Keeping online education in line with students’ needs

By Ron Brown, February 20, 2015

With 30 years of experience as a pioneer in distance education, Liberty University has had a major impact in shaping the current state of online education.

In the beginning, videotaped lectures were delivered to students by mail, and assignments were submitted by hard copy. Now, state-of-the-art, net-based delivery systems create virtual classrooms and take advantage of the Internet’s ability to connect people from a variety of cultures.

“The whole design of a distance-learning course has been radically transformed,” said Liberty’s Provost Dr. Ronald Hawkins, who has been with the university since the early years of its distance-learning program. “With the advent of the Internet, students from all over the world can interact with their peers and teachers and receive real-time feedback. At Liberty, there has always been a motivation for global outreach, and our online courses are an avenue for that.”

Liberty is now the nation’s largest private, nonprofit online educator, offering over 200 online programs from the bachelor’s to doctoral level. There are currently more than 95,000 students enrolled in online courses. The average age of students is 36 years old, and most are married.

With such a broad scope, and in an effort to satisfy the many different interests of so many students, Liberty has worked to add both residential and online courses at an unprecedented rate.

“We are adding courses with the goal of preparing students for jobs in some of today’s fastest-growing markets,” Hawkins said.

These courses include a graphic design degree, leading to several media and marketing job opportunities, as well as business information systems degree options, where students learn application and database development, networking and security, web development, and gaming design.

He also said people are initially drawn to Liberty’s online programs because of the Christian worldview that is reflected in every course and because of the format — a convenient alternative for those who cannot afford to uproot their families and leave their careers to attend classes on a college campus.

“For adults who want to complete their education, or even begin a degree, taking courses online may be their only option,” Hawkins said.

A military student studies online.Online education has also allowed thousands of active-duty military service members to attend college wherever they are stationed. In fact, nearly one-third of current Liberty students are service members, veterans, or military spouses, representing all branches of the U.S. armed forces.

Students enrolled in online courses have become active participants in the university community.

“They follow our athletics teams, they come to campus for intensive courses and for Commencement. There’s a real sense of identity with their campus. Liberty’s online program is a popular choice because students have a brick-and-mortar campus they can call their own.”

To further encourage their relationship with the university, Liberty has recently enhanced its online experience by establishing a cyber student body called Online Communities. There, online students can communicate with one another, request academic counseling, watch streaming events live, receive spiritual encouragement through blogs and videos, or seek prayer.

The demand for online instruction has exploded over the past several years, requiring the coordination of several university departments. Liberty’s Information Technology department has continued to expand its equipment and its support staff to maintain the elaborate systems for the university’s growing online program.

“We have gone from supporting 18,000 students in 2006 to nearly 95,000 today,” said Matt Zealand, Liberty’s chief information officer. “The credit hours we support have increased about 10 times during the same period. That put a significant strain on network and server infrastructure, but God has blessed us. We have been able to maintain the quality of our service through innovative ideas, new technology, and architectural improvements in our systems.”

Zealand said that the demands on the university’s IT equipment requires ongoing vigilance and evaluation of vital systems to keep information flowing smoothly. This workload is handled by a team of highly skilled IT employees that has grown from 96 to 474 in the past eight years.

In addition to major upgrades to equipment, Liberty has streamlined and improved the management of its education programs over the past five years. All degree programs in a field of study, whether offered in a residential or online format, are consolidated under a single dean. Liberty has also made it a priority to meet national accreditation standards in all of its instructional programs.

“There is a commitment by the university to make what we do online every bit as challenging as what we do in our traditional classroom programs,” said Hawkins. “Ninety-nine percent of our online courses are prepared by the same professor that teaches the course on campus. If you get a degree from Liberty, you get a degree from Liberty. We don’t differentiate. The computer is a powerful tool for enhancing education.”

Steve Peterson, who heads efforts to recruit, admit, and retain online students as Liberty’s executive director of admissions, said the way online courses are presented is important.

“We try to present Liberty University as the overarching brand,” he said. “We then talk to the students about our delivery methods. The students understand that our online instructional programs are fueled by our campus instructional programs.”

Liberty’s online program can truly be a family experience. Through Liberty University Online Academy, children in grades K-12 can also learn online using this popular Bible-based homeschooling program supported by the resources of Liberty University. The program is structured, yet flexible, with certified teachers, academic counselors, and support staff readily available to assist each student. The online academy is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement and by AdvancEd, whose accreditation process has been approved by the Virginia Council for Private Education as authorized by the Virginia State Board of Education.

“Liberty’s online learning options are quite comprehensive,” Hawkins said. “From elementary age to adult, Liberty is able to meet the needs of growing, busy families who want to learn in a distinctly Christian environment. The online format is really meeting them where they are.”

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