If one were to stick a pin into a map of Arkansas denoting the epicenter of digital learning, the biggest clusters would likely be in Central or Northwest Arkansas.
They would also be sadly misplaced.
In 2008, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro stuck its own stake in the ground as the first university in Arkansas to put degree programs online. And ever since then, the university has remained a disruptor among the state’s institutions of higher learning, breaking new ground and setting the bar for innovation and quality of instruction.
“We have a large variety in our portfolio of online degree programs,” said Thilla Sivakumaran, executive director for global engagement and outreach. “We have 10 undergraduate programs and then we have 25 graduate degree programs, covering everything from health professions to business to engineering to communication to the social sciences.”
“This past year and a half, we’ve worked with all of the two-year institutions in the state of Arkansas to get agreements where once students get their associates degree they can transfer into our online or on-campus program.”
The proof of ASU’s online concept is evident by the growth in online learners the university has enjoyed. Last spring, the school boasted roughly 5,400 fully online degree-seeking students from all across the country, more than doubling enrollment of five years ago. Another 1,000 students access the online system as a component of its in-person ASU classes. Students hail from all 50 states as well as international learners from South Korea, Italy, Ireland and Canada.
Bill Smith, associate vice chancellor for marketing and communications credits this growth to the university’s philosophy that online learners are equally important as in-person learners.
“One of the questions that often comes up is, ‘So, I’m going to get a degree from Arkansas State University Online?’ No, you get a degree from Arkansas State University, full stop,” he said. “There’s no difference in the degrees. I think that’s a huge advantage and one of the places where A-State Online really separates itself from other institutions.”
The demographic served by ASU’s online study runs fairly familiar to other online options: average age of undergrads is 33 and of graduate students, 36. They come to the program under the typical life circumstances of today’s non-traditional student, Sivakumaran said.
“The majority of our undergraduate students are what I would call transfer students. They are transferring after finishing their Associates degree at a two-year institution,” he said. “Or, they start school at some point face-to-face or online with somebody else, then they take time away and now want to come back and finish their degree. That’s what we see at the undergraduate level.”
“Most of our students are place-bound either because of job or family commitments or lifestyles. For our graduate students, they’re working a full-time job and they want a degree that helps them advance on their career ladder.”
The ages and motivations may mirror students elsewhere, but that’s where many of the similarities end between ASU and other online programs.
“Time to completion is an important factor to online students,” Sivakumaran said. “We have six start dates; students can enroll, pretty much, every seven weeks into our degree programs. Typically, for an on-campus program, if you miss the August start date, for example, the next time is January. But in our online environment, you could start in October.”
Flexibility and access to instructors are also key for adult learners, particularly those who have been out of the classroom for some time. ASU offers a variety of technology that allows students to record lectures and for faculty to post recorded material with captions for students to view later.
“Some faculty have virtual office hours. They have discussion board questions. They have PowerPoint with voiceover. They try to make it as much of a live experience as possible,” Sivakumaran said. “We don’t want to require a student to show up at a particular time because that’s not why they are completing the online program. They want to have that flexibility.”
The faculty’s commitment doesn’t stop there. Office hours are greatly extended in order to provide assistance according to the student’s schedule, be they outside the zip code, the time zone or the U.S. border.
“Professors have to really adopt online as a mentality,” Smith said. “Their office hours aren’t from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. It’s more like 10 a.m. central time to midnight, Hawaii time. You really have to understand that you need to be accessible to these learners and interact with them when needed. We’ve built a roster of professors who understand this mode of teaching.”
As the pandemic continues to cast doubt on many aspects of the oncoming fall term, ASU officials point to the already robust online system as a possible means of keeping students on track.
“With what has come over the past two months, unfortunately, we’ll see more and more students who are laid off but want to finish their degree and or want to come back to college,” Sivakumaran said. “We’re a brick-and-mortar institution, first and foremost, that offers an online degree. People may choose an alternative mode of delivery to finish because we are very affordable and we put out a very good education.”