Arkansas Universities Expand Online Programs to Lure Students

Chris Davis, chief technology officer at the University of Central Arkansas: “We want these courses to be the best they possibly can be.”
Chris Davis, chief technology officer at the University of Central Arkansas: “We want these courses to be the best they possibly can be.” (Russell Powell)

Chris Davis knows the best is yet to come.

When the University of Central Arkansas launched UCA Online this fall with three undergraduate degree completion programs, it might have looked a little light on choices. There were only three undergraduate degrees available and students had to have already obtained associate degrees to participate, but Davis said the launch is just the first step of UCA’s extensive online learning goals.

UCA isn’t alone in amping up its online presence. Universities across the state are expanding and strengthening their online degree programs in an attempt to attract some of the 300,000-plus potential students who can’t attend campus classes.

UCA had already offered a handful of graduate and doctorate degrees online. Davis, the university’s chief technology officer, said UCA plans to consistently add three or four degree programs each year.

Davis and Michael Judge, UCA’s director of online learning, said the university has working agreements with local community colleges so their graduates can move seamlessly into UCA’s completion programs. At the same time, Davis and his team are working methodically to get UCA’s core classes finalized so that, soon, a student can get all 120 hours of an undergraduate degree from UCA without going to a community college for the first 60 hours.

All without stepping foot on campus, or even living in Conway or Arkansas, for that matter. Davis and Judge said nearly 3,000 students are taking online courses at UCA this semester.

“We feel what we’re trying to do here is fairly unique because we’re taking our time because we want these courses to be the best they possibly can be,” Davis said. “We’re working at a fevered pace to get those lower division classes online. We feel once we have the entire program online at the undergraduate level, we’re going to have something really special.”

Davis said UCA Online’s first step may look tentative but it’s all about making dead sure it’s a long-term success. Davis said it’s important to put the same work, training and resources into online classes as the university would do with on-campus classes.

“UCA doesn’t get the Walton money [that the University of Arkansas has received] so we have to make sure we’re doing what we can to put ourselves in a good position moving forward,” Davis said. “We’re not Fayetteville, we don’t get the funding that Fayetteville does, so we have to make sure we’re positioning ourselves to be successful not right now but in 10 years.”

Old Pro Online

While UCA is kick-starting its undergraduate programs online, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro powers on as an experienced hand. ASU first offered online classes in 1999 and began offering full degrees in 2008; students can now choose one of seven undergraduate or 15 post-graduate degrees from ASU.

“We have been in business for eight years,” said Thilla Sivakumaran, who runs ASU’s online degree programs as executive director of Global Initiatives. “Every spring we try to add new programs to the pipeline to increase our portfolio based on market demand. We just launched four new undergraduate programs this fall. It’s [based] on what people want to get degrees in.”

And a lot of people want degrees online. Sivakumaran said ASU has more than 3,500 online students, including 700 new enrollees this fall semester.

The University of Arkansas System recently launched its online-only university eVersity, designed to go after some Arkansans who have some college credits but aren’t in a position, either financially or personally, to attend college to complete or earn a degree. The plan is to have faculty in the UA System teach the eVersity classes, six-week courses that students will take one at a time.

Each of the universities in the UA System has online programs, as well. Arkansas Tech University in Russellville recently named Hanna Norton dean of its College of eTech, which is planning an expansion of its degrees offered online.

The online programs run by the individual universities typically cost about the same as campus classes and run on a variety of schedules. A seven-week course is most common — the “industry standard” Davis said — but some classes require 16 weeks.

Davis said UCA tuition is the same regardless of whether the class is taken online or on campus, and Arkansas State’s online tuition can be cheaper because many classes don’t have fees that campus classes have.

The flexibility of scheduling and the ability to attend a class from your home is making online courses increasingly popular. There are no set class times so one student can log in and catch up on assignments at 2 a.m. after a long work shift while another can log in at 2 p.m. before the children get home from school.

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith has 458 students that are strictly online-only students. More than 2,200 UAFS students take at least one online course as part of their studies.

“When I first started teaching, there was no online,” said UAFS Provost Georgia Hale. “You either got your education at a local community college or you came to a university campus. It has evolved over the years.”

University officials across the board say the most important thing is for the online classes to have the same academic requirements as a campus class.

“A lot of colleges have no more than correspondence courses online,” Judge said. “This is far from what we are doing. It’s a different way of learning, and you have to build your courses that way.”

Same Paper Weight

Hale said an all-online graduate from UAFS would receive the same diploma as someone who attended all on-campus classes. Davis and Judge at UCA and Sivakumaran at ASU said the same about their universities’ diplomas.

Sivakumaran said the same professors teach the classes with the same curriculum regardless of whether the classroom is on the third floor of a campus facility or in the corner of someone’s kitchen.

“That’s how we wanted it because if you look at the trends across the country and look at institutions that are completely online like eVersity and the University of Phoenix, the trend has been in the opposite direction for them in terms of growth,” Sivakumaran said. “People prefer a brick-and-mortar institution because there is a more add-value to being a real institution. There is something to say about branding. If you get a degree from a brick-and-mortar institution, people’s perception is higher than if it was an online university.”

Davis and Judge said UCA’s faculty has been receptive to the expansion of UCA Online, even though the university told professors no one would be forced to teach online classes. Faculty has been critical, university officials said, in helping design and develop the curriculum for the online classes.

“There is a significant investment that goes into this,” Davis said. “We’ve had to do the hiring of some people to bring them in. We’ve augmented some of our contracts with Blackboard, who is our learning management system provider. There is a human cost, there’s a software cost and there’s training cost.”

The time to do it is now. Davis said any university that waits may find itself out in the cold because online learning is here to stay.

“If they’re not onboard now, in five years it might be too late to catch up,” Davis said.

Many online courses are designed so a student doesn’t have to step foot on campus to graduate, but Sivakumaran said it’s not true that online students never come to the Jonesboro campus. They do, often, to walk in graduation ceremonies.

Hale said UAFS welcomes online graduates to walk, as well, and officials have traveled to parts of Arkansas to hand-deliver diplomas to other graduates. There is a UAFS student going after a master’s degree in health care administration while living in South Korea.

“We’ll probably just send that one to him,” Hale said.