Way back in 2009, the University of Kentucky offered its first online masters degree in library science. Since then, UK’s online offerings have grown slowly, with a handful of graduate degrees and classes developed by interested faculty over the years.
Meanwhile, the world of online higher education has expanded rapidly in Kentucky, with all public universities jumping to offer classes and degrees that can be completed from the comfort of home. Eastern Kentucky University, for example, has roughly 40 online degree programs and Western Kentucky University has 50.
Nationally, about 5.9 million students had enrolled in at least one online college class in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and by 2016, the number had reached 6.2 million.
Now, facing external pressures to prepare more students for the workforce and internal pressures to find new revenue sources, UK is ready to dramatically expand its online offerings.
By next fall, officials have announced, they want to offer about 25 more online certificates and degrees, everything from a proposed undergraduate certificate in bourbon and wine distillation to upgraded nursing degrees to classes that help finish an undergraduate degree. All proposed classes have to be approved by the faculty senate and the UK Board of Trustees by early next year.
Kathi Kern, associate provost of teaching, learning and academic innovation, is overseeing the roll out of the new programs. Even as a research university, UK faces questions about how well its students are prepared for the workforce, she said.
“I feel like we’re at a moment in higher education where we need to not bury our heads in the sand. If there’s a critique of how we’re preparing students, we need to take that head-on,” she said.
As for revenue, schools are constantly searching for ways to support themselves without raising tuition following a decade of state funding cuts. Online education could help.
“It is a piece of a larger plan to try to take charge of our destiny as a university,” Kern said.
She thinks online education is an important part of UK’s land grant status.
“States gave universities this land to do this work, we have a mission to the state and to regular people,” she said. “We’re trying to be entrepreneurial and innovative, but we really believe it’s at the heart of the mission.”
UK officials hope to sync some of the new offerings with Project Graduate, which is aimed at finding students who left school just a few credits shy of graduating, then helping them finish their degrees. But Kern said most of the online offerings will be aimed at adult learners, who want to upgrade their credentials with a new certificate or degree.
Prices have not yet been finalized; they will probably range from $490 per credit hour to $915 per credit hour, based on current costs for in-state, part-time students.
Geography professor Matthew Wilson helped start an online masters degree in digital mapping in 2015 because of huge changes in technology and the ways digital mapping can be applied.
“We came around to online education because we knew there was a new set of students we weren’t reaching,” he said. “We’ve had to learn on our feet.”
WIlson said they’ve had about 170 students take digital mapping classes online and about half of them received certification in the field. From those students, the geography department selected about 12 for the online masters program.
“There’s a misconception at all levels of the university, a general uncertainty about whether teaching in the online space is more or less work than face to face,” Wilson said. In fact, he said, it sometimes requires a lot of one on one, or screen to screen, “feedback in whether students understand the core concepts. I do think we’re producing some really top quality students.”
UK officials are also excited by the potential uses of new technology, such as a lightboard developed on campus that allows a professor to look into the camera while they are writing on a piece of glass. The computer then flips the image so the writing appears correctly to the student.
All the proposed classes come from individual faculty and departments, and some will be handled in a cross-department collaboration, such as a proposed program in nutrition put together by the Colleges of Agriculture, Medicine and Health Sciences.
“I feel really fortunate the university also sees it (online education) as potential help to alleviating some of our pressures,” Wilson said. “It’s not going to solve the whole problem of funding higher education, but it allow us to reach student populations we wouldn’t be allowed to reach and work with interesting intellectual questions we haven’t been able to face in the regular program.”