two young men studying with laptops

Brick-and-Mortar Learning with a Generation of Digital Natives

Digital Learning Innovation Showcase highlights how traditional universities navigate the digital age.

UNLV is not an online institution.

Yet in the 2017-18 academic year, the university offered more than 958 online or hybrid courses. And, more than 90 percent of last year’s graduates took at least one online course on the way to completing their degrees.

“Many of the students we serve are digital natives,” said Laurel Pritchard, UNLV interim vice provost for undergraduate education. “They have grown up with an expectation that nearly every service they consume can and should be delivered digitally.”

The question for universities now is how best to deliver a higher education using digital tools and resources while giving them a well-rounded college experience.

UNLV Executive Vice President and Provost Diane Chase is taking the question seriously.

She was one of about 30 provosts across the country named to the Association of Chief Academic Officers Digital Fellows Project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The fellowship program began in 2017 and provides chief academic officers with information, resources, and support to help faculty understand and adopt high quality digital courseware for individual learning styles.

“The intent has been to understand how digital learning can make a difference for student achievement, particularly among first-generation, low income, or minority students,” Chase said. “Are we giving students the skills to do well in the digital environment? Are we providing faculty the training they need to teach online?”

The project has focused on the digital learning resources needed to improve retention and degree completion for students. The provosts are expected to share and promote the resources and assets their institutions develop.

Chase has prompted UNLV to get in front of that regional conversation with the university hosting the Digital Learning Innovation Showcase in July.

Representatives from the College of Southern Nevada, UNR, and the universities of Utah, Utah State, Northern Arizona, and Arizona attended. The program provided time for each to share successes and challenges they experience in their efforts to keep pace with a college culture that increasingly demands online learning tools and courses.

Melody Buckner, director of digital learning and online education at the University of Arizona, said many in higher education have been surprised by the rapid growth in demand for online courses at traditional college campuses.

She said Arizona started offering iCourses about six years ago, but administrators at the time thought there would be limited interest. Student registrations and requests for online courses surged, even among those living in the residence halls.

“It made us realize that students are a lot more mobile than we think,” she said. “They want the flexibility to work on mobile devices” even when they’re on campus.

Lisa Skinner, a lecturer of first-year geology from Northern Arizona University, said she became involved as a way to invigorate student interest in required labs that some students believe are irrelevant.

“We found that in order to really increase student engagement, we could offer the courses online but we had to do a lot of work to understand how to present the content to this student audience,” she said.

The digital learning efforts at the College of Southern Nevada, by contrast, have been geared toward preparing students for online learning, according to Terry Norris, director of distance education at CSN.

“For us, it’s been about online readiness and giving students a grounding in the study skills and time management it takes to do well in an online course,” he said.

Pritchard said UNLV plans to keep the conversation going, adding that demand for more digital resources is likely to increase for a variety of reasons.

“Our enrollment continues to grow, and we have limited classroom space,” she said. “That alone is going to increase demand for online and hybrid courses. But we need to make sure our students are ready and our faculty are supported.”

The UNLV Office of Online Education is expanding its programming and resources to help faculty translate their classroom courses to online platforms. Its new  Teach Online website helps faculty develop online courses and adapt their teaching methods for the online environment.

Meanwhile, the Digital Learning Initiative supported by the fellowship project, has focused on improving achievement for students who want to enter fields in science, technology, engineering, and math.

It encompasses two programs. The first is a student training program called Science of Learning to Learn (SoLTL), which helps students recognize and apply effective learning strategies. The second program is Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (better known as ALEKS), a web-based program that helps students and instructors determine how well students have mastered specific math topics. It also prepares students for appropriate placement in college-level math courses.

Successfully leveraging the two digital learning tools is expected to help students move more efficiently into college-level math. That will improve retention and graduation rates while reducing student debt.

“If our approach is successful, the next step will be to scale it and share it,” Chase said, adding that improving undergraduate teaching and the use of digital resources at universities across the country also is a goal of the fellowship project.


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