Vicki Rice Kraeger
The number of students taking classes online has grown not only around the nation, but also around the world, and UNK is contributing to that growth with nine online degree programs. Of the online degrees available world-wide, UNK has one of the few online master’s degrees in biology.
As of this fall, more than 400 students have taken at least one class in the UNK online biology program, according to Dr.Wyatt Hoback, director of the distance master’s program and biology professor. The distance master’s in biology program started with 43 students in 2004. To date, 52 have graduated from the program, and this semester, 175 students are taking at least one class.
“A big reason for the success is the need for advanced degrees in subject matter,” Dr. Hoback said. The No Child Left Behind act requires teachers to get training in the areas they’re teaching, and he said that especially for teachers who are place bound, not many opportunities are available. More than 65 percent of the students in the program are teachers. Others include people on active duty in the military, lab technicians, stay-at-home mothers and people who want a career change.
Dr. Hoback said that distance master’s degree in biology programs are becoming more available, but many still require students to come to campus for at least part of their degree work. UNK’s is the only program he is aware of that doesn’t require a campus visit, although some students do choose to visit campus. Some also come to campus for their graduation.
“When the program started, there was not another program like this in the United States. The demand was there,” said Gloria Vavricka, director of UNK’s eCampus.
Dr. Hoback said initially most students found out about the program through Internet searches, but recommendations from students who have already taken classes in the program are now the key to attracting new students for the program.
“We’ve created a growth monster, but that’s a good problem to have,” he said, adding that students in the program do the same work they would on campus, including a lot of writing and research.
The university has mechanisms in place to make sure the students are doing their own work, including screening written assignments for plagiarism and requiring the students to take timed quizzes after watching recorded lectures. A proctor administers the final exam.
The distance students are required to develop a research project. Some are expanding their project ideas beyond the class, Dr. Hoback said, noting that one student in Florida turned his project into a $300,000 grant.
Dr. Hoback said a large amount of work was involved in getting the program started, and it continues to take a lot of work to maintain it, noting, “We weren’t giving up anything we were doing before.”
Since the online students do the work when it fits their schedules, they sometimes have questions at night and on the weekends.
“The faculty involved have put in a lot of time and effort to make sure the program works,” Dr. Hoback said.
The program is self-supporting. Through a difference between in- and out-state tuition, the department was able to add another faculty member, so the program could grow.
Thirteen of the biology faculty members are currently involved to varying degrees. Dr. Hoback said some especially appreciate the opportunity to teach specialty classes that might not have enough students if offered on campus.
Because the average age of students in the program is 38, many don’t need the typical college atmosphere, he said, but there are opportunities for the program participants to get to know each other, and on-campus graduate students serve as mentors.
Vavricka attributed the nationwide growth in online courses to the fact that the courses are becoming more accepted, and the quality is improving. UNK will add more online courses, she said.
“The biggest part is developing the courses to put online,” she said. “It takes a lot of work for faculty to transition a face-to-face course to an online course.” UNK offers training and designers to help the faculty in the process. Of the nine online degree programs currently available through UNK, eight are specifically geared toward educators.
Combining enrollment in the various online courses this fall at UNK, 1,240 students are taking classes. UNK now offers about 80 online courses.
About 95 percent of UNK’s distance classes are now done online, Vavricka said. “Faculty are realizing this (online courses) is what the students want.” Vavricka said it is satisfying to see that UNK can serve students who might not otherwise be able to access the college courses they need.
“It opens up higher education to many people who couldn’t further their education otherwise,” she said.