Looking back on her 22-year career at NC State, Rebecca Swanson is especially proud of how Online and Distance Education at NC State has transformed into part of the core mission of the university transitioning from an extension activity to providing an education equivalent to campus-based instruction.
“We are integral to the overall mission of the university. We are a way of providing access, of offering opportunities to students who are unable to come to campus,” said Swanson, who has served as the associate vice provost of Online and Distance Education since 2004 and retired April 1, 2018.
Swanson began at NC State in 1996 in a group known as Instructional Telecommunications. Swanson joined DELTA when it was created in 2000. Under Swanson’s leadership, Online and Distance Education has 99 online programs and enrolls nearly 20,000 students a year.
While Swanson doesn’t want to take credit for this success because of the incredible team effort surrounding it, the growth can largely be attributed to her forward-thinking vision and dedication to DELTA, NC State, and the many students, faculty and staff she has impacted in her 22-year journey.
Along the way, there have been challenges that Swanson has welcomed and solved at every turn through teamwork.
A Look Back
It was a vision of past Provost Philip Stiles that encouraged faculty to develop internet-based courses, an endeavor called Project 25. “I was very involved in Project 25, all the proposals came to me, and I laid them out on the mother of all Excel spreadsheets,” Swanson laughed as she remembered. “There was such a variety of proposals and ideas, and I thought, that’s what a Research I institution does. Faculty got excited about it, and it was not that we could promise them a lot of remuneration or development support, yet those faculty were so committed,” she added. There are still faculty from Project 25 teaching today in Online and Distance Education programs.
When DELTA began, there were three existing distance education programs: Instructional Telecommunications (later renamed Flexible Access), Textiles Off-Campus Televised Education (TOTE) and Video-Based Engineering (VBEE). While TOTE and VBEE have their own legacy administrative structure, all funding for every distance education course and program comes through DELTA.
DELTA still provides Flexible Access, the standalone courses for any student who can meet the prerequisites. There are courses in a variety of topic areas such as Health and Exercise Studies, electives, language requirements and many more. The Flexible Access program has grown significantly over the years.
As time progressed, all three of the original programs moved content from video-based and cable television to online, all while making the transitions seamless for faculty. Swanson noted one of the biggest challenges was finding an early adopter willing to develop their entire program online.
“Our first online program was Forest Biomaterials as it is now called, at that time it was Wood and Paper Science. That program is still running and has a large international presence as well,” Swanson said.
She added, “We really needed that proof of concept. Once that was established, then we were able to get others to see the advantage of it. Another early program was the College of Education’s Training and Development with Dr. Jim Burrow. Again, some of the courses were already available by video but it was converting instructional format to online technologies and making sure that students had some means of interacting with the instructor.”
Today, the Online and Distance Education program is in the process of adding its 100th program.
It’s All About Student Success
In 2006, Online and Distance Education began offering in-house student services which Swanson noted has really made a difference. “Before, we did not know what their experience was, we did not know what resources they needed, how we could better their experience and we just felt that a closer connection would enhance the program. I do believe that has paid off,” she said.
Around the same time, DELTA leveraged campus entities such as Scholarships and Financial Aid, the Cashier’s Office and Registration and Records to provide their services for Online and Distance Education students as well. “So it didn’t matter whether you were distance or campus students, the same groups provided those services,” Swanson added.
DELTA Testing Services was established in 2007 as a service for faculty to have their exams administered in a professional, secure and monitored setting. DELTA Testing Services now has two test center locations on Main and Centennial Campus and facilitates remote proctoring to administer more than 70,000 exams annually.
With a focus on students, Online and Distance Education works with faculty to ensure each course they are interested in developing lends itself to a group of students who need that particular content delivery method to succeed in their program. Swanson and her team continue to provide support for courses and programs with the highest quality in mind to enhance student success.
“I do believe the driver for that success is that NC State faculty develop the courses, they teach the courses, they are responsible for both distance education and campus courses, and it really shows in the academic quality and the richness of the experience. We deliberately, from the very beginning, played to the university’s strengths in the STEM disciplines and in graduate education.”
Another driver for success is DELTA’s ability to adapt to change. Swanson said, “We not only deal with challenges in providing equivalency through online means but we welcome those challenges. Whatever the challenge is, we make it happen. That commitment to excellence that DELTA has to make sure that every course we offer, every program we offer is a credit to the university.”
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 current devastation around them but something positive for the future,” said Swanson.
When the country experienced an 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 called Focus on the Future. “It made a tremendous difference because we were able to respond so quickly and come together as an organization,” said Swanson.
She added, “That is when the growth phenomenally took off…..people realized that NC State was interested, first and foremost, in helping people adjust to circumstances in a time when they may be unemployed or underemployed to develop skills that will serve them in a new career.”
Swanson’s retirement plans include moving to her beach house, exploring the country and traveling abroad. She is also working on writing a book about the historical effect of natural disasters on the United States culture and society.
When asked about the new Associate Vice Provost of Online and Distance Education Tim Petty, Swanson says, “I certainly think it has been a smooth transition, and I am confident that Tim will provide the leadership and direction to continue the accomplishments that DELTA has worked hard to achieve in the last 18 years. I am confident, too, that he will be eager to explore new avenues, new approaches, new ideas as they occur because the key requisite for this position is being able to adapt to change as technology change,” she said.
Swanson reminisced about how she took a class and developed the very first distance education website herself. When she looks at it now and how it’s a whole team of people coming together to develop it. “It is just amazing to me the way that we all work together to optimize technology as it emerges, not just wait for the finished product, but take advantage of all those interim steps where incrementally it will serve our faculty and students better.”
And as technology continues to emerge, Swanson is confident DELTA will continue to adapt and continue to solve challenges to ensure online students are receiving the very best NC State has to offer.
DELTA held a retirement celebration for Rebecca March 20, 2018, where colleagues from across the university attended to give their well wishes. Many kind words were shared about Rebecca’s 22-year career at NC State. We thank you, Rebecca, for your many years of hard work, dedication and selflessness!
Senior Vice Provost Tom Miller said, “It’s a very emotional day for me. Rebecca Swanson has been with us every day at DELTA. She was here before DELTA. Rebecca has been an incredible force here for 22 years and DELTA wouldn’t be what it is today without her. There is no way. If you look at what we accomplished from a few hundred students that we had in the beginning to about 20,000 that we serve annually today, that is a big number. And a lot of it is due to her efforts, her diligence and her caring about the students, the faculty and her making the programs that we offer the very best that they can be. And they are! It is not just me saying that, we have statistics to back that up. If you look at the U.S. News rankings in online programs, look at the graduate programs we offer. We’re number nine in Engineering, we’re number four in Computer Science and Information Technology, we’re number 14 in MBA, 15 in graduate education programs.
Those are incredibly impressive statistics and I cannot say that one person deserves the credit for all of that but I can say that without Rebecca, with all of her effort with making sure all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed, making sure everything is taken care, we would not be here today…..She’s impacted hundreds of faculty and countless students and it’s just wonderful that we have had her here working for us all these years.”