'New tool in our tool kit': Minnesota colleges say online classes here to stay

·5 min read

A new health sciences degree program at the University of Minnesota Rochester will combine online and in-person learning to help students complete their studies in just over two years instead of four.

St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State College Southeast are adding more flexible classes where students can learn in person one day and tune in remotely the next.

With more than a year of online learning under their belts, colleges in Minnesota and nationwide are reimagining the menu of options they offer to students.

"The name of the game for us in higher education is going to be flexibility. It's going to be really trying to serve the students in the way that they want to be served," said St. Cloud State Provost Daniel Gregory.

Some colleges are launching their first-ever online and hybrid degree programs, while others are working to make more of their existing classes forever capable of switching between remote and face-to-face learning. Their efforts signal a permanent embrace of the changes they were forced to adopt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though students have flocked back to college campuses this fall in numbers not seen since before the pandemic, many schools are finding the demand for the alternative learning options they offered still exists. For many students — especially those who have children, health issues or full-time jobs — flexible learning has made a college degree more attainable.

Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis recognized this and quickly moved to create its first two fully online degree programs. Starting this fall, Dunwoody is offering online bachelor's degree programs in architecture and construction management to students from across the country. The construction management offering is a degree completion program meant for students who've already taken the necessary hands-on courses at a two-year college.

Dunwoody administrators tout the programs as a barrier-free option for students and working professionals.

"We're picking our spots where it makes sense and where we consistently can deliver that excellent education that students have come to expect," said Dunwoody Provost Scott Stallman. Administrators hope such programs will help the private college reach its goal of doubling from nearly 1,300 students this fall to 2,500 by 2025.

The U's Rochester degree program, dubbed "NXT GEN MED," will partner with Mayo Clinic, where students will work and receive mentorship, and Google for the online learning portion. The hybrid program, which will start in summer 2022 with 50 students, will operate year-round to accelerate degree completion.

U leaders see untapped potential in programs that feature mixed learning and include partners from the private sector. Such programs would complement, not replace, the traditional classes the university offers at its Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, Morris and Crookston campuses.

"We're coming from a perspective that we are leaders in many spaces, and we want to find ways to provide a quality educational experience in those areas," said Amy Pittenger, a pharmacy professor who's working with Provost Rachel Croson on future learning opportunities. "The Rochester example is, I think, a key direction that the university is going in."

Croson noted in a statement that a few of the U's existing degree programs have opted to permanently offer hybrid learning beyond the pandemic.

St. Cloud State University also is seeing some of its programs permanently shift toward hybrid learning. The number of classes that accommodate both in-person and online learning has doubled since before the pandemic, and Gregory said he expects that growth to be sustained. Students can attend the classes in person, Zoom in to hear a lesson live or listen to lectures after the fact.

Professors at St. Cloud have found that students generally enjoy remote learning more when it's done live rather than through prerecorded lectures, Gregory said. "They want to build that connection with their classmates."

Hybrid learning is no easy feat for faculty members, however.

It's taken trial and error and professional training for many professors to get used to simultaneously teaching a group of students in the classroom and those appearing via Zoom on a screen, said Chad Dull, vice president of academic affairs at Minnesota State College Southeast.

The community college, with campuses in Red Wing and Winona, offered nearly half its classes online before the pandemic. Moving forward, Dull said the college will continue those while modifying in-person classes to be capable of distance learning.

"We really believe in that access mission," Dull said. "It really helps us be who we're supposed to be."

Some colleges are largely ready to move on from pandemic learning.

Carleton College, a private liberal arts school in Northfield, prides itself on its tight-knit residential community, which can't be matched through technology.

President Alison Byerly said the school may continue to use Zoom and other distance learning tools, but only to enhance the classroom experience in ways such as having guest speakers appear virtually.

"It just means this is a new tool in our tool kit," Byerly said.

The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul is exploring similar uses. Wendy Wyatt, St. Thomas' vice provost for academic affairs, said academic counseling appointments and faculty office hours were quite popular when held virtually.

Some student groups, such as the undergraduate student government, also noticed increased participation when conducting their meetings remotely.

"We may not offer lots and lots of brand-new, completely online programs. But we're really rethinking [education] as a craft," Wyatt said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth

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