The Last Frontier: Online Courses for Traditional Students at a Liberal Arts College

Concurrent Session 9
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This research-based, interactive session will review the results of a liberal arts college introducing fully online courses for traditional-age residential students. The process of implementing the initiative will be described, including student perceptions, and how faculty concerns about intellectual property and academic integrity were addressed.


Eric Hagan has been at DeSales University as Director, Distance Education and Instructional Technology since August 2014. Before coming to DeSales, Dr. Hagan had a key role in creating and building a successful online learning organization at a major research university. Prior to his career in higher education, Dr. Hagan worked in the standardized testing industry and financial services. Dr. Hagan teaches in the areas of organization management, project management, customer relationship management, account management, leadership, higher education, and technology-enhanced teaching/learning. Dr. Hagan earned his Doctor of Education degree in Higher Education Leadership and Management from Drexel University. He holds an MBA from Wilmington College and a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the University of Delaware. He is a frequent presenter at regional, national, and international conferences.

Extended Abstract

This research-based interactive session will report on introducing fully online courses for traditional-age, primarily residential, students at a medium-sized liberal arts college, DeSales University. Participants will be encouraged to share their related experiences and their ideas for overcoming resistance to change. The presentation will be supported by Powerpoint slides and an interactive response system (PollEverywhere).

Based on its positive experiences with online courses and programs for adult undergraduate and graduate students, institutional leaders changed their mindset with regard to online courses for traditional undergraduates. Where once the thinking was “Parents aren’t sending their children to a residential college so they can take online courses and never leave their dorms,” the perspective changed to  “Our graduates are at a competitive disadvantage if they do not have the kind of online course experience they are likely to encounter in the workplace or in graduate studies.” Thus, the “Traditional Day Online Master Course Initiative” was conceived and included in the DeSales University Strategic Plan 2015-2020.

The objective of the Traditional Day Online Master Course Initiative is to provide each traditional-age undergraduate student with the opportunity to take up to two fully online courses in the course of their academic program as part of their regular schedule. The plan is for full-time faculty members to develop 15 week reusable courses with small sections designed specifically for the traditional age student.  The first online courses were offered in Spring Semester 2016, with additional online courses added to the catalog each semester since. Subjects offered in the program to date have included English, History, Management, Mathematics, Political Science, and World Cultures. The classes have proven very popular with students, with all sections offered quickly filled to capacity.

The Spring Semester 2016 students were invited to participate in an IRB-approved research study. Data were collected through surveys and by mining the university’s student information system. The research questions included:

What reasons to students give for choosing to register for an online course?

What reasons do students give for choosing to register for an online course?

What aspects of the online course contributed to students’ learning?

What student characteristics are associated with successfully completing an online course?

How are students’ comfort level with online education affected by taking an online course?

How satisfied are students with their online course experience?

The conference session will review the results of the research study as well as describe the process of implementing the initiative, particularly the process of getting faculty on board and addressing their concerns in areas such as intellectual property and academic integrity. The findings of the research study reinforced some conventional wisdom about online courses such as that registrations are primarily motivated by student desire for schedule flexibility, supported the importance of instructor presence to student success and satisfaction, and produced some unexpected results leading to the conclusion that online courses are not as novel to today’s students as they still are to some higher education faculty and administrators.

DeSales University is a four-year private university located in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania. Total headcount enrollment is approximately 3,500, about 1,700 full-time traditional undergraduate students with the remainder graduate and adult undergraduate students.