More than two years after the coronavirus moved classes exclusively onto Zoom, nearly 9 out of every 10 students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln continue to enroll in at least one online course.
The ease of accessing an online course and the utility of doing so has boosted the number of credit hours UNL students are taking each semester and helped push the four-year graduation rate to its highest level in a decade.
UNL will aim to build on those successes by creating a new administrative position to work with faculty, staff and administrators to develop credit and non-credit programs, identify new market areas and grow enrollment.
The inaugural assistant vice chancellor for digital and online learning — a job description was posted last week — will also create opportunities for learners of all ages, said Katherine Ankerson, who started as UNL’s executive vice chancellor in January.
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That means creating online courses for high school students seeking to earn college credit, ensuring the online course catalog is robust enough to meet the needs of UNL’s students seeking to earn credit over the summer, and developing offerings for individuals in the workforce seeking to acquire new skills, Ankerson added.
“I want to see somebody who is entrepreneurial and collaborative, who has a strong background in developing online programs and understands the needs of diverse students,” she said.
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The move to hire “a champion of digital and online learning,” according to the job posting, comes after the University of Nebraska opted to shut down its systemwide online education program earlier this year.
After starting with a single online degree program in 2007, the University of Nebraska Online Worldwide — later shortened to NU Online — was offering 34 undergraduate and 121 graduate programs by 2020.
NU Online enrolled 5,500 Nebraskans and 8,000 others from every state in the U.S. during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, as online programs took off at other colleges and universities across the country, and with a limited budget, Mary Niemiec, associate vice president for digital education, told the NU Board of Regents in December 2020 she anticipated growth would slow through 2025.
“The challenge has always been how to make us stand out,” Niemiec told board members at the time. “We don’t have the money to throw at the wall and see what sticks.”
As part of its effort to trim $43 million from its budget in response to the fiscal challenges created by the pandemic, administrators opted to close NU Online.
Doing so cut eight positions from Varner Hall; one of those individuals was rehired in another open position at NU, spokeswoman Melissa Lee said. Two additional staff members resigned.
NU then moved the online education initiative to the campuses, which have the advantage of built-in branding, and where decisions can be made in conjunction with college deans, members of the faculty, student service offices and other departments, Lee said.
“It was an opportunity to think about the best approach for online learning and what makes the most sense at the system level and at the campus level,” Lee said. “This is an area where it makes sense for the faculty and deans to own this.”
NU’s system office will still offer support and look for chances where each of its campuses in Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney can collaborate through Jaci Lindburg, who became associate vice president for digital education in July 2021 after Niemiec retired. Lindburg has a full-time staff member and a part-time staffer to support online education at the system office.
But campuses like UNL’s will have the opportunity to tailor the program to their strengths or shift quickly to meet new needs from employers or the demands of students.
Ankerson said UNL’s new administrator — a position she said the university views as “essential” — will work within her office with a keen eye on the future, anticipating changes that will happen in online education as well as the needs of private industry.
They will also collaborate closely with the Center for Transformational Teaching, which assists faculty in designing courses using a variety of pedagogies and technologies, as well as with non-academic offices to provide support for students, and to ensure quality across UNL’s online offerings.
“Online and digital learning doesn’t just occur here in Lincoln or in Omaha,” Ankerson said, “it provides opportunities across the state.”
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