In 1996, America was going online. Although Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were still years away, more people were booting up and dialing in every day. Just as the digital revolution was starting to transform everything from buying a car to booking airplane tickets, UMass Lowell launched its online and continuing education program, one of the first of its kind in the country.
The idea was to serve an increasingly mobile, technologically driven population of adult learners who could log in anytime, anywhere to courses that would help them acquire the skills and background they needed for professional advancement, recalls Jacqueline Moloney, UMass Lowell’s executive vice chancellor and the driving force behind the launch of the online program.
“We were undergoing a sea change,” Moloney says. “It really was the first time we had an opportunity to create a new model for education.”
The program started with seven information technology classes and a total of 87 enrollments. It has grown steadily ever since, now boasting about 900 courses across a range of disciplines, from biochemistry to international law, with more than 20,000 enrollments during the past academic year. Students can now earn seven different undergraduate degrees, 10 graduate degrees, 15 graduate-level certificates and 11 undergraduate certificates – all without ever stepping foot on campus.
“Online and Continuing Education has grown enrollment by 45 percent over the past five years, giving students – from around the nation and the world – more flexibility in how they receive a high-quality education at UMass Lowell,” says Chancellor Marty Meehan.
Breaking Down Barriers to Access
For Jessica Huizenga, enrolling in an online master’s program was her only option to earn an advanced degree. Back in 2003, she was a single parent of two young children, living in Plymouth and working full-time as a teacher.
“I needed to get my master’s but I couldn’t find time to get to campus,” recalls Huizenga, who earned her doctorate from the Graduate School of Education (GSE) in May. “It was a perfect opportunity for me. I had my master’s in a year and a half.”
Huizenga, who had never taken an online class before enrolling in the GSE’s master’s program, had some trepidation when she started. However, she soon discovered that contrary to her expectations, there was much interactivity among the faculty and students. Because students have to post their assignments and participate in discussions online, a unique community developed.
“You open up your thinking to others and expose yourself to a greater diversity of ideas. Online education breaks down the traditional barriers and expands the boundaries of learning,” says Huizenga, who was recently named interim school superintendent in the Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District.
Watch Jessica tell her story as the graduate commencement speaker:
A University Transformed
Many colleges have followed UMass Lowell’s lead into the world of online education (77 percent of U.S. college presidents report that their institutions now offer online courses, according to Pew Research Center), but back in 1996, there were no best practices to follow. Everything from how many students to admit in each class to who owned the intellectual property of the course material had to be addressed.
“It was wide open,” says Moloney. “There were a lot of questions that had to be sorted out.”
The guiding principles that made UMass Lowell’s face-to-face classes successful were applied to the online initiative, Moloney notes. For instance, the average class size for online courses was set at about 25 students, similar to classes held on campus.
“We’ve carefully built the infrastructure to support a quality program,” says Catherine Kendrick, UMass Lowell’s executive director of distance market development and corporate outreach. “We’ve nurtured it, invested in it and grown it.”
Over the years, UMass Lowell’s online program has received numerous awards in recognition of excellence in teaching, faculty development and leadership from The Sloan Consortium, or Sloan-C, an international organization promoting quality in online education.
While the online program expanded UMass Lowell’s global reach, it also sparked transformation on campus, impacting everything from library services to IT support to registration for classes.
“The online program has fundamentally changed UMass Lowell because it has touched so many parts of campus,” Moloney says. “It has created hundreds of opportunities to change what we do.”
Mary Duell, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, says teaching online courses has enriched her classroom approach because she is integrating technology like discussion boards and social media and enabling more interactivity among her students.
“The incorporation of online technology is going to be something we see more of in traditional classrooms,” says Duell, who has been teaching in the online program for seven years.
Continued Growth Ahead
UMass Lowell’s online offerings continue to expand, with three new programs ready for launch in the fall: a master’s degree in information technology, a bachelor’s degree in English and a certificate program in graphic design and digital imaging. Looking ahead, as the learning-management software for administering, conducting and managing online classes advances, more support for rich multimedia like video will be added.
“I see nothing but continued growth,” Moloney says.