Team improves student learning

Rebecca Watts

Distance Learning is taking steps for improvement and expanding the program, providing more opportunities for students to learn away from Missouri Southern.

Ten University faculty members collaborated at the beginning of this semester to form the Distance Learning Task Force. They are investigating ways to recruit new students and help them to pursue online degrees at Southern.

“This is a new task force that President León has organized,” said Dr. Richard McCallum, vice president for academic affairs and chairman of the Distance Learning Task Force. “Our goal is bring recommendations back to Dr. León for his consideration.”

McCallum said he thinks this is an exciting project with great potential, and Dr. Jack Spurlin, vice president for lifelong learning, said this program’s intensions go beyond Southern’s growth.

“It’s about providing opportunities to people who might not get that opportunity otherwise,” Spurlin said. “I really do think that this program has the potential to attract hundreds of students that are interested in the degrees we offer online from all over the United States.”

Spurlin also said the program should expand to include every part of Southern.

“I think there are some programs that we have on campus that would be absolute killers if they were online, they would attract a lot of students,” he said.

He mentioned the environmental health, education and health programs as potential degrees he has had requests to see online. However, before the expanding begins, the task force needs to improve the programs Southern already offers. Currently, there are 800 students earning their degrees online.

“The program is very well organized right now,” McCallum said. “What we are trying to do is take the next step in terms of growth, and ask ourselves what would it mean if we added another 800 students.”

McCallum said, the current challenge is whether Southern is prepared to accommodate an additional influx of students. Spurlin said there were three options he had in mind for this dilemma.

One would be adding more classes to each subject, another would be expanding the capacity of each class, and a third would be adding a course management system.

This is when a faculty member allows more students in the class and after every 20 students an added adjunct faculty member steps in to help. The adjunct would use the same guidelines, and the supervisor would check to make sure all of the students are participating and experiencing the same quality of education.

As Spurlin held a chart with rising bars, he explained his optimism about distance learning.

“These are the type of graphs you dream about in business, and that’s what happened in distance education,” he said. “We’re at the point now where we’ve reached capacity, and now I need some help. The academic area and lifelong learning have to be hand-in-hand in this endeavor and if we want to continue to grow.”

Southern faculty members are already utilizing some of the tools of distance learning.

“I bet 50 to 60 percent of the instructors are using Blackboard at this point in time,” said Spurlin. “[Blackboard] has been one of the really good side byproducts of distance learning. It has opened up the technology horizon for on-campus instructors and they’re using a lot of the things that we use in distance education.”

Spurlin has received messages of appreciation from former students in the online program. Three weeks ago, a graduate thanked him without knowing it.

“I was talking to one of the managers [at Starbucks], she was a distance student at Missouri Southern and I didn’t even know it, and she didn’t know who I was. She said without Missouri Southern’s program there was no way she would have been able to finish school.”