The University of Akron lowers the price of entry

The school cut out the expensive and time-consuming course prep work with a pilot program that makes higher education affordable to all

Affordability means education for more people

The average cost of a private, non-profit four-year university degree is $31,231 across the U.S., while the cost for a public four-year school hovers around $10,000 per year, according to the College Board. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York puts student debt at more than $1.3 trillion, meaning it has reached a crisis level.

University can be a prohibitively expensive proposition for some people. Many lower-income students often find themselves working part- or full-time in order to raise sufficient funds, or they face other barriers to entry, such as lengthy commute times because they have to live at home. This demands flexibility of their schedules, which offline courses are often unable to offer.

In all, this is creating a system that is inaccessible to many who have a desire to learn, says Dr. Jodi Henderson-Ross, Assistant Professor of instruction at the University of Akron.

While online learning has often been hailed as a solution to some of these challenges, there remains a stigma associated with the space. “Rightly or wrongly, there’s an assumption that online learning isn’t as academically rigorous,” she says.

Against this backdrop, the University of Akron wanted to change that.

One class to rule them all

Last year, the university undertook a pilot initiative to make some of its classes less expensive and more accessible across income levels and lifestyle, turning to Brightspace to do so.

To create a single master class for the Introduction to Sociology general education course that could be adopted by multiple faculty, Dr. Henderson-Ross, alongside senior instructional designer Teresa Potter, created a template organized around weekly topics. All relevant publisher material and custom content was made available through Brightspace (which helped save students from having to purchase access to expensive publisher platforms) in a beautifully designed user interface. The page is more than just a list of links, she says: it’s a visually appealing way to learn.

It can be copied into multiple sections offering up an immense amount of time and resource savings, she says, allowing the university to provide it at a fraction of the cost of a normal class.  While there was a fair bit of upfront work to get the course ready (Dr. Henderson-Ross and Potter worked with third-party experts and reviewers to create the course) now it’s a simple matter of tweaking it year-over-year, she says, which has hugely freed up her (and her fellow instructor’s) time.

But, more importantly, the tools built into the platform mean she’s able to create an academically rigorous class that supports student success without compromising academic integrity.

To start off the year, she has students take a syllabus quiz (thus ensuring they actually understand what’s expected of them), and they aren’t able to access any of the other course materials until they’ve achieved at least an 80%.

“It sets the tone right up front,” she says. “It also gives students an early opportunity to orient themselves with the basic features of the course and practice taking a quiz.”

Then, quizzes pepper the class ensuring students keep up with their readings, serving as the backbone of the course. All subsequent content is locked until they’ve taken the quiz, which has been integral to keeping students on track, she says. (Even when a quiz is past the point of counting towards grades, the content remains locked until a student takes it, which forces them to read the material and not simply skip ahead.)

“It also means that students can’t just log in late the night before something is due and breeze through an entire module,” she says.


“I was a standard chalk-and-talker, so the transition to thinking about teaching online seemed like it was going to be horrible. But I’m a convert.”
Dr. Jodi Henderson-Ross, Assistant Professor of instruction at the University of Akron

Online learning produces results

Grading itself has been made easier through Brightspace, she adds. The course has more than 50 items to grade, and while this might seem time-consuming, faculty were able to use the linking function in Brightspace to grade discussions, assignments, quizzes and ePortfolio submissions, streamlining an otherwise manual process. For example, for group projects, Dr. Henderson-Ross and her colleagues are able to sort grade submissions by group, saving her the headache of having to find each group member’s name individually. “It makes my life infinitely easier.”

In Dr. Henderson-Ross’ first class this past fall, 96% of the 151 students completed the course, with an average C grade (comparable to the offline classes). The course also received a certification from Quality Matters for its standard for excellence (which measures the effectiveness of online and blended courses), so she’s satisfied that the class maintained its academic rigour.

The model created through the design and development of the master class for Introduction to Sociology was replicated across other general education courses. Brightspace was key to facilitating a sustainable platform for departments across campus to work together with instructional designers to create quality courses that could be copied into multiple sections, saving instructors time and money when creating their course. The cost savings was passed along to students, creating a less expensive option.

“I’m not a digital native,” Dr. Henderson-Ross says. “I was a standard chalk-and-talker, so the transition to thinking about teaching online seemed like it was going to be horrible. But I’m a convert.”

 

Brightspace Excellence Award winner Dr. Jodi Henderson-Ross with D2L CEO John Baker
Brightspace Excellence Award winner Dr. Jodi Henderson-Ross with D2L CEO John Baker

 

This case was a Brightspace Excellence Award Winner for 2016.