notes on the screen, just as they would if they were in class.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
In a course review, one UA Online student wrote, "The way the professor incorporated VoiceThreads into the course made the information so much easier to understand. The course itself is difficult, so further explanations on the subject help greatly." Another noted, "I really liked the VoiceThreads done by Dr. Miesfeld, as I felt like he was my private tutor when I was watching them!" And a third commented, "I am always reluctant to take online courses, but I am so impressed with the VoiceThreads that the professor has put together. Not only am I able to view slides, he also does a voiceover in which he expands on what he has written on the slides. This helps me to understand the material that I need to know for discussions and exams. I wish all classes, even those that are in person, had VoiceThreads."
The comments, and requests from traditional students to access the online materials, prompted Miesfeld to re-evaluate how he teaches on campus, as well.
"I have taught in class for 30 years, then I did this online thing and it really took off. I started thinking, 'I wonder if my in-class is as good as my online?'" said Miesfeld, who has developed a method of recording his on-campus classes and, starting this fall, will provide VoiceThread-inspired videos for those students, as well. "Now my in-class kids are getting a course that's better than my previous in-class, and it's because I learned something by doing it online.”
The addition of undergraduate science classes — including those with labs, such as biology — comes on the heels of the UA Online's successful introduction of a complete selection of general education courses.
"We committed to being able to enroll someone and complete their entire degree online," Del Casino said of the uniqueness of UA Online's educational plan. "We had nutrition online; we had meteorology online; we had public health online. And those degree programs demand lower-division science. We are a very strong science campus. How do we leverage that? The idea was to provide for our students who are in our programs, but also create access to this world-class university and its science education from the outside."
The availability of online science courses has promoted a jump in enrollment in undergraduate programs in the applied sciences and UA Online's newest undergraduate degree program, geographic information systems technology. Miesfeld's biochemistry classes quickly hit the 75-seat cap, which he set to ensure each student an interactive learning experience.
"These are upper-division courses, and 60 percent or more of the students are pre-med. They are very motivated, very ambitious students. These are kids who are super busy, they just can't fit everything in," Miesfeld said. "So they get an online class. I noticed some of them enrolled this summer and then they went home — one went to Idaho, one went to New York — so now they're emailing me from all over the country. This course really provides a service. It provides a form of education they didn't have before."
"If done well, with the right pedagogy, it's hard to argue the quality of the experience," Del Casino said of online learning. "The way we've built it is highly interactive and very student-centered. Students, when they own their learning, do really well."