Online and Distance Education Focuses on Quality, Student Success

Wolf statue on central campus.

With 95 programs and just under 20,000 students, NC State’s Online and Distance Education unit is continuing to grow and expand.

Since its beginning under the leadership of Associate Vice Provost Rebecca Swanson, the unit has grown its services and offerings with a continued focus on quality and student success. Swanson will retire in Spring 2018 after 22 years at NC State.

As part of the university’s land-grant role, Online and Distance Education is committed to providing optimum access to students and ensuring course offerings meet their educational needs. Swanson explained providing access to students who cannot come to campus is a main goal — whether they are geographically removed or their life circumstances prohibit them from attending.

“A focus on access, student success and the land-grant mission are really what we are all about in terms of distance education and the vision,” said Swanson.

Online and Distance Education’s inventory of programs focus on the master’s level to mirror the strengths of the university in the science, technology, engineering, math and education disciplines. Swanson explained that this was a very deliberate decision to enable the presence of NC State to be expanded across the state, country and even the world.

In addition, stand-alone flexible access courses are a large part of Online and Distance Education’s inventory. These individual courses across every college provide students with a wide breadth of choices and flexibility in completing their degrees or taking prerequisites.

“These courses have really energized all of DELTA because it is cool to figure out how to do mountain biking as an online course or courses with labs. Each has fostered the very best in creativity and faculty support that DELTA provides,” said Swanson.

Reorganizing, Growing, Serving

As of July 1, 2017, Media Production Services (MPS) joined Instructional Technology Design and Development (ITSD) to form the new unit Academic Technology Innovation (ATI). [Read more about the reorganization.]

Previously, the MPS was a team within Online and Distance Education unit. With the impending retirement of Swanson, DELTA’s Senior Management Team looked for opportunities to bring teams together who perform similar functions. The new ATI unit consists of staff members who are dedicated to enterprise academic technology support and development.

Swanson noted the goals behind the merge were for more efficiency and effectiveness. In terms of the Mediasite Help Desk and the LearnTech Help Desk, Swanson said she is already noticing advantages of sharing knowledge and workloads between the two.

“Faculty will benefit and appreciate timely responses or a variety of solutions from the help desks,” said Swanson.

The Online and Distance Education unit, which was previously named Distance and Distributed Education, is composed of staff members dedicated to expanding NC State’s reach to grow programs and enrollments, support existing programs, provide testing services, academic services, remote proctoring and administrative services.

Swanson explained that while a focus is on growth, it has to be managed growth with the utmost attention paid to quality in creating and maintaining academically rigorous programs.

“We are committed to ensuring online and distance education courses are the full equivalent of campus courses. We want to make sure that students have a quality educational experience as online learners,” she added. In addition, instructors can expect the same level of quality.

Helping students navigate online learning is another large part of Online and Distance Education. Lynda Hambourger is DELTA’s academic advisor within the unit and primarily serves Non-Degree Studies students. She spends time helping students who may have been out of school and are re-entering with previous courses and helps them find programs to fit their backgrounds and interests. With thousands of interactions with students every year, she answers the questions that students may not even know to ask.

A Look Back

Swanson has been with DELTA since its inception in 2000. When she started at NC State in 1996, there was no online learning. At that time, students would rent a set of videotapes for the semester or watch taped lectures on public access cable TV. Correspondence with faculty was conducted via phone or in person.

Past Provost Phillip Stiles had a vision about using technology for student success. According to Swanson, the internet was in its infancy but was believed to be a very viable means to deliver course content.

Providing a lesson that Swanson never forgot, Stiles issued a request for proposals (RFP) for faculty to come up with ideas for delivering an internet-based course in their academic discipline.

“I have never seen such a wonderful example of commitment and creativity that faculty brought to the academic process,” said Swanson. She added that a few of the original faculty members are still teaching the same courses from many years ago. While their delivery methods and learning management systems have changed, their commitment continues to shine through.

Swanson and others realized that the internet was quite the game changer. “Having a computer allows students from Manteo to the mountains of North Carolina to participate fully as an NC State student. They are not denied access to education anymore,” she added.

“It was a very valuable lesson to me that nothing will be accomplished without the commitment and buy-in from faculty, and a way we serve faculty is to serve their students,” said Swanson.

From the beginning, Swanson has seen online and distance education transform from “a nice option to have” to being an integral part of NC State’s commitment to access and student success. “I believe that is due in large part to organizations like DELTA that bring the very best of instructional design and technology and student and faculty support services,” she added.

Making an Impact

Swanson noted that it has been a privilege to see DELTA adapt to changing circumstances. When Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and disrupted the ability of local universities to offer courses, NC State participated in a program to offer courses, with waived tuition, to students who did not have a campus to go to. Swanson and her team reached out to faculty and had a plethora of volunteers.

“It was terrific to see students be able to register for courses and continue their studies. I think it was important for them to know that their country cared and they had something to look forward to — that it was not just the devastation around them but something positive,” said Swanson.

When the country experienced the economic downturn in 2008, Swanson and her team put together a website and program for people who had lost their jobs to quickly refocus and take courses that matched their skill sets and see new career choices. “It made a tremendous difference because we were able to respond so quickly and come together as an organization,” Swanson added.

When thinking about her time here at DELTA, Swanson noted the exciting and challenging aspects of growth. Not only has online learning evolved and changed, but DELTA itself has grown. “The demand of our programs and services is such that we are bursting at the seams, and that is a really good place to be,” she said.

Swanson credits the entire DELTA organization and incredible teams she has worked with for the success of Online and Distance Education.

“I could not possibly do anything that matters more than the work I have. It is so fulfilling to know that every day you are making a difference for students and faculty,” said Swanson.