Behind the Scenes of Online Learning at Union Institute and University

In recognition of National Distance Learning Week, we are shining light on the value online learning brings to higher education. Below is an article written by Robert Cotter, Director, Center for Teaching and Learning & Information Technology at Union.

From its inception in 1964 Union Institute & University (UI&U) has been a leader in the development of alternate methods of instruction for adult students. UI&U has historically provided distance education using the best methods available, including correspondence, telecommunications and, finally, the internet. In 2017, UI&U is leveraging its 50+ years of experience with distance learning to provide high quality online courses and programs for adult students at the undergraduate, Master’s and Ph.D. levels.

Online learning at UI&U is student centered and designed to appeal to the needs and preferences of contemporary adult learners. UI&U’s is committed to providing our students with a successful and transformational learning experience. To ensure student success the entire University is involved in the online learning process, providing a university-wide support system for our students that integrates all of the administrative and academic resources they will need during their time at UI&U. This holistic approach to online learning support ensures that our academic programs are closely aligned with key student success functions including enrollment, advising, retention and career services.

UI&U’s online courses are developed around the principles of active learning and critical thinking.

The design of UI&U’s online programs and courses is governed by a set of institutional standards, developed in-house, that ensure a high quality and consistent learning environment for our students. Course design begins with the identification of the student learning objectives and associated assessment methods. Course materials and learning activities are then selected and sequenced to help students successfully achieve the course objectives. Care is taken to ensure that all UI&U courses comply with relevant standards for course activity relative to credit hours, using the Carnegie Unit guidelines.

The University places a special emphasis on orientation and training resources for new and continuing students. Students are familiarized with the skills and behaviors associated with successful online learning. Newly admitted students receive an overview of the technologies they will use, including an in depth introduction to the learning management system and the student portal. The UI&U library provides one-on-one informational and consulting sessions as well as self-directed orientation modules. The Writing and Math Tutoring Center is a virtual resource that customizes its instructional and consulting interventions to the needs of individual students.

Student engagement is a critical part of the UI&U course design process. The University’s guidelines emphasize several best practice features including instructor presence (an identifiable persona and a ubiquitous virtual presence), a student community (facilitating student to student academic and social interaction) and free flowing communication (soliciting student feedback and leveraging students’ social media skills). Learning activities that require peer to peer interaction and exchange are encouraged and prioritized.

UI&U’s faculty receive a significant amount of required training and support for the design and delivery of the courses they teach. Newly hired faculty participate in several required professional development programs, including an introduction to the learning management system and training on other technologies and systems relevant to academic activity. The faculty onboarding process also includes an introduction to the University’s course design and delivery standards and the University’s performance expectations for online instruction. Faculty members are also provided with a course on online pedagogy that emphasizes the critical components of online teaching: the roles inherent in online facilitation, developing content for online delivery, relevant assessment techniques and the importance of instructor presence and student communities. The University’s instructional design team assists faculty with course design issues and provides the majority of the technology-based training the faculty receive.

True to the University’s innovative mission, UI&U will continue to enhance and evolve its online learning practices to match the changing preferences of its students and the new capabilities technological advances will bring. As more adult learners look to online education to acquire the competencies and credentials they need to succeed, Union Institute & University intends to remain on the forefront of online learning by excellent and accessible academic opportunities.

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