This year, Utah State University is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the conception of USU Online, which has brought digital education via the internet to more than 134,000 students from all 29 of Utah’s counties, all 50 states and 55 different countries.
In January, U.S. News & World Report recognized USU Online as having the 23rd best online bachelor’s program in the country, marking the sixth straight year that Utah State has been ranked in the Top 25 in that category. In addition, USU Online also finished 6th in graduate programs in education and 18th in online bachelor’s programs for military veterans in this year’s U.S. News & World Report rankings.
“USU Online is in the university’s DNA,” said Robert Wagner, vice president of Academic & Instructional Services at Utah State University. “It’s what we do. And we do it really well.”
Of course, in 1995, the concept of online education was extremely new and unrefined. When USU first started to move paper-based Independent Study courses to a digital format in 1995, allowing assignments to be sent back and forth via email, there was quite a bit of skepticism around the country about the effectiveness of online education.
“Those faculty members early on should really be commended because there were risks that were involved, and the effective of online teaching and how to creating a teaching and learning environment was unknown,” Wagner noted. “But we had a group of faculty and support staff here that said, ‘Let’s figure this out. Let’s see if we can do this. Let’s see if we can be effective in teaching students in an online environment.’”
In the spring of 1996, English professor David Hailey taught the first completely online composition course, using a combination of email and WWW technologies to reach out to 23 students spread out across Utah.
“USU Online has been a critical – and a very successful – way for us to provide access to high-quality courses, certificates, degrees and programs to residents of the state, even in some of the more rural portions of the state,” Wagner said.
Aiding the success of USU Online is the presence of the Utah State University’s Statewide Campuses in the majority of Utah’s counties. That makes it possible for online students to receive in-person help, if needed, as well as the opportunity to meet with peer students.
“There’s not another institution in Utah that can provide that vast network of support across the entire state,” Wagner said.
Rene Eborn, who returned to Utah State a year ago to serve as special assistant to the vice president for Strategic Initiatives, was the distance learning coordinator at the time USU Online was first implemented back in the mid ‘90s.
“I was here in the early days when we were taking independent study courses, putting them online and building the learning platforms,” Eborn said. “So, it’s been interesting to observe the digital transformation here at USU. At first, we developed our own tools because there was nothing available when we launched online programs across the state. But technology has improved so much over the years.
“It’s increased the access. And because of these advancements we’ve been a part of and pioneered, we have actually been able to fulfill our land-grant mission even more fully than we ever anticipated.”
New academic programs continue to be developed and added to the USU Online portfolio, including competency-based degrees that focus on local workforce demand, making more pertinent degrees accessible to more students, with great flexibility.
“We’ve added more online degrees in the past year than we have in a long time,” Eborn said. “We launched 11 new online programs, and we plan to continue that growth.
Eborn continued, “We want to make certain that we offer relevant degrees that will benefit adult learners who are working full-time and can’t physically return and finish their education.”
Over the past 25 years, Utah State University has pioneered new ways of providing tutoring and mentoring for its online students, while USU Online utilizes a learning management system that is considered a market leader in the industry and one of the reasons its bachelor’s program has been ranked in the Top 25 by U.S. News & World Report for six years running.
“USU Online is just simply one of a set of tools that Utah State University has at its disposal to provide access to a high-quality education experience,” Wagner declared. “And as an institution, we feel obligated to continue to refine and improve that set of tools to try and make it even more effective for both the students and the faculty.
“We are proud to be celebrating 25 years of online education, and we look forward to being a part of the future of education innovation.”