Among the 3000 students awarded National University degrees in California over the past couple of months, was Juan Flores, a U.S. Marine who was stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa, and Japan. Flores had not been able to make it to San Diego a few years ago to receive his undergraduate degree in Homeland Security and emergency management. But, this time, he flew in from Japan so that his family could see him walk across the stage and receive a Master’s of Public Affairs, with a specialization in organizational leadership.

Flores is one of a growing number of students around the world who are studying entirely online. They interact with their fellow students and professors virtually and only meet them in person if they show up for commencement exercises. Online education has grown rapidly, to the point that about a third of all college students are taking at least one class in that modality as of this graduation season.  Comparatively speaking, those numbers are much higher at National University. In fact, the percentage of students who take at least one class online has grown from 64 percent in 2007 to 81 percent in 2017. Between 60 and 70 percent of our students take the majority of their classes online.

Online Education Must be High Quality

Even the most traditional colleges have moved some of their offerings online, with certain large state universities leading the way. However, online education has long been the norm at National University, which was created to provide opportunities for educational advancement to working adults, including military personnel stationed around the world.  What’s different now is that technological advancements have made it possible to gather data about students and their activities online, then use sophisticated analytics to personalize learning in ways that are not feasible in a traditional classroom.

Although many universities offer on site and online courses through both synchronous and asynchronous format, it is our responsibility to ensure that online teaching and learning continues to advance and align with today’s technologies.  If we do this right, we can create an online learning experience that is even more effective, more precise, and more tailored to the individual needs of students than what might be considered the traditional classroom standard. One way we’re doing that is through our Precision Education initiative, which is exploring how to use technology, free online resources, and predictive analytics to create a learning environment that is optimized to best serve each student’s unique needs and circumstances.

An important element of quality in any class but even more so in classes offered in a “precision” format is alignment. Faculty members are helping us break the Course Learning Objectives down into competencies and micro-competencies. They also are identifying at least four learning objectives as well as assessment tools aligned with each micro-competency. Each learning activity (videos, texts, interactive simulations, projects) is analyzed to make sure it a) addresses the micro-competency directly; b) is clearly presented; c) is neither too easy or too difficult; d) is easy for students to understand what is expected of them; and e) covers the topic thoroughly.

Using Data to Improve Quality

Another way to ensure quality is gathering data on each learning resource to identify those that are most helpful to specific students, then direct students, real time, to the activities best suited to their needs. Finally, we’re tracking students’ engagement with the learning resource and soliciting their feedback.

Most of our students are adults who are taking classes for a wide variety of reasons: some are returning to school to advance in their careers or to enter a new field; some are coming back to finish a degree that they started years earlier but that life circumstances had forced them to defer; most have full-time jobs and many are supporting families. As I told our most recent graduates at Petco Park, they invested time and money and overcame many obstacles to earn those degrees and now they are in a position to not just help their families but also to contribute to the well-being of their communities and the nation. All our current and future graduates deserve the highest quality education we can provide, delivered in a manner that opens up opportunities to as many students as possible.

Blog post by Dr. David Andrews, President of National University. Precision Education at National University is a research-based initiative that is exploring new ways to leverage technology, open education resources, and predictive data analytics to adapt to student needs and guide them to successful completion of their academic and career goals. Learn more at: https://www.nu.edu/precision/