Education News

Early adopters of ‘distance education’ chart online learning’s evolution

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

Online learning has been top-of-mind for many people in the last year, even for those who don’t have school-aged children. We have all had to expand the ways we work, meet and learn. Everyone has struggled with failed Zoom calls, but if we have learned anything during this global pandemic it is that online meeting and learning can be really effective and convenient.

“In the early ’90s, online learning was called distance education and was almost entirely asynchronous,” says Laura Williamson, graduate programs director and professor, School of Business and Management at City University of Seattle. “Asynchronous is when students and instructors do not meet at the same time, but instead interact with course content on their own,” she says.

City University has been offering online learning since 1973, and is a good example of how online learning can help students achieve their educational and employment goals. Enrollments are up 20% so far this year, says CityU President Randy C. Frisch.

“We are empowering students, despite the pandemic, to take control of their career and get the job they want,” Frisch says. “Our nonprofit mission is to help students achieve their educational and employment goals, just as we have since 1973. The pandemic has not stopped us.”

Williamson says the school initially looked for unique ways to engage students — they even enlisted Julie McCoy of “The Love Boat” for an instructional video. But back then, everything was very manual, Williamson says. Students would be mailed coursework, have on-site faculty office hours and then mail back their assignments for grading.

With the onset of COVID-19, Williamson says that nothing has really changed. “We are still committed to creating an opportunity to serve all those who want to learn — in fact, I would say that education has caught up with us.”

CityU provost Scott Carnz, who came onboard in 2019, says it was typical that off-site coursework involved a hybrid curriculum that included on-site classes or intensive weekend or evening courses. But as CityU expanded its global reach — it now offers more than 60 online programs with students from Canada, Mexico, Vietnam, China and Europe rounding out the student body — flexibility and timing became more important. Because the school already had a secure foothold in online learning, CityU was well prepared to weather the educational crisis that came with the onset of COVID-19 and was able to pivot its pre-pandemic approach to learning in a new way. 

“Our plan really was to look at additional programs we can offer,” Carnz says. “We’ve got a really strong tech team that’s got a great handle on distance and remote learning. Most of the faculty are pretty well trained in that pedagogical approach, so I think that existing infrastructure really helped.”

Still, even CityU faced some unexpected impact from the pandemic. International students suffered the most since they weren’t able to travel to Seattle for on-site coursework that’s part of their program. And some staff needed guidance to get up to speed.

“The biggest transitional piece for us was the video component,” Carnz says. “Our online course interactions tended to be through discussion boards or things like that so there was a quick ramp up to get faculty trained on new video technology, managing break-out rooms for students, things like that. It was really the administrative side. Faculty that was used to teaching in person [needed] some quick training to get them up and running and comfortable working from home.”

For more traditional educational institutions looking to shift their curriculum to offer more online learning courses, Carnz has this advice: The “best time and money you can spend is really training your faculty. The conversion of materials, getting things online is pretty straightforward and really just takes time. But that quality of engagement and interaction in the classroom is what I think makes the online experience valuable for students and makes it something that they can feel successful in.” 

Jan Lüdert, Ph.D., a CityU assistant professor who leads the Center for Curriculum & Instruction and joined CityU in 2017, says that while COVID-19 presented a “significant disruption to our students and faculty, it also highlighted our ability to engage students.”

In addition to offering faculty the training they needed and refining best practices for online learning, Lüdert says they also focused attention on “decreasing anxiety, managing time and straddling realities that resulted from all of us having to work from home.”

It helps that Carnz and Williamson are online learners themselves, giving them a perspective that more traditional university faculty may not have. And COVID-19 presented yet another challenge for Carnz. He was excited to step back into the classroom to teach some design courses last year, but the pandemic upended those plans, so he had to quickly regroup and develop an online coursework strategy.

Online learning may have evolved over the years, but it isn’t going anywhere — it has been part of CityU’s curriculum for nearly 50 years, after all.

“Online education is here to stay,” Lüdert says. “It’s been proven to be effective and even as a desired pathway for 21st-century learners. The notion that online learning is less appealing than the traditional classroom misses the benefits that include convenience and comfort, availability and affordability, and social interaction across time zones/countries.”

City University of Seattle is a private nonprofit university accredited through the doctoral level. It has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the Top 50 in the country for its online bachelor’s degree programs for eight consecutive years.

About the author

Mamie M. Arndt