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Bringing Penn State to the World

by on August 27, 2013 9:20 AM

Karen Helbling is the 11th person in her family to attend Penn State — although her Penn State experience is quite different than any of the experiences the previous 10 family members had.

As vice president of project management at a marketing company in Atlanta, she knew that the only way for her to continue the Penn State tradition in her family was to “attend” the university online.

Helbling is enrolled in the iMBA through Penn State’s World Campus, and is set to graduate in the spring. She says she was skeptical of the online experience at first, but quickly felt connected to faculty, academic advisers, and her fellow students.

“The World Campus exceeded my expectations providing students ways to connect with the university both on campus and off,” she says. “I’ve really been impressed by their ability to create a learning community at a distance and make the courses just as rigorous as what I would take on campus.”

World Campus launched in January 1998 with 41 students in five majors. By 2012, it had reached 12,000 students, making it Penn State’s second largest campus. The campus has had students from every state, the District of Columbia, three territories, and 72 countries. It offers 90 graduate, undergraduate, and professional-education programs. Much like Penn State’s other campuses, degrees are managed by the university’s academic colleges to ensure that the quality of faculty and coursework remains the same no matter whether a course is taken online or in person.

Students such as Helbling are drawn to the World Campus because it provides them with opportunities to earn a Penn State education from a distance — something they feel is an advantage over for-profit competitors such as the University of Phoenix. World Campus faculty and staff do their best to make those students feel like part of the Penn State community, even though they may never set foot onto campus.

With more and more students, particularly working adults, looking to online education, the campus must continue to meet the ever-changing demand while adhering to the policies and procedures that make Penn State a reputable institution.

In April, Penn State president Rodney Erickson announced a new goal of growing World Campus enrollments to 45,000 in the next decade. The goal came with a $20 million commitment to support new programs and additional faculty and staff to grow current offerings.

Hitting that enrollment target would put World Campus in close competition with University Park as Penn State’s largest campus.

Craig Weidemann is Penn State’s vice president for Outreach and vice provost for online education. In that role, he is responsible for overseeing progress toward that enrollment goal. Weidemann succeeds Wayne Smutz, who served as World Campus executive director from 2009 until this past July, when he accepted a position at UCLA.

Though the enrollment announcement is only a few months old, Weidemann says leadership has already begun working closely with Penn State’s academic colleges to expand programs that are in high demand and add new degrees and certificates as the market demands.

“Our programs are embedded within Penn State’s academic colleges and campuses, within the traditional academy,” he says. “We have a number of programs that are in high demand, and we have met with deans and faculty leaders for each program to identify other programs we have that we can continue to grow.”

He says the World Campus also hopes to expand its presence in California, Texas, Florida, and other states that are experiencing population growth, as well as internationally. Plans are already underway to open an administrative office in San Diego, which has a large concentration of military students and potential adult learners.

World Campus program managers and instructional designers work with faculty to help them adapt classroom courses for the online environment, and develop ways to facilitate student engagement in an environment where students will never meet face to face.

Helbling says online learning is much more self-directed than a traditional classroom environment, and it can sometimes be tough to fit her coursework in with her responsibilities at work.

“You have to be committed to getting your stuff done on time,” she says. “You’re not going to necessarily have a professor breathing down your neck reminding you to turn in your assignments.”

However, she says faculty are aware of the scheduling challenges working adults can face, and are often willing to work with her if she needs extra time to complete an assignment or needs to reschedule an exam time. She also takes comfort in the fact that what she’s learning is directly applicable to her job and will eventually help her advance in the business world.

“Every single course I’ve gone through I’ve been able to apply concepts directly to what it is that I’m doing,” she says. “It reinforces those ideas through experiential learning.“

Rich Carlson, director of undergraduate studies in the psychology department, was one of the faculty members involved with launching the bachelor’s degree in psychology online five years ago. Online courses tend to be more writing intensive than those taken in a residential environment, he says.

“We utilize things like online group work and discussion forums to substitute for some of the things that you might do within the classroom,” he says. “A 200-level class, for example, is taught in big auditorium-type classrooms on campus and relies heavily on multiple-choice tests. Online, there’s much more writing involved in those classes … things like reaction papers and online discussions help replace the back and forth a student would have with an instructor in the classroom.”

Another challenge to teaching at a distance is helping students feel connected to faculty members, Carlson says. To combat this, some professors hold virtual office hours over Skype, while others send weekly e-mails to their students to help maintain consistent engagement.

Carlson says classes are now available to help other faculty get ready to teach online learners, and he has seen other senior faculty mentor new instructors in the department.

“We’ve developed a real community of people who teach online for us,” he says. “Some teach some courses online and some on campus, and we’re at a point now where some of the more experienced ones are serving as mentors to younger ones.”

• • •

About 16 percent of the World Campus student body is made up of veterans and active-duty service members. The number of military and veteran students has increased 120 percent since 2009-10. Benefits such as the Post 9/11 GI Bill are making higher education available to a new generation of students, and World Campus is prepared to serve them with a staff of admissions counselors and academic advisers dedicated to serving the military population.

Genevieve “Ginny” Newman is assistant director of defense-sector education at World Campus and supervises the staff members that work with military students. Many of those staff are veterans themselves, she says, and have an appreciation for the challenges that population can face when entering the higher-education arena.

“They provide support to students that basically covers them soup to nuts — from assistance with admissions and transferring credits to advising,” she says. “Having people who understand things like GI Bill benefits and tuition assistance and who can talk the same language helps them feel comfortable and think of Penn State as a good fit.”

She says staff members also are trained to recognize symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and other common illnesses veterans face, so they can help them request appropriate accommodations at Penn State.

“A third of people leaving the service have a traumatic brain injury,” she says. “We provide training to our staff so they recognize the triggers of those things, so we can get them pointed in the right direction when we may have a student who needs some extra time on testing or other services.”

John Daugenbaugh was a mechanic in the Army and started his business degree at University of Nebraska-Lincoln while stationed there. The Howard native found World Campus after he was assigned to two years as a recruiter in State College.

While the University Park campus was in his backyard, he chose World Campus because online courses were a better fit for his schedule.

“I couldn’t be a traditional student because of time constraints,” he says. “Part of me sometimes feels like I’m missing out getting brick-and-mortar experience, but the World Campus staff treats us really well.”

Once students are enrolled, they tend to perform well in classes, Newman says, thanks in part to the focus they developed in the military and the need to complete a degree and be marketable as civilians. Academic advisers report that military students tend to have higher grade-point averages and complete degree programs more quickly than other students.

“They gave four years of their life serving in the military so they can get a good education, so they’re not going to throw that away,” Newman says. “They bring a really different perspective to the classroom experience, and it’s enriching for everyone.”

Daugenbaugh will complete his degree in the spring of 2014 and hopes to land a finance position in the civilian sector once his military service is up.

“I’ve been working as a mechanic and now as a recruiter, and with my degree I’m hoping I might be more marketable in the civilian world,” he says. “I like finance, and my dream would be to work for the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

• • •

In order to help World Campus students feel like part of the Penn State community, staff plans activities around All-University Day each football season and encourages students to come to campus for their graduation ceremony. Students also are able to join the Penn State Alumni Association, participate in a virtual version of Penn State’s Dance Marathon, and join clubs specifically for World Campus students.

“World Campus students are twice as likely to join the Alumni Association as other Penn State students,” Weidemann says. “That shows there are people out there who want to be part of the Penn State community without ever stepping foot on campus, and we’re trying to find those initiatives to help connect those students to the university community.”

Stephen Verigood joined the Blue & White Society and connected with classmates on social media while taking World Campus classes from his home in Yankton, South Dakota.

”I have been able to establish great friendships with a few coursemates on Facebook based on our chats through ANGEL and working together on team assignments,” he says. “Also, I attend Penn State games in Minnesota when I can, and I feel just as part of Penn State as those that attend the university. You have to allow yourself to feel part of it, to feel part of that Penn State heritage.”

The World Campus will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a recognition event for its students at this year’s All-University Day football game September 21 against Kent State. Events also are in the works for World Campus faculty and staff, as well as the broader Penn State community.

Weidemann says the celebrations will be a time to recognize those who have contributed to the success of the World Campus over the past 15 years.

“When the World Campus first started, people were using 56k modems and there was lot of resistance about technology and putting course content online,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of people have worked very hard to get us where we are … it really has been a collective success.”

Jenna Spinelle is a freelance writer in State College. She works in Penn State’s Undergraduate Admissions Office and is an adjunct lecturer in the College of Communications.
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