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Columbia College was on the leading edge when it launched its Online Education program in 2000.

Dr. Piyusha Singh, Columbia College’s vice president of Online Education

In the nearly two decades since, as online course offerings and degree tracks have become ubiquitous in higher education, Columbia College has still found ways to maintain its position as an innovator.

Dr. Piyusha Singh, Columbia College’s vice president of Online Education, doesn’t need to rely on anecdotal evidence to know this is true. She has seen tangible proof when her staff works with the software renderers who help produce the school’s online course offerings.

These engineers work with hundreds of other schools across the country and, if what Columbia College requested for its course models was commonplace, the renderers would already have a plan for it.

“We have to do a lot of custom solutions,” Singh says. “So that tells me we’re a little ahead of the game.”

The average online students are decidedly different from the ones who populate more traditional college settings.

They’re predominantly adult learners, resuming their education after some sort of hiatus following high school or part of a college career. Some, such as Columbia College’s sizable military community, don’t always have easy access to a physical location in which to take classes, so they need the ability to learn wherever is most convenient.

They’re far more likely to have families, careers and other obligations outside of school, meaning they prioritize having the flexibility to dictate when they get their schoolwork done. They seek out classes and degrees that have practical applications, so they can more easily advance in their current profession or jump to another one.

Just like more traditional students, they put a lot of themselves into their education. They expect a lot in return.

“They are people who have more life experiences, sometimes have had more educational experiences. They want to be taught in a different way,” Singh says. “Adult students want to bring something to the table and help you make sense of what they have experienced. They want to get a combination of their life, what they know and what you are teaching them.”

Singh says adult students also tend to be less tolerant of what she calls “jumping hoops.”

“That goes back to them having a lot more demands on their time,” Singh says. “If you’re going to make an adult student do something, you had better be clear about why. You need to really be respectful of their time and resources.”

Singh came to Columbia College as its first vice president for Online Education in 2015. Since then, her focus has been normalizing the online experience for students, so that they can more easily find the resources they need and become familiar with a similar format throughout all Columbia College online classes.

Quality, all across the board.

“We think very carefully about the student. We are very careful about the academic content,” Singh says. “From the beginning to the end, we’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What are the students supposed to get out of this? How do we get them there?’”

The Students

During the Fall 2016 semester, 73 percent of Columbia College students took at least one course online. A majority of them combined their online education with in-seat offerings.

These online students came from all 50 states and 23 countries. The average age for these students was 33 years old, 11 years older than the average Day Campus student and four years older than the average Evening Campus student.

Online Education students boasted an average GPA of 2.83, which compared favorably with the marks for Day (2.98), Nationwide (2.85) and Evening (2.76).

Dr. Yelena Francis has been teaching Russian language and culture courses online for Columbia College since 2012. She doesn’t see her online students face-to-face, as she does the pupils who take the in-seat classes she teaches for other schools around her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But she knows online students have the same desire and aptitude.

“The students who have a strong will and dedication, they can organize their studies and they’re disciplined enough to be good both in-seat classes and online,” Francis says. “Once they’ve experienced it, they’ve seen how their studies can combine their potential family obligations and, at the same time, study so hard. You can do both.”

Whether an online student is 19 or 65 years old, living in Miami, Florida, or Oak Harbor, Washington, the goal, Singh says, is to bring them all under the Columbia College umbrella. That means everything from organizing the homepage in a way that makes key links easy to find, to ensuring that adjunct instructors and the support staff at Federal Hall in downtown Columbia, Missouri, are accessible and able to address students’ needs.

“We’re always looking to support our students in ways that keep them motivated and keep them aware of their options and kind of humanize the experience as much as possible,” says Amanda Harms ’04, an online academic advisor. “It’s easy for online students to start feeling detached or distanced from the school. We all have a role in making sure the student feels supported and connected to Columbia College.”

The Instruction

During the 2015-16 school year, Columbia College offered 3,561 course sections over its 388 accredited online classes. The school employs 653 adjunct faculty members to teach in its 27 accredited online degree programs.

If a prominent degree field is missing from the offerings, it may well be there in the near future. With the founding deans and new three-school structure — Business Administration; Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences; and Natural Sciences & Mathematics — taking effect across all Columbia College venues in 2016, Singh expects online offerings will only become more robust.

“The deans are really going to look at what their offerings are and where they think we can see some growth,” Singh says. “They work with [our departments of Adult Higher Education] and Online to create these different courses and programs and roll them out. We do definitely look at who we’re going to serve with them.”

To ensure the continued quality of the courses, the curriculum is approved by the full-time faculty at Columbia College. They oversee course content and testing to make sure it’s living up to the school’s standards.

As the 2017 Spring Semester drew to a close, Francis was in the midst of the second round of editing for her next Russian Culture and Society course, the same process every online instructor goes through.

Crib courses, they are not.

“I need to give the students who enroll more general features in a more concentrated way,” Francis says. “I try not to overload them on the one hand and not to make it too diluted on the other. It is difficult to find the golden middle line, but I have to for the students to be in a more comfortable way of studying.”

Francis also makes it a habit to learn from her students, to keep lines of communication open so that she can see what is working for them and what needs to be adjusted. Even though she can’t point to a raised hand, she can still aid through email, posts on discussion boards or phone calls.

Singh puts a premium on responsiveness for online instructors. She has taught online classes before, so she knows what a time drain it can be for students to reach you at all hours of the day. But she also knows that one of the main perks of online learning is the flexibility, the fact that a student can put something on hold momentarily if life gets in the way.

As such, instructors need to be responsive and cultivate relationships.

“The knock on online is you don’t see your faculty member,” Singh says. “But I would argue that when you have an engaged faculty member, you can ‘see’ them more often and get more instruction from them [than in-seat classes]. It’s just more continuous, instead of broken up into a certain time at a certain week.”

The Future

Not long ago, Singh says, employers may have looked down on a degree earned online. Now, with a few exceptions, that’s no longer the case.

Some employers even encourage their staff to pursue online degrees through tuition subsidies. They can receive vocational training without having to take time away from work.

“What’s more important now is the reputation of the institution,” Singh says. “Frankly, I think employers have started to see the value of online degrees.”

Columbia College, with its accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission, checks that box. The new six-session format introduced across all venues in 2016 also makes it so that devoted adult learners who want to take an accelerated path to a degree can earn an associate degree in just more than 18 months, a bachelor’s in less than 3 1/2 years and a master’s in less than a year.

The school has put in the groundwork to stay at the vanguard of online education. Singh says that, while nobody can foresee the future, she feels as if Columbia College is well-positioned to meet whatever comes next.

One national trend she has her eye on is a move toward personalized or adaptive learning, in which educational software can drill and test students on the more rudimentary aspects of a subject — and provide more information if needed — to get them to a level of competency where the instructor can delve into more complex concepts. Another trend is toward “competency-based education,” in which instructors focus less on evaluating a student after a specific timeframe and more on evaluating how long it will take a student to gain a mastery of the subject.

“For somebody it might mean four weeks, somebody else eight weeks, somebody else 16 weeks,” Singh says. “How can we get to a more mastery and competency-based review of what we do?”

Technology has already given online students the ability to keep up with their studies on their cell phones. The Online Education program staff has already taken steps to make the path to a Columbia College degree more user-friendly.

To Singh, adjusting to whatever comes next in online education is still going to rely heavily on a rather antiquated concept.

“Good old, plain, solid, engaging faculty instruction,” Singh says. “The good part about online education is you can do it anywhere. The bad part is, when you can do something anywhere, you sometimes don’t do it. Having good faculty who really are invested in students — the bread and butter of education — is still important.”