Central Ohio colleges and universities are upping the ante on eLearning and distance education.

Central Ohio colleges and universities are upping the ante on eLearning and distance education. A look at how online degree programs factor into higher ed's future.

The Internet has disrupted every sector, and higher education is no exception. Online programs are changing the way students earn degrees at brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. Many of central Ohio's academic institutions are investing in online initiatives to stay competitive.

As eLearning gains wider acceptance among students and administrators, academic institutions and faculty are wrestling with the hows and whys of integrating online courses into traditional college curriculums.

While a majority of academic leaders nationwide rate online education as the same or superior to face-to-face instruction, only 28 percent of chief academic officers report that faculty accept the "value and legitimacy of online education," according to the 2015 Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States report. The annual report is published by Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the Online Learning Consortium, Pearson and Tyson Partners learning companies.

The report notes that colleges are challenged by lower retention rates for online students and the "additional effort" required to deliver online courses. Despite those hurdles, colleges and universities continue to grow their online course offerings.

Many central Ohio colleges offer degree programs which are conducted entirely online, often directed towards working professionals and nontraditional students. Most institutions offer at least some online classes, or blended programs which mix online and on-campus classes.

"We're seeing academic terms where up to 67 percent of our students are taking at least one of their courses virtually," says Tom Erney, dean of digital education and instructional services at Columbus State Community College. Five years ago, that was in the ballpark of 35 to 39 percent. Erney says online courses offer convenience and a faster track to graduation, especially for working and nontraditional students.

Erney's position was created in 2004, though he's been directing Columbus State's distance education and instructional services since 1997.

In that time, Columbus State's offerings have expanded from a single online accounting course to 15 online associate degree programs and 37 online certificate programs. Depending on the academic term, Columbus State runs 900 to 1,000 course sections online, with upwards of 500 faculty members teaching one or more online class.

Online programs are built around on-demand, multimedia coursework that may be blended with traditional face-to-face instruction. Within the past decade, eLearning has become a critical factor in the growth strategies of many central Ohio colleges and universities.

These institutions have hired instructional designers and content development staff. They've invested in the learning management systems on which digital courses are administered. They've increased bandwidth to support students who take virtual classes using campus Wi-Fi or computer labs. They provide IT support and increasingly digitized library collections to support online students.

"Some institutions have become very sophisticated in their abilities to create multimedia content" says Erney. Faculty now work closely with colleges' instructional design teams to develop online versions of their courses.

Columbus State, for example, employs 15 instructional designers who help translate text-based, in-class instruction to the Skype lectures, animated exercises and discussion boards that make up online courses. Erney's department works with all of Columbus State's academic departments to design courses and train instructors to use Blackboard, the school's learning management system.

"Online education and distance learning impacts every single one of the programs that I manage," says Tom Habegger, dean of health and human services at Columbus State. For faculty accustomed to teaching face-to-face from textbooks, reframing their lectures and assignments in a digital format can be daunting, he says. "We have come light-years in a really short period."

Online programs have advanced just as quickly at Ohio State University.

Ohio State began offering a few online classes in 1998. In 2003, the university launched its first online degree program, a master of science in welding engineering. In Dec. 2012, OSU formed the Office of Distance Education and eLearning. For the first time, in 2015 OSU required each of its colleges to include distance learning strategies in their enrollment plans.

Mike Hofherr, who oversees distance and online education as Ohio State's VP and chief information officer, says the office has a mandate to help faculty and colleges move programs online. The office has between 10 to 12 instructional designers and five to seven videographers, programmers and communications specialists.

OSU online courses run on Brightspace LMS-branded as "Carmen" for Ohio State. The university is currently piloting a new LMS tool to determine whether to upgrade the existing platform or move to a new LMS in the next 12 to 24 months.

OSU currently offers 13 online degree programs. They include bachelor's programs in nursing, health sciences and dental hygiene; master's programs in engineering, agricultural sciences, education, social work and nursing; and a doctor of nursing practice.

These programs are not geared towards typical 18- to 22-year-old undergrads, says Hofherr. "These degrees are more focused on professionals."

OSU's traditional degree programs do incorporate some online courses. Hofherr says the university wants students to have multiple options for completing their degrees quickly and cost-effectively. OSU's online degree students pay in-state tuition rates.

This allows out-of-state students to "get an Ohio State education at a much-reduced rate," says Hofherr.

"It's the same diploma, it's just a different classroom. You have the same faculty and the same expectations."

Ohio State's goal is to run 35 online degree programs enrolling 3,000 students by 2020. The university weighs a number of factors before introducing new online courses including student demand, potential revenue and job placement prospects for graduates.

"We work with a dean on how they want to incorporate distance education into their curriculum," says Hofherr. "It's a very college-by-college strategy."

For Ohio Dominican University, the strategy for developing online programs is centered on enrolling professional and adult learners.

"Online programs have already in the last three to four years made a big impact on our enrollment, particularly on the graduate side," says John Naughton, director of graduate admissions for ODU. "That's going to allow us to expand our footprint beyond our own backyard and continue to grow into the future."

In the 2007-2008 academic year, ODU introduced an online master of education program. Since then, ODU has added online bachelor's degrees and graduate business, English and education degrees through its Adult and Continuing Education Department.

ODU introduced an online MBA program in 2010. Those courses fill up the fastest, says Naughton. Online MBA students in central Ohio still have the benefit of connecting with faculty face-to-face or taking traditional MBA courses on campus.

"People really do continue to get that individual attention that you would expect from a small liberal arts institution," says Naughton. ODU has 41 faculty teaching at least one online course. The university employs two full-time instructional designers. This fall, ODU will move to the Brightspace LMS.

For the past several years, 50 percent of ODU graduate students have been taking some online courses; in fall 2014, 59 percent of those were doing all of their coursework online. The percentage of exclusively online students jumped to 76 percent in fall 2015, says Naughton. "That's even more notable because we had an overall (graduate enrollment) growth of 19 percent."

Right now, ODU has more adult students taking on-campus courses, says Naughton. "We expect that to flip in the next few years as the generations continue to change and people are more comfortable with the technology."

Franklin University has offered online courses since the 1997-1998 academic year, and was one of 15 colleges selected by the US Department of Education to pilot online degree programs in the late '90s.

Everything we do at the institution supports online learning," says Christopher Washington, provost and SVP for academic affairs at Franklin University. "It's part of our DNA."

All of Franklin's degrees can be attained online-a total of more than 40 undergraduate and nine graduate programs. The programs advance Franklin's mission to "bring more of the workplace into the classroom, and more of the classroom into the workplace," says Washington.

Online programs are also critical for Franklin's international growth. The university established its International Institute for Innovative Instruction in 2014. The Institute's instructional design team works with faculty to build courses on Franklin's proprietary BlueQuill LMS. Being an early eLearning adopter, Franklin was one of the institutions that pioneered the development of commercial learning management systems.

Franklin's international partnerships have introduced online education to institutions in Ghana, Poland, Macedonia, Turkey, Slovakia, India, Nepal, Oman, Serbia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Ukraine. These colleges build their online programs using Franklin's BlueQuill LMS.

Washington says university leaders "anticipate increased globalization" facilitated by online programs in the near and long-term. "I'm really excited about the future."

Kitty McConnell is associate editor.