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Sept. 10, 2018
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Northwest launched a new form of higher learning in the fall of 1999 when it began offering online coursework through Northwest Online. As the platform enters its 20th year, it continues to evolve in the ways it supplements the academic needs and learning styles of students as well as how faculty deliver course content.
The University launched Northwest Online Aug. 3, 1999, a year after establishing its Center for Information Technology in Education, or CITE, with state-provided mission enhancement funding to support the instructional technology needs of Northwest faculty.
Over time Northwest Online developed as an internet portal with supporting features and a course management system. CITE, meanwhile, has been reimagined as the Learning and Teaching Center and continues to support faculty through the development and sharing of pedagogical and content-specific knowledge in addition to providing access to professional development support and resources.
“During the past 20 years, Northwest Online has designed a suite of online programs that reflect the Northwest quality of learning that is expected by learners,” said Dr. Darla Runyon, who was a staff member during the launch and now serves as director of Northwest’s Learning and Teaching Center. Dr. Roger Von Holzen, an associate professor in the School of Computer Science and Information Systems, was CITE’s first director and stayed in that role until 2013.
“Over the years, our course design has continuously improved to be learner-centered and focused upon learner success,” Runyon said. “We constantly monitor the online environment to make sure we offer our learners the best experience possible. Dedicated, caring and enthusiastic faculty are what make the online course the success it is for our learners.”
Dr. Deb Toomey, an associate professor of marketing, was among the first faculty to implement the system into her instruction 20 years ago. She continues to use it today to keep course content organized and accessible to her students – and she says she can’t imagine her work without it.
“No student can say they didn’t get a handout or they didn’t know about an assignment because it is right there, always available to them,” Toomey said. “The downside is that sometimes I see students who think that since it is all available on Northwest Online that they do not need to take notes, attend class or listen. That usually lasts until the first exam. It doesn’t replace the instruction; rather it is a tool to share the instruction.”
The impetus for Northwest Online can be traced back to 1987 when Northwest flipped the switch on its “Electronic Campus” and became the first public institution in the nation with networked computers in each residence hall room and faculty office. A decade later, Northwest had upgraded the network and all of its computer terminals, allowing students and faculty to use multimedia and the internet while further enhancing learning at the University.
Internet access in homes was not yet prevalent, and the widespread adoption of smartphones and wireless internet was at least a decade away. By the late 1990s at Northwest, however, computer usage and online learning had become part of the fabric of the institution.
“More faculty started really using them seriously and it became part of the hiring process – if you don’t want to use a computer, don’t come to Northwest,” former President Dr. Dean Hubbard said. “It was just part of what we did. Then, CITE was a natural evolution to push those boundaries and to really discover more of what could be done.”
Toomey remembers Hubbard discussing the program with her while he was visiting another school that was starting an online program.
“It was hard to wrap my head around the concept early on since it was so different than anything we had tried before,” she said. “The early platforms were amazing because of the tools that were available that not only were not available before but in some cases we didn’t even know it was a possibility. I remember teaching Freshman Seminar (now called University Seminar) and having the ability to share documents, grades and information easily with students. As we moved forward with more online content, the services just kept getting better.”
Northwest Online launched with nine courses and a total enrollment of 57 students, including one based in Malaysia. The courses consisted of six general education courses and three business management courses.
In December 2001, Christina Pasqua of Sterling, Colorado, became the first student to complete a degree through Northwest Online, earning her bachelor’s in business management. When Pasqua arrived to participate in the winter commencement ceremony, it marked her first visit to the Northwest campus – a path to graduation that once was unthinkable.
Today, about 536 Northwest Online courses exist with nearly 3,000 students enrolled each semester. Most Northwest Online students are campus-based, but the courses enroll students from throughout the world. It consists of 11 online graduate programs, three bachelor’s degree completion programs, and at least one general education course for each academic area. Blended courses, which consist of a combination of online and classroom coursework, also are established within Northwest Online.
Kimbre Thrower will complete her degree online in December while spending the last year in Africa. Thrower earned her bachelor’s degree at Northwest and began pursuing her master’s degree in special education through Northwest Online while she was teaching in Missouri.
“The great thing about northwest online is that I did not have to stop my classes,” she said. “I have already been able to use my degree while living (in Africa) as a long-term sub for the director of special education in an international school and also to just provide education for families here. Many in Uganda still see special needs as a curse on the family. My hope is to be able to provide the education to people so that they will no longer see children with special needs as a curse, but as a blessing.”
Kris Reinertson graduated last spring with his master’s degree in geographic information systems through Northwest Online. The coursework helped him secure work at Legal Services Corporation, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., that provides civil legal aid for low-income Americans.
“The M.S. in GIScience program at Northwest is a portable, cost-effective and, most of all, enriching experience that has guided me on a path of professional development,” he said. “I began the program with no GIS experience but quickly gained knowledge I put to practice by accomplishing my course projects as work projects.”
Building on the Learning and Teaching Center mission, faculty online course development fellowship grants are offered each year to provide faculty with opportunities to study new teaching methods and enhance their courses with instructional technology. Workshops, training sessions, online tutorials and one-on-one sessions are offered on a regular basis.
“Northwest Online will continue to focus on future growth and expansion with programs in-demand by online learners,” Runyon said. “Current and new online learners will be able to find their path to success. Northwest Online will continue its focus of helping learners make their success happen.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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