Distance education continues upward trend among regent institutions

The state Board of Regents released the fall 2022 Distance Education Report, highlighting increases in course sections and enrollment for distance education at the UI.


Avi Lapchick

Photo illustration by Avi Lapchick.

Archie Wagner, News Reporter

Distance education courses at the University of Iowa continue to trend upward, consistent with data from the last five years at Iowa’s public institutions, according to the fall 2022 Distance Education Report.

Across Iowa’s public institutions over the last five years, there’s been an 11.5 percent increase in the number of programs with credit offered — a 38.1 percent increase in course sections of credit offering courses, and a 70.2 percent increase in the number of student enrollments for credit offering courses.

When adding new distance education courses, colleges and departments at the UI evaluate need and demand before going through the university and state Board of Regents program approval process.

Dennis Jordan, a UI adjunct faculty member, teaches entrepreneurial marketing and business consulting through the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center online.

“For both classes, we have a once-a-week get-together in the evening, and it’s over Zoom,” Jordan said. “There’s assignments in advance where students are asked to read information, and then during the classes, we cover combination material then have broader discussions on the topics for the week,” he said.

At the UI, the 2021-22 academic year saw a 4.12 percent increase in undergraduate distance learning courses and a 13.2 percent increase in the number of graduate-level distance learning courses.

Jordan said distance education provides convenience for students.

“The students don’t have to travel to a classroom and be there in person per se. That also allows students that are maybe in the Iowa City area to participate,” Jordan said. “So in the past, I’ve had students that live in Chicago or other parts of the country zoom in for the class, so that’s convenient for them.”

The 2020-21 academic year had a large increase in distance education because of pandemic response efforts, the report stated. But 2021-22 numbers, while smaller, are still following the trend.

Chris Brewer, UI communications director, wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that the university continues to see modest growth in its distance and online education programs.

“The University of Iowa’s distance and online education programs provide students with the flexibility and access they need to achieve their educational goals,” Brewer wrote. “This flexibility allows them to continue living and working in their home communities across Iowa while furthering their education.”

A main area of growth for distance education is at the graduate level in short-term certificates, non-credit offerings, and professional master’s degrees.

At the UI, the 2021-22 academic year enrolled 46,703 students for web-based undergraduate semester-based courses and 12,582 enrollments for web-based graduate semester-based courses.

The differences between undergraduate and graduate enrollment differed for on-site distance courses.

RELATED: ‘Snow days’ gone as professors utilize Zoom for bad weather

In the same 2021-22 academic year period, the UI saw 308 undergraduate enrollments and 1,339 graduate enrollments for on-site — at extended campus locations such as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Sioux City — instruction.

Jordan said distance education is convenient for him as an instructor because he has a full-time job in Cedar Rapids. However, distance education also has the challenge of getting students and faculty engaged to the level they would be in an in-person setting.

To promote engagement, Jordan said, he reminds students that they elected to take the online course.

“So, this is their investment, and they will get out of it what they put into it,” Jordan said. “So, I think it’s only fair to say that,” he said.

In addition to reminding students of their choice, Jordan said he puts additional effort to make the course engaging for students.

“I try to come prepared with good topics of discussion. Try to keep it lively. I don’t do a lot of quote-unquote ‘lecturing’ because I think it’s easy to kind of tune that out,” Jordan said, “I think sometimes having group breakout sessions where you put students in rooms allows them to have some smaller group conversations.”

Despite the conveniences of distance learning, Jordan said it is a different experience than learning in a classroom.

“I think I’m a better instructor face-to-face, and I think most instructors will tell you the same thing. And most students will probably tell you that their learning experience in many cases is better in person than it is online. But at the same time, having the online option when needed or as needed is really convenient,” Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized the detriment of Zoom to the nature of the courses he teaches, highlighting that building relationships will not happen on a Zoom call.

“I would hate for people to think that if you’re ever ready to build a client base that you can simply rely on tools such as Zoom as a means of really engaging in meaningful ways,” he said.