Rowan University created its first online learning program in 2007 with the goal of dismantling the prevailing belief that a degree earned on a computer is less prestigious than a degree earned in a classroom.
More than 15 years and a global pandemic later, Rowan University has established a far-reaching and distinguished online learning program that serves more than 10,000 students from across the country and around the world. Online learning at Rowan University has expanded access to quality educational opportunities and created new pathways for students of all ages to meet their academic and professional goals.
Rowan University now offers nearly 50 degrees, certificates, and certifications in online and hybrid formats, including at the graduate and undergraduate level, and the number of programs continues to grow to meet the demands of a diverse audience of learners. Most importantly, noted Michael Ciocco, Assistant Vice President of Rowan Online, the growth in online learning opportunities at the University has happened while maintaining academic standards.
“As online learning was just getting started at Rowan, like many institutions, we faced concerns that the rigor of online learning was not the same as face-to-face instruction,” said Ciocco, whose department manages online learning for Rowan University, including instructional design, online course development, online learning management technologies, and integrations with the University’s learning management system. To address those concerns, Ciocco said Rowan Online “ensures the underlying version of any online course that is offered at the University is consistent academically.”
“We must guarantee that all online classes have curriculum, rigor, and structure comparable to that put in place for our in-person courses,” said Ciocco. “A faculty member who teaches the same course in both modalities should be able to say that the learning objectives and goals are met equally and that the assessments are consistent in each version of the course.”
“Edge had the talent ready to go and could augment what we were already doing at Rowan. The Edge team quickly immersed themselves into our processes and were focused on meeting the needs of the University and moving our project forward. Even as we start to return to normal, as we are seeing what things look like on the other side of the pandemic, scaling up fast is still no easy feat, but partnering with an organization that is flexible and collaborative helps make an endeavor like ours possible.”
— Michael Ciocco
Assistant Vice President of Rowan Online
Creating a Superior Online Learning Environment
How has Rowan University met the challenge of creating rigorous, consistent online learning experiences that compare with on-campus courses? With a course development methodology that Ciocco compares to baking a cake.
“We have a box cake recipe method that bakes best practices directly into our standards, where quality is built into our templates and technology. Any instructor, at any level, can follow the recipe and feel confident about developing a reliable online course that will meet the Department of Education, accreditation, and Rowan University standards,” said Ciocco.
“Once faculty members are comfortable with the recipe, we encourage them to push the envelope, add their own ideas, and work with their instructional designer to further build upon that foundation.”
As the clearinghouse department for online learning at the University, all online course development is directed through Rowan Online. Instructional design is centrally managed with processes and procedures in place that support the University’s mission of creating a top-quality online learning environment. “Rowan is servicing an ever-increasing number of constituents and we want to ensure that we can offer and support best-in-class technologies for distance education,” Ciocco said. Achieving instructional design excellence means getting obstacles out of the way for instructors by having processes that standardize the online learning technologies. According to Ciocco, the box cake recipe method allows instructors at Rowan to use templates to get a jumpstart on course design and keeps them from worrying about details such as course navigation. They can focus on being subject matter experts rather than spending a lot of time attempting to master the technology or the user interface.
Michael Sunderhauf, who manages the day-to-day instructional design operations for Rowan Online, adds that by taking a project management approach to creating and managing online courses, the team continually finds innovative ways to update previous versions, make improvements, and enhance the user experience.
“Our strategy is similar to software updates. We start with a pilot that allows us to test capabilities, see what works and what doesn’t, and learn from this exploration,” said Sunderhauf, Manager of Instructional Design for Rowan Online. “If a new design is successful, we integrate our insights from the pilot into our standard templates and procedures for developing courses.”
Scaling Operations for Big Projects
The benefits of the box cake recipe method were on full display when COVID-19 forced the world into lockdown in March 2020 and pushed all in-person learning into an online format. Rather than starting from scratch, Rowan Online had a foundation to build out hundreds of courses in months while working remotely during a global health crisis.
“During the pandemic, universities across the nation were forced to scale operations. At Rowan, we increased production by nearly 50 percent of what it was in fall of 2019,” said Sunderhauf. “We were charged with getting more than 900 course sections ready for the beginning of the fall semester in 2020. Thankfully, the majority of our courses follow our box cake recipe, which gave us an advantage in our efforts to scale up quickly.”
While preparing a record number of courses for online delivery, Rowan Online was also working with Rowan University’s Division of Information Resources & Technology to transition the entire University to a single learning management system.
Dr. Mira Lalovic-Hand, Senior Vice President of Information Resources & Technology (IRT) and CIO, spearheaded the transition in collaboration from Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost, Tony Lowman, Senior Vice President for Enrollment Managemnt, Jeff Hand, and Ciocco. Working together, IRT, Rowan Online, and the Division of Academic Affairs were able to merge all colleges and schools into a single learning management system with unified standards in likely record time.
“A project of this magnitude would normally take a year or more, but we had to achieve this goal in about six months,” said Ciocco. With an internal team of eight instructional designers, Ciocco knew he was going to need a few extra sets of hands to meet deadlines.
“Our two simultaneous projects were a substantial challenge, so we recruited outside help to support the significant growth in our instructional design shop and reallocate internal resources for the LMS centralization project,” said Ciocco.
To expand instructional design quickly, Rowan Online partnered with Edge and their team of certified expert instructional designers to update hundreds of courses, while adhering to a regimented process and tight timeline. “Edge had the talent ready to go and could augment what we were already doing at Rowan,” said Ciocco. “The Edge team quickly immersed themselves into our processes and were focused on meeting the needs of the University and moving our project forward. Even as we start to return to normal, as we are seeing what things look like on the other side of the pandemic, scaling up fast is still no easy feat, but partnering with an organization that is flexible and collaborative helps make an endeavor like ours possible.”
Sunderhauf added that working with Edge on this initiative introduced Rowan Online to a wider group of instructional designers throughout the country. “Through our partnership with Edge, we gained access to a diverse team of designers who were ready and available, allowing us to hit the ground running.”
One key advantage to the partnership was the integration of the Edge team members into Rowan Online, according to Ciocco, who said they “became an extension of our department.”
“We provided instructional design training, connected them directly with our faculty, and gave them Rowan University email addresses,” said Ciocco. “This structure allowed them to operate like our in-house instructional designers and deliver the same level of service to our faculty members.”
“Through our partnership with Edge, we gained access to a diverse team of designers who were ready and available, allowing us to hit the ground running.”
— Michael Sunderhauf
Manager of Instructional Design, Rowan Online Department
Preparing for Future Growth
Going forward, Rowan University will be continuing the partnership with Edge and using their experts to augment the institution’s instructional design capabilities. “My goal is to have a partner like Edge as part of our long-term strategy, as we have a wealth of work on our plate,” said Ciocco.
One initiative Ciocco foresees future collaboration with Edge on is the Rowan@Home program. Created at the start of the pandemic, Rowan@Home offers a flexible, safe, and convenient way for incoming freshmen to earn their degrees fully online.
“While this was born out of need amid the pandemic, the University realized there is a market for this type of program now and into the future and is currently working to develop several undergraduate majors with a fully online option,” said Ciocco. “This is one more step in furthering our mission to find innovative ways to meet student needs and offer versatile online learning opportunities.”
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