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Business Officer Magazine
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Online and On Our Way

One of the largest community colleges in the country takes its courses online and experiences enrollment off the charts.

By Patricia Charlton

Las Vegas is not your typical Main Street, USA. What other city welcomes you with a sphinx and pyramid just like you’d find in Egypt, a medieval castle, the New York City skyline, and St. Mark’s Square straight from Venice? Yes, Las Vegas is truly unique, but what few know about this amazing area is that southern Nevada has been one of the fastest growing regions of the United States for the past 20 years. Also home to one of the nation’s largest school districts in Clark County, southern Nevada has seen equally incredible growth in the higher education community.

The College of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas, is a two-year public institution providing educational opportunities to this fast-paced, growing metropolis. CSN is one of the largest community colleges in the country and the largest institution of higher education in Nevada. In fall 2008, enrollment topped 41,000 students, or 21,000 full-time equivalents. Like so many other higher educational institutions, our college has felt the pressures of increased enrollment, continual student demand, strained fiscal operating resources, and limited funding to support capital projects. Further, we faced budget constraints that limited our ability to increase faculty, construct new facilities, and expand student service operations. Despite these challenges, the college was determined to meet the current and future needs of its students.

Based on the unique nature of our student population, the 24-hour demand, and limited ability to obtain new physical facilities, implementing online programs was a natural solution that would enable the institution to meet the needs of our students. In the past three years, we’ve gone from having only a few selected courses online to offering more than 22 programs and 300 courses to students in a structured “online campus,” with academic and student services online and more than 19,000 duplicated enrollments annually (with each online course a student takes counting as one enrollment). The online presence is our fastest-growing campus community, and demand is still outpacing the institution’s ability to keep up.

The growth in enrollment, coupled with limited resources, is intensified by a unique student population. Las Vegas is truly a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year kind of town. With the Las Vegas strip as a major employer, and grocery and convenience stores open 24 hours a day, students look for educational opportunities whenever they fit into busy schedules.Our traditional student is a 20- to 24-year-old female, who works full time and attends college part time. The need for flexibility and innovation is ever present.

Plan on Demand

The rapid transition to online programs was a direct result of overwhelming student demand—confirmed through data collection and surveys—and enthusiastic faculty and staff engagement. Through a partnership with SunGard Higher Education, CSN was able to fast-track the creation of full academic programs and high-demand courses in an online format. By pairing energetic faculty with instructional designers on campus, as well as with those from our service provider, we were able to roll out courses in a quick and efficient manner.

To fund this significant effort, the college not only devoted part of its annual operating budget from state appropriations but used revenue generated by student fees to provide online tutorial service, tools for faculty to enhance their online courses, and other online support.

Of course, as is the case with many initiatives, there was initial skepticism before we were able to get people on board with the concept of building a robust on-site presence.

Breaking down barriers, setting quality standards. Perceived barriers included the reluctance to go beyond traditional views of education delivery, and legitimate concerns about quality and how we could ensure programs delivered online met the rigor of traditional courses. CSN embraced these perspectives and adopted assurances, controls, and safeguards, which were developed primarily by faculty and resulted in the implementation of faculty-developed “Distance Education Standards” (to access the standards, go to www.csn.edu/pages/2212.asp and click on “Faculty”). The comprehensive directives specifically address all aspects of online learning, including but not limited to: faculty qualifications, including training, responsibilities, and evaluation; departmental responsibilities for curriculum, staffing, and academic quality; faculty-student interaction; course evaluation using approved metrics; and course development and curriculum.

Gaining from group efforts. It’s been a complex process to transition to offering full online programs and providing the comprehensive academic and student services to help students be successful. The college developed an Online Campus Strategic Plan that will guide the program through 2011. The plan was formulated in concert with faculty and staff from the library, student affairs, technology operations, and distance learning management divisions.

This team is supported by a strong tactical planning team that includes representatives from finance, the faculty senate, administrative leadership, student affairs, technology, and marketing. The comprehensive plan includes mission and vision statements, core values, and goals and strategies for the online campus, which also are tied to our financial model.

Faculty First

While the strategic planning process is instrumental to the effectiveness of the online campus, the most critical element has been the faculty’s leadership, buy-in, and commitment to the initiative. After developing policies and standards, they took ownership of the professional development and leadership required to develop courses and launch the program.

Academic departments have full responsibility for curriculum, staffing, and academic quality. Department chairs work with faculty within the department, the distance education office, institutional research, and academic affairs leadership to ensure that sufficient traditional, in-class courses and online courses are provided to meet student demand. The Distance Education Standards provide for departmental autonomy in determining which programs and courses will be offered in the online format.

Faculty also understood the support that students required, and advocated for the engagement and involvement of academic support services and student services as a holistic approach and comprehensive structure for the new online campus.

Resources and Results

We have steadily made progress in our online efforts, but it has taken the careful balancing of faculty, technology and technical support staff, administrative support, and, of course, financial resources. As the college committed to the further enhancement and development of the online campus, certain investments were required, including the development of an organizational infrastructure to support the online efforts. The Office of eLearning has a staff of four professionals: a director, two instructional designers, and an operations assistant. They interact with faculty and staff on all aspects of the online learning environment, from course development and training to pedagogy and technical requirements for access to online courses. We’ve identified and allocated other resources for support services, including online counseling, tutorial services, and instructional tools.

Our model for funding the various online activities has several components, including:

Funding allocations from the state. As a public institution, CSN receives budget appropriations from the State of Nevada. Funding is based on a legislatively approved funding formula that includes a comprehensive taxonomy for enrollments. Since our allocations are based on comparisons between actual and projected enrollments—and each semester the number of online program sections and related student enrollment have increased, leading to overall campus growth—our funding has continued to increase.

The finance office works in collaboration with staff in academic affairs, academic schools and departments, and institutional research to track and evaluate growth in online programs, revenues, average class size, and faculty demand.

Internal resource allocation. CSN’s allocation process first identifies resources for base requirements, then for strategic initiatives, and finally for department expansion, such as new positions and projects that require operating funds. Since the online program is one of CSN’s strategic initiatives, allocations for it are in a higher priority range than those for many other areas.

Student fees. We also generate funds through a student-assessed technology fee and through a special course fee dedicated to online programs. These fees have enabled CSN to develop the infrastructure, address annual maintenance and hardware and software licensing, and provide for faculty tools used in the online environment.

Other sources. The college recently received a federal appropriation, which provided approximately $700,000 for further development and enhancement of online education. Planned projects include the transition to another delivery platform, migration of additional courses, assessment of online services, and faculty and staff training and professional development.

Online programs are a critical element in measuring CSN’s institutional effectiveness. We have monitored results of the courses and programs and identified both strengths and weaknesses. Faculty comments and participation, coupled with student enrollments and assessment, have provided essential feedback. We know that more faculty members are participating in online education, and they are satisfied with the formulation of policies and the investment that the institution has made to enable enhancement of the program and scope.

Student enrollment has continued to increase and, for each of the past three years, has grown by 20 to 25 percent annually. Our analysis indicates that more staffing and technical support are needed specifically for the online campus, and the college is committed to securing the necessary resources as indicated in the analysis.

While the college’s comprehensive online campus is launched and well underway, we still face some obstacles, including the following:

  • Meeting student demand by offering sufficient sections of popular courses.
  • Recruiting, hiring, and training an adequate number of qualified online instructors.
  • Maintaining an appropriate balance between on-campus and online class offerings.

Growing Forward

Looking ahead, we must ensure that we keep technology current and that we make it a priority to provide the online tools that support student learning, professional development, and faculty training. Potential partnerships with business and industry are playing an integral role in achieving those goals. Local industries are looking for employees with academic preparation and experience interacting in the online environment. As Nevada has been hard hit by the recent economic downturn, the need to diversify the economy and attract new businesses and industry will continue to be a focus for state and local governments. CSN’s ability to provide an educated workforce with the skills and knowledge needed will serve us well in supporting these efforts. The online campus, in particular, positions CSN to offer training, education, and learning in various mediums, further enabling us to respond to the needs of our community.

Distance learning has made it possible for CSN to keep pace with student demand, especially in light of this challenging economic period. As a community college, we strive to meet the needs of not only traditional college students, but also nontraditional learners such as students returning to school after many years (the latter will likely increase as the economy worsens). As these students have come to rely on technology, their expectations are greater than ever. At CSN, we intend to meet the diverse needs of the students in our community, preparing them for a future in a city that never sleeps.

PATRICIA CHARLTON is senior vice president for finance and facilities, the College of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas.