Could a liberal arts approach to online learning be more successful?

By Andrew Barbour
April 20th, 2016


Bellevue University is using small online learning classes and close oversight by faculty to improve graduation rates and reduce debt defaults.

As working adults become the norm in higher education, the focus of many colleges and universities has shifted to online education, with its promise of flexibility and convenience. To meet the needs of these learners, a large number of schools are pursuing massively scalable, highly automated solutions, although high dropout rates plague some of these business models.

Bellevue University is taking a different tack. An open-admissions institution, the Nebraska school is forging an online experience that stresses close faculty oversight and course assessments that go well beyond automated testing.

“Adult working students have to have a meaningful experience when they’re online,” said Mary Hawkins, president of Bellevue University. “They have to feel connected and they have to have the full array of support services.”

The Importance of the Small Class

Central to Bellevue’s strategy for high completion rates are small class sizes: The average online class comprises only 16 students. “For our students to have more success, we’ve found that they really need the faculty,” said Hawkins. ” If the faculty can create relationships with students, that’s the strongest retention factor.”

Before they lead any online class, all faculty members and adjuncts must take a course about online teaching strategies, how to use the school’s LMS, and how to interact with students. Full-time faculty and deans then monitor their classes until they are satisfied that the instructors are performing well. “At that point, the monitoring gets a little lighter but we do not let go of that,” said Hawkins. “That’s a big difference between our approach and [a program that relies more on] automated assessment.”

(Next page: A more classic curricular approach for online learning)

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