Mason charts a future online strategy

This story was originally published in the April 6 print issue.

After expressing support for the development of an online completion college, Mason has been asked to provide a report by the Virginia General Assembly.

According to Michelle Marks, vice provost of academic affairs, the report will provide examples of what other universities have done to help adults and returning students complete their degrees.

Online-completion degrees cater to students older than 24 that have already earned some college credit, according to Marks. However, few universities currently meet the needs of these non-traditional students.

“Actually, there aren’t many public universities that have figured out how to support Virginia’s degree completers. They tend to desire more flexibility in scheduling, help figuring out how their prior credits will support their degree progression, and a desire for degrees that have a direct link to employability,” Marks said in an email.

According to Stephen Nodine, director of distance education, a working group of faculty has been selected to conduct the report and will begin meeting sometime in April in to develop the report and plan for potential future online degree-completion programs at Mason.

Currently, there are already three adult degree completion programs online: the cyber security concentration in the M.S. for Applied Information Technology; the health, wellness and social services concentration in the B.A. for Applied Science; and the technology and innovation concentration, also in the B.A. for Applied Science.


Mason currently offers 38 completely online programs including graduate certificates, undergraduate minors and masters degrees. These certifications span seven schools and include programs such as a special education graduate certificate, geography undergraduate minor and a masters degree in accounting. There are also 13 hybrid programs.

Marks said Mason will add more programs to its portfolio and believes the expansion will come from the hybrid or “blended” courses that meet face to face less often. 

“Our Provost, Dr. David Wu, is charting a course in which the use of digital technologies and strategies will become a more fully-adopted and broadly-integrated part of our overall learning model. We definitely are looking to online learning as a key part of our future strategy as a university,” Nodine wrote in an email.

Though online education is expanding, Mason has had to overcome challenges while entering the field. According to Marks, Mason is not used to handling student needs and issues in an online platform, and it takes time to figure out how to best serve the needs of an online student.

Faculty development poses another challenge. According to Marks, her experience confirms that the initial development of an online course can take considerable effort from professors who are used to teaching lecture style classes. Even if instructors are proficient with technology, understanding user needs when shifting from classroom to web is a challenge because students are receiving content through a new medium.

Mason employs instructional designers to help faculty develop their online courses. Despite the difficulties, online programs continue growing.

“As of a few years ago, many faculty members at Mason had never taught an online course. My bet is that in 5-10 years, teaching online will be almost as familiar for faculty members as teaching in a physical classroom is today,” Marks said. 

Evidence of Mason’s growth in the online education sector is the College of Humanities and Social Sciences new, entirely online eighteen credit education program for teaching English as a second language. The first semester of this new program begins fall 2015. TESL will allow students to receive a TESL certificate in under a year.

The establishment of an online program allows students who need a more flexible schedule to receive the credits they need. However, online does not mean easy.

Steven Weinberger, director of the linguistics department said, “we are limiting the classes to 18 students, and the courses are just as rigorous as the face-to-face classes, and just as interesting.”

Photo Credit: Amy Rose