Earlier this month, Western Carolina University’s online academic programs were included at No. 21 on an annual list of the top online universities by “Guide to Online Schools,” a flagship website of the educational services company SR Education Group of Kirkland, Wash.
Guide to Online Schools ranked online universities on criteria based on tuition costs, loan repayment rates, average retention rates and student reviews. To be considered for the rankings, a school must offer at least 10 baccalaureate or advanced programs that can be completed online and be nationally or regionally accredited.
Each school was then given a score and a ranking based on these criteria. The data used by Guide to Online Schools comes from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, according to a SR Education Group press release.
Since 1998, WCU distance programs have provided off-campus face-to-face instruction, interactive-TV broadcasts, and most recently the online synchronous and asynchronous courses.
WCU currently offers eight undergraduate online programs, nine graduate online programs, and a number of other certificate programs and individual courses via the Web.
Nearly 2,000 students are enrolled in the university’s online programs this semester.
The ranking by Guide to Online Schools is not the first national recognition for WCU’s online programs. In October 2012, Western Carolina University’s online master’s degree programs in human resources and project management received high rankings in affordability and “best buy” designations from the distance education information clearinghouse GetEducated.com, according to The Reporter.
According to Dr. Regis Gilman, interim dean of the Division of Education Outreach, “Distance Learning programs at WCU ‘belong,’ if you will, to the academic colleges and are an integral part of the academic offerings at WCU. The Division of Educational Outreach works in partnership with the colleges and program directors to market these UNC Approved distance learning programs, and to facilitate the interest, application and enrollment of individuals whose access by location or time are not able to attend WCU on the Cullowhee, Cherokee or Biltmore Park campuses.”
Despite the high rankings received this school year, Distance Learning programs at WCU are always improving. According to Gilman, an exciting improvement that launched last year is the CORE (Catamount Online Readiness Experience) link that provides access to individuals “looking” at WCU and online learning, as well as faculty and current WCU students who are interested in this interactive mode of instruction, i.e. residential campus sections.
Also, as the academic and student support for distance learners, the Division of Educational Outreach provides the SmarThinking.com resource to distance program majors and students enrolled at Biltmore Park, Cherokee, or off-campus locations who do not have ready access to the WCU Writing and Learning Commons and other academic support resources in Cullowhee during normal business hours.
According to Gilman, utilization of Smarthinking.com by WCU students increased 76 percent last year.
Plans for improving distance education in the future are in the works, as well.
“We are developing virtual open houses and a virtual orientation program for our distance program students. Many of the distance learning programs have specific program orientations and virtual student centers on Blackboard which clearly impact student achievement, satisfaction, communication, retention and graduation,” said Gilman.
Gilman said, “The key to the success of WCU’s distance learning is program administration and faculty-lead courses which engage learners throughout the courses and degree, as well as a strong academic and student support commitment to assisting individuals achieve their educational and professional goals.”
According to Gilman, Tony Miller, associate director of distance learning, and Amy Fahey, distance learning student support specialist, are remarkable in their responsiveness both to the needs of potential and current students, as well as support to the distance programs and coordinators.
Also, the partnerships with the academic colleges and programs, undergraduate admissions, graduate school and research, the Coulter Faculty Commons, the registrar, bursar, financial aid, military student services, career services, student affairs, etc. increase communication and understanding of the needs of returning adult students, said Gilman.
WCU’s Distance Learning Program, including the new CORE link, can be accessed by visiting http://distance.wcu.edu.