University Wins High Rankings, National Accreditation for Online Programs

UMass Lowell Vice Provost for Innovation and Workforce Development Steven Tello Image by Adrien Bisson
Steve Tello, vice provost of innovation and workforce development, oversees UMass Lowell's award-winning online and continuing education programs.

By Katharine Webster

The online education market is undergoing a radical transformation as for-profit schools collapse or are acquired by nonprofits, says Steve Tello, UML’s vice provost for graduate, online and professional studies. And those nonprofits include public universities in other states that can now offer degrees here.

That presents a challenge for UMass Lowell, a pioneer in online education that has won multiple awards and high rankings for its distance learning programs. The university must evolve to meet changing student demographics, Tello says – which means doing even more for nontraditional students and working professionals looking to advance their careers.

One way in which UMass Lowell is doing that is by launching the brand-new Division of Graduate, Online and Professional Studies, which combines the former Division of Online and Continuing Education with the university’s graduate recruiting, admissions and student services offices. Tello has been leading that effort since January 2018.

It’s more than a name change or an administrative shuffle. The idea is to better align UML’s on-campus and online graduate programs, so that graduate students can choose to take classes online, in person or a combination of the two without jumping through additional hoops.

Recently, Tello sat down to talk about trends in online education, what makes UMass Lowell different from the industry giants, and how the university plans to sustain its online growth.

Q: What’s the biggest change in online education right now, apart from the collapse of for-profit diploma mills and consolidation in the industry?

A: Until a couple of years ago, online colleges had to go state by state to win approval to offer their degrees in each one. It was a very expensive, cumbersome process, which meant that only the largest schools could offer online education nationally.

In 2015, the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements was formed to allow distance learning schools approved by their own state and regional higher education accrediting agencies to offer courses to students in any other state that participated. Now, every state but California has joined.

That’s a boon, but it’s also a challenge, because while UMass Lowell has won approval to serve students outside New England, big players like the University of Maryland, Arizona State University, Purdue Global and Western Governors University also can recruit here.

We don’t restrain the faculty’s course content. Isn’t that the richness of the higher education experience? -Steve Tello

Q: With all the rivalry from these nationally recognized brands in online education, how can UMass Lowell compete?

A: We can do what we’ve done since UMass Lowell became an online education pioneer 20 years ago: focus on quality over quantity.

For one thing, we don’t need to capture 90,000 students or more to break even financially; I’d be very happy if we had 10,000 students per semester. We have a solid, sustainable business model that allows us to keep our tuition rates very competitive.

And our academic quality is as high online as on campus, because most of our online courses are taught by the same full-time faculty with professional and research experience who teach here in Lowell. As a result, many of our colleges and programs have national professional accreditation.

Our MBA is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; our engineering programs are approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology; and our Behavioral Intervention in Autism Program prepares students for the national exam to become a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst.

By contrast, most of the biggest players have regional accreditation, but – because they are going for high numbers of students and relying on adjuncts to teach nearly all of their classes – their faculty, facility and research standards just aren’t high enough to win those gold standard professional accreditations.

Q: Most of the biggest online schools are academically separate from their bricks-and-mortar campuses. The online divisions offer courses designed by “subject matter experts” or third-party, interactive textbook publishers, instead of their on-campus faculty. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that approach, and what is UMass Lowell doing differently?

A: The advantages for the big schools are financial. They can create or buy standardized course content and then hire adjunct faculty who “facilitate” this content – part-timers who may work at two or three other institutions.

Here, our online classes are designed and taught by the same faculty who teach on campus, or else by adjuncts – accomplished academics and professionals – who are vetted and hired by the on-campus departments. And every online course, certificate and degree must go through a rigorous approval process by the on-campus department and college.

That ensures high academic and teaching quality and also allows for unique and even award-winning classes, like English Department Chairman Todd Avery’s popular course Monsters, Apes and Nightmares, which he teaches both on campus and online.

It also means that we can be more nimble. Faculty can update their classes every semester to reflect the latest developments in their field, improve content or vary the assignments. That’s harder to do when you have to retrain 50 adjuncts or get the online textbook publisher to make changes.

Q: The course design process used by the biggest online schools is meant to ensure that every student who takes a class will come out with a standard set of skills. Do we do that here?

A: Every faculty member who teaches online for us must first take a six-week class on the best online teaching practices, as well as how to use the technology to greatest advantage.

We require our faculty to design their online courses with clear learning objectives, interactive assignments and a detailed syllabus and rubric, using a template that’s based on sound instructional design principles.

But we don’t restrain the faculty’s course content. Isn’t that the richness of the higher education experience?

Q: You’re now in charge of integrating our online and continuing education programs with graduate programs across the university. What’s the thinking behind that?

A: Right now, a little more than half of our online students are pursuing an undergraduate degree or certificate. However, changing demographics mean there is increased competition for a shrinking pool of high school graduates.

Recently, we have experienced growth among adults pursuing graduate degrees and certificates. Our path forward is to grow our online master’s programs, leveraging our on-campus areas of expertise. We need to develop the type of organization and policies that will support this growth over the next decade.

We already have comprehensive and highly rated online graduate programs in education, criminal justice and security studies, information technology and computer science, business, behavioral intervention in autism, clinical pathology and plastics engineering. As we move forward, we can put more of our on-campus graduate programs online, including our Master of Public Administration degree and a new graduate certificate in business analytics.

Q: How will this reorganization help students?

A: We’re aiming for a completely seamless student experience for our online and on-campus graduate programs, with mix-and-match options for students who live within commuting distance.

Since the majority of our graduate students are already in the workforce, they like the scheduling flexibility that online coursework offers. But many of those who live nearby also prefer to take the most challenging classes on campus. That way, when they’re struggling with something, they can ask questions and get explanations on the spot.

We already count each of our online graduate certificates toward the related master’s degree, if students want to continue their education – another way that we’ve streamlined things for students.

And we’re restructuring financially so that we can offer more scholarships.

Q: Who are our online students, and what’s attracting them to UML over the alternatives?

A: Our students want more than the proverbial “piece of paper.” They are a lot like our on-campus students – willing to work hard for a high-quality education that will also prepare them for a career, all at an accessible price. We have a strong professional focus in every degree pathway, from undergraduate English and history majors to graduate students in engineering management – and our students value that.

Our alumni are very loyal, too. Some graduate students come to us straight from their undergraduate programs through the bachelor’s-to-master’s option, choosing our online and hybrid programs so they can work full time while they study. Others come back to us when they hit that midcareer point where they can’t go any further without a master’s degree or some additional skills.

We are also rated highly as a veteran-friendly school, with one of the largest numbers of veterans in the Northeast, our primary market. Some veterans earn their bachelor’s degrees here while others enroll in our highly ranked master’s programs in criminal justice or security studies, which prepare them for careers in law enforcement.

Another good market for us is international students. UMass Lowell has very strong brand recognition in India in particular, and in some parts of China, too. We’re looking at how to leverage that, including by offering four-course graduate certificates online as an entrée to our on-campus master’s programs in science, engineering and business – assuming the student does well.

Finally, we also hope to grow our workforce development programs, which we tailor to the needs of corporate and government partners. For example, we have an ongoing partnership with Hanscom Air Force Base that includes classes in cybersecurity we’ve developed for their personnel. Just last year, we opened the UMass Lowell Research Institute right outside the gate of Hanscom to facilitate that partnership.