“I think the perception of online education has definitely changed in recent years.” – Gloria Vavricka
By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Nicole Wilkinson’s life can be a bit hectic.
When she’s not teaching kindergarten at McCool Junction Public Schools, she’s trying to keep up with a family that includes three children who pack her schedule with sporting events and other activities. Free time is a precious commodity for the former high school volleyball coach.
That busy lifestyle seemed like a deterrent when co-workers suggested Wilkinson pursue a master’s degree.
“I just didn’t think I could handle the workload,” the 45-year-old said.
Instead of giving up on the idea, Wilkinson searched for a program that fit her needs. She found what she was looking for at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“I knew from the get-go that I wanted to go into reading. That’s by far my favorite thing to teach and I think it’s probably the most important subject in school,” said Wilkinson, who enrolled in the Master of Arts in Education PK-12 reading program through UNK’s College of Education.
The online program allows Wilkinson to take classes at her own pace while working with “really great advisers” who understand the additional commitments a mother and teacher has. She can work on a project, take an exam or review lessons on a Saturday afternoon, without making the 90-minute drive to the UNK campus.
“If UNK didn’t offer the online program, this is something I probably wouldn’t be able to think about,” said Wilkinson, who will finish her master’s degree in July.
Wilkinson’s story is a familiar one within UNK eCampus, which has seen a steep increase in the number of students taking online classes.
“I think the perception of online education has definitely changed in recent years,” said Gloria Vavricka, director of eCampus.
UNK, which started offering distance education in 2005, had around 540 students taking online-only classes a decade ago. That number has nearly quadrupled since then, reaching a record high of 1,997 students in fall 2018.
Sixty percent of UNK students take at least one online course as part of their studies, and more than 1,500 students took a combination of on-campus and distance-delivered courses last semester – up from about 500 students a decade prior.
There are several factors contributing to the surge in online enrollment.
eCampus has worked closely with the academic departments to grow the number of programs and courses offered online.
“Within the past six years, we’ve added substantially more programs, and most of those programs have been degree programs,” said assistant director of online recruitment Alyssa Wyant, who joined eCampus in 2013.
UNK currently offers 81 online options, including 40 graduate degrees, 10 undergraduate degrees, 17 endorsements, 11 minors and three certificates. Thirteen options were added in 2018 alone.
In addition to the expanded offerings, Vavricka said today’s tech-savvy students like the flexibility online education provides. Students with full-time jobs or families to take care of can set their own schedules while pursuing a degree on a timetable they’re comfortable with.
“We’re providing an opportunity for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get this education,” Wyant said. “I think that’s the most important thing.”
For Wilkinson, a master’s degree expands her teaching options moving forward and makes an immediate impact on her current position.
“It’s given me so many great new strategies to use,” she said. “It’s been really beneficial for me, my classroom and my students. I’ve learned a lot.”
Of course, the pay increase doesn’t hurt either.
UNK’s graduate enrollment – 271 full-time and 1,572 part-time students in fall 2018 – has increased each of the last five years, spurred mainly by online programs. Nearly 90 percent of graduate students take classes solely through distance education.
Enrollment in online-only undergraduate courses jumped 27 percent from 2017 to 2018, reaching 377 students.
Students from across the United States and several foreign countries enroll in UNK’s roughly 400 online courses each semester.
They’re drawn to the outstanding programs – history, biology and teacher education have particularly strong reputations – as well as the affordability and UNK’s accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission and Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.
“Our goal is to provide a quality education, but not just to those people in the area or in Nebraska,” Vavricka said. “We can offer that all around the globe.”
UNK eCampus, part of University of Nebraska Online, connects these students with faculty and peers in a way that’s drastically different from the days of simply exchanging emails.
Canvas, the University of Nebraska’s learning management system, is designed specifically for distance education. It features interactive tools such as online discussion forums, multimedia presentations and video sharing that enhance the learning experience. UNK also utilizes Zoom for video conferencing, online meetings and group messaging.
“These resources make online education a lot more student-friendly,” Vavricka said.
Even though they rarely meet face to face, Vavricka said UNK faculty are able to develop strong relationships with distance-learning students.
That’s evident on graduation day, when students who have never set foot on campus before come to UNK to celebrate with their families and the instructors who helped them achieve their dreams.
“It’s really a special moment,” Vavricka said.
ONLINE OPTIONS LAUNCHED IN 2018
Bachelor of General Studies
Master of Science in Education – Clinical Mental Health Counseling
Master of Science in Education – Elementary or Secondary School Counseling
Master of Arts in Education – Curriculum and Instruction: Montessori, Early Childhood or Elementary I Concentration
Master of Arts in Education – Curriculum and Instruction: School Librarian Concentration
Master of Arts in History – Public History
Master of Science – Long-term Care Management
International Business Minor
Global Peace and Security Studies Minor
Montessori Graduate and Undergraduate Coursework