By Katharine Webster
Dr. Jenn McCollum is the kind of teacher who makes students’ hair stand on end. She writes about zombies in Victorian novels. She challenges students to make meaningful connections between literature and their lives. She pushes them out of their comfort zones.
“I ask them for a lot. I’m very demanding,” she says. “In order for our grad students to move forward and become part of the profession, they have to be held to high standards.”
On the website RateMyProfessors.com, students in her Graduate Seminar in World Literature rate her 1.7 out of 5 on the “Easiness” scale, but she gets a 4.3 in “Helpfulness.”
McCollum says that’s because she does everything she can to support her students, from making a series of videos on strong academic writing to responding quickly to questions and making herself available by phone, Skype or email.
“Especially the first couple of weeks of class, it’s very challenging. They’re almost offended,” she says. “But at the end, they’re saying, ‘That was the best trip of my life.’”
McCollum, who won SNHU’s Excellence in Teaching Award at commencement last May, is the poster child for the College of Online and Continuing Education’s philosophy of academic quality: high academic expectations matched with strong academic and administrative support for students.
“The mantra underpinning everything is ‘student success,’” says Christine Malady Wood, director of Outcomes and Assessment.
That means giving students – and faculty – the tools they need to achieve at high levels, while being forthright about the effort required to succeed, says Dr. Gregory Fowler, chief academic officer and vice president of Academic Affairs.
“We’re committed to helping you as long as you’re willing to do the climb,” he says.
Supporting Student Success: Advising and Adapting
The way academic quality is discussed and measured has changed as COCE has grown. At first it was tied to campus quality. Programs and courses developed on campus were offered online with few changes.
“We worked very closely in the beginning with the deans of the campus departments to understand which programs we could offer our online students, and we offered the very same programs,” says Mary Higgins, assistant vice president of program launch. “That was leveraging our strengths. We had expert academics on campus.”
But instructors and administrators quickly realized that online students were different, and the type of support they needed was also different. Most were older than on-campus, full-time college students. Most had families, jobs or other major responsibilities. Many had tried traditional higher education, with mixed results.
For example, Audrey Greathouse, 21, came to COCE after a disappointing experience at a different school. She was impressed with the quality of the B.A. in English program and the freedom attending online provided her.
“With manageable – but deeply intellectually challenging – course loads in every class, I really do feel that I had an opportunity here that I wouldn’t have had with any other institution in the country,” she says.
COCE staff have put a lot of thought into figuring out how to help these “nontraditional” students build their skills and confidence and move steadily toward graduation. Early steps included creating SNHU 107: Success Strategies for Online Learning, to help less-experienced students identify their learning styles, master the Blackboard system used in online courses, develop time-management and study skills, and best utilize available resources.
Another crucial innovation was the use of full-time, professional advisors in different specialties: new-student advisors for intensive handholding during an undergraduate’s first three terms, academic advisors to guide more seasoned undergrads and graduate students through their program requirements, and a military advising group for current and former service members.
Supervisors and “team leads” monitor advisors’ calls and emails to make sure they’re motivating students, providing accurate information, offering appropriate resources, and expressing care and support. But the conversation goes two ways: Advisors learn what is working – and what isn’t – for their students. Academic leaders use that feedback to improve programs, courses and instruction. For example, COCE recently revised its information technology and criminal justice degrees to offer more practical skills that students said their employers wanted, says Amelia Manning, vice president of Advising and Student Success.
“We are a continuous-improvement organization,” Manning says.
The most important thing advisors learned was that online students – who often studied late at night after finishing work and putting the kids to bed – were falling asleep, literally.
That led to the second generation of online education: innovative learning tools. COCE course designers began experimenting with ways to keep online students engaged. They tried video demonstrations, simulations and virtual labs. They worked with academic publishers to develop online textbooks with multimedia features and pop-up tutorials. They added adaptive “workbook” software such as MyMathLab, which senses when a student is struggling and offers extra help.
Innovation isn’t limited to course materials. COCE has piloted and adopted a number of direct and indirect supports. It contracted with SmartThinking, a 24/7 online tutoring service. It created its own social networking platform to combat online-student isolation: SNHUconnect lets students ask each other questions, meet up in virtual clubs, organize offline activities, gripe about difficult classes and teachers, and celebrate achievements. This year, COCE is piloting an in-house writing center because many new students struggle with academic writing.
When it began offering online-only programs, COCE had to find new ways to ensure academic quality. So COCE leaders turned their attention to defining the learning outcomes students were expected to achieve and figuring out precise ways to measure them. Online courses no longer had to be twins of their on-campus counterparts, but students had to hit all the same milestones and achieve the same program outcomes.
“If I tell you to get to Boston, I don’t care if you take I-93 or I-95,” Fowler says. “I just want you to get to Boston.”
Outcomes and Assessments
Outcomes and assessments are “Academic Quality 101,” Manning says. The movement is a trend in higher education – especially online education – as schools strive to prove themselves to accrediting agencies and the federal government, which determines whether a school’s students can receive financial aid.
“We’re saying, ‘This is what you will learn in this program of study, and we’ll be able to show whether you did or didn’t learn it,’” says Dr. Bruce Stetar, executive director of Graduate Business Programs and associate vice president of Outcomes and Assessment.
To do that, COCE adopted a meticulous process of reverse engineering for programs, courses and lessons (also called modules). While COCE still works closely with campus faculty for shared programs, COCE curriculum designers bring in groups of “subject matter experts” to design their online-only programs. These experts – including professors from campus and other universities with strong programs, as well as industry leaders such as Jerry Davis of NASA (see sidebar on the previous page) – meet for several days to brainstorm the skills and concepts, or outcomes, students should master by the time they graduate.
Once program outcomes are determined, COCE curriculum experts break each program down into courses, each with its own set of outcomes. Then SNHU brings in faculty or outside experts to develop individual courses: Each one works with an instructional designer who helps him or her figure out how to teach the course outcomes, assess student learning and create a grading rubric. They also choose the texts and other resources, develop assignments and break the course into weekly modules.
“The ultimate goal is to get to the point where for each program we have a set of outcomes, and each course in that program maps back to those outcomes,” Stetar says. “When we build new programs, we have that all in place, but some of those old programs need to go through a process of realignment.”
The program and course production pipeline is impressive, but it’s not the only guarantee of academic quality. Over the past two years, as COCE’s online-only offerings have grown exponentially, so has academic hiring.
“There’s been a huge effort to build our own academic teams so we can work more independently and focus on programs we can offer our online students that we might not offer on campus,” Higgins, from the program launch group, says.
This starts with strong leaders, including Fowler, whose more than 20 years in education include being selected twice as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Europe; classroom teaching at Penn State University and at the renowned JFK Institute for North American Studies in Berlin, Germany; and holding leadership positions at the National Endowment for the Humanities and Western Governors University – a nonprofit, online university often cited for excellence in new education models.
Under Fowler are seven academic program units (Undergraduate and Graduate Business, Social Sciences, Liberal Arts, STEM, Health Professions and Regional Centers); each has an executive director with a terminal degree in his or her field, as well as associate and assistant deans and faculty team leads who monitor, support and motivate instructors.
Also under Fowler are academic operations departments with dozens of quality assurance people, including specialists in instructional design, outcomes and assessments, learning resources, academic technologies, program launch and project management, as well as faculty recruitment, training and development teams.
COCE has also sought nationally recognized benchmarks of academic quality, Fowler says.
SNHU developed its online bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing by partnering with six New Hampshire community colleges that graduate registered nurses. The online nursing programs also must meet the standards of a professional accrediting agency. Similarly, a human resources degree meets national standards set by associations of HR professionals.
In rapidly changing fields like information technology and health care, COCE also checks in periodically with industry experts about where they see their industries going in the next few years. For example, both STEM and healthcare programs have advisory councils made up of leading professionals with whom they meet regularly to discuss program quality and industry trends.
Finally, COCE curriculum designers also make sure to incorporate less tangible, but vital, liberal arts meta-skills that will help graduates as they advance in their careers or switch fields. These intellectual and life skills – the ability to collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds, to research and analyze, to think critically and creatively across disciplines, to parse ethical dilemmas, and to communicate well – are built into every program of study, from creative writing to IT.
“I’m much more interested in the higher-level thinking skills than whether you can recite little factoids,” says Fowler, a former literature and American studies professor.
This big-picture focus gives SNHU its unique identity among online schools and distinguishes SNHU graduates in the job market, says Mark LePage, assistant dean of IT. For example, industry leaders have told him there’s a strong need for IT professionals who can write coherent proposals and communicate with colleagues in non-technical jobs.
“One guy I was talking to said, ‘I can find programmers anywhere. But get me people who can communicate, and I can work with them on the programming,’” LePage says.
Program and course design, expert and industry input, national standards, and strong supports for students help guarantee academic quality. But the picture wouldn’t be complete without strong faculty.
Teaching Students, Not Just Subjects
At many traditional universities, faculty are hired and promoted based on their record of research and publication in academic journals, sometimes at the expense of teaching. They also have more freedom to design their own courses. That can be great, but it can also leave students confused about what they are supposed to be learning.
COCE turns that model on its head, giving instructors a course framework and evaluating them on how well they help students achieve the stated academic outcomes. Before adjuncts teach a single class, they must pass COCE’s online training course, which teaches them everything from how to use Blackboard to how to work with advisors and support their students.
“We want to make sure the instructor is a good cultural fit,” says Matthew Thornton, assistant vice president of Student Success. “The model we have is: You are not a traditional sage on the stage, lecturing to these students; you are digging in, rolling up your sleeves, and working with the students to help them achieve these outcomes.”
COCE eschews the traditional, tenure-track professor model in favor of adjuncts, who can teach from anywhere in the country – or the world. However, it’s now experimenting with hiring full-time instructors to help ensure academic quality, Fowler says.
“One of the things they do is allow us to have an academic anchor in the various fields they’re in,” Fowler says. “We need to have people who are gatekeepers of academic quality, the academic integrity of each program.”
Dr. David Underwood joined SNHU’s faculty in 2006 and became a full-time instructor in fine arts and humanities in 2013. In addition to teaching, he interviews prospective instructors, revises courses and serves on a curriculum committee and the new faculty-orientation committee.
“Many of us have skills in the areas of curriculum development and committee work,” he says. “We have become more like full-time faculty in traditional classroom situations.”
Underwood helped hire Karen Wilkinson, a career communications professional who taught as an adjunct for two years before going full-time this summer. Wilkinson, like other full-time faculty, was hired for her exceptional abilities in designing and teaching “gateway” courses – in her case, the introductory course for the M.A. in Communication program. Students spend much of the class articulating their goals and strategies and examining their resources.
“That first course is so essential,” she says. “Now you have a roadmap to success.”
In her first term as a full-timer, Wilkinson is teaching three classes, revising the introductory communication course for undergrads and serving as a team lead to other instructors. In this last role, she maintains an Internet meeting space where more than 20 communication instructors can take webinars together to enhance their skills, ask questions and share best teaching practices.
The Team Approach
The team model is also new to COCE. Teams are meant to improve academic quality and ensure students get a consistent experience and are graded similarly, regardless of the instructor.
Not all team leads are full-timers: McCollum is a team lead for 15 adjuncts in the graduate English program. Part of the team lead role is to go into each instructor’s classes once a week and check whether he or she is giving students constructive feedback, offering the appropriate learning resources and working with advisors. She also keeps an eye on how closely instructors adhere to the rubric.
“Are they directing students toward new and interesting ways of thinking about the text and the context?” she says. “Are instructors using the language of the rubric to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of students’ writing, or are they vague?”
Similarly, instructors are expected to monitor their students.
“We can tell when a student logs on, how long they’re on and how active they’ve been,” says Patrick Allen, a full-time high school English teacher who also teaches evening face-to-face and hybrid classes at COCE’s Salem and Portsmouth centers. Instructors can also set up little red flags within Blackboard that tell them when a student is falling behind, has “disappeared” or is struggling with the material.
Allen served as a subject matter expert for two courses: British Literature I and American Realism and Naturalism. He was impressed with the instructional designer and her willingness to incorporate unusual assignments. For example, when studying the poet Walt Whitman, Allen assigns his classroom students to go outside and do what Whitman did: “I loaf and invite my soul, I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” But he didn’t think the online designer would go for it.
“For the modern student to get Whitman, they need to shut everything off. They need to read him on paper with birds chirping in the background,” Allen says. “When I sent this example over, she said, ‘That’s great!’ She was really willing to take risks with the modules and some of the activities.”
The Tip of the Iceberg
So how do students experience all the data collection and analysis, student supports, quality assurance and pilot projects that go into ensuring academic quality?
For the most part, they don’t. They see only the tip of the iceberg, usually at the beginning of their academic journeys, when enrollment counselors and advisors check in often and smooth their way, and at the end, when they’re seeking jobs or promotions. The rest of the iceberg is hidden until they encounter a problem.
Sylvia Stein, a 44-year-old Spanish teacher from North Carolina who is earning her M.A. in English and Creative Writing, turned to her advisor when she struggled with early assignments in her first class.
“I was overwhelmed in the beginning, and sometimes you don’t click right away with professors,” she says.
Stein felt the instructor was not communicating the assignments clearly and that some of her feedback was more critical than helpful. The advisor facilitated a conversation with the instructor and referred Stein to the SmartThinking tutoring service for help with her writing. The instructor responded well to Stein’s feedback but also helped Stein realize she needed to step up her game.
“She taught me to challenge myself and push myself harder. I started with a C+ in her class, and since then I have all As and one B,” says Stein.
For Joe Piazza, a 48-year-old retired police officer in Rome, New York, who wants a second career that matches his skills, the support of COCE’s instructors, advisors and technical-services staff has been essential for dealing with his crazy full-time work schedule, computer breakdowns and more.
“Everyone’s been so accommodating, as long as they can tell you’re putting in the effort,” he says.
Piazza finds SNHU makes sure students have quick access to help at all hours, he says.
“You contact the library, you contact the tutoring service or you send your professor an email – there’s always someone you can contact to get help pretty quickly,” he says.
Whitney Holt, 34, a veteran and married mother who lives in Tennessee, had a successful career in real estate before the economy tanked a few years ago. She found a job in collections at Citibank but quickly realized no one would take her seriously until she completed her college degree. SNHU’s instructors encouraged her to apply her classroom learning in the workplace and built up her confidence. She won three job promotions at Citibank and, after earning her B.S. in Business Studies (with a concentration in Business Finance) with honors in 2012, interviewed for a global-supply-chain job at Eastman Chemical. She beat out hundreds of applicants to land the job and now is working toward a master’s in applied economics.
Her experience demonstrates that, despite all the changes behind the scenes, academic quality at COCE has been seamless from the days of identical online and on-campus degrees to the present.
“The people who interviewed me asked how long I’d lived in New Hampshire. They thought I’d moved up there,” says Holt. “No one realized it was an online school.”
That’s the bottom line of academic quality for most COCE students and graduates: career advancement.
Robert Smith, 44, is a South Carolina family man who owns a small horse farm and works full time. A veteran, he parlayed human resources skills he learned in the military into a series of HR jobs, mostly in recruitment. But his career stalled, and, like many other COCE students, he knew he needed a college education to move forward.
“I’ve always counted myself unique and lucky that I was able to climb as high as I did with so little education-wise, and I knew it was something I was going to have to do,” he says.
He started at the University of Phoenix, a for-profit, online-only school, and switched to SNHU after earning his associate degree. His classes at SNHU are rigorous, but the level of student support allows him to spend more time on classwork and less on administrative logistics.
Most importantly, although he hasn’t yet completed his B.S. in Business Administration, he recently beat out 250 other candidates to win a satisfying new job: human resources manager at Anderson Brass. Smith largely credits his instructors and strong classes in human resources, organizational behavior and management.
“The level of curriculum that I’ve received has been very relevant, very up-to-date,” he says. “And it’s very portable – it can be taken to just about any profession a student sees fit to explore.”