July/August 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 5

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Online BS in Sociology: A “Natural Experiment” at Kennesaw State University

Cristina Gheorghiu-Stephens, Director of Online BS in Sociology Program, and Samuel Abaidoo, Chair, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice

In August 2011, Kennesaw State University (KSU) launched its first online undergraduate major in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and one of the first fully online sociology degree programs in the country. As the third-largest institution of higher education in the University System of Georgia and one of the fastest growing, the university has been confronted with the challenge of inadequate classroom space. Besides marginal increases in class sizes and a search for offsite locations, the leadership of the institution looks at online courses as one of the potential solutions to the space constraint issue. The university president was also convinced that KSU faculty could offer superior online courses and programs to meet the needs of an increasing number of non-traditional students looking for flexibility of schedules.

As of fall 2010, our sociology major had relatively more online courses ready for delivery than any other major in the college. This prompted the upper administration to ask our department to consider developing a proposal for an online sociology degree program. After consulting with, and securing the support of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Samuel Abaidoo, chair of the department, proceeded to develop a preliminary proposal outline for the program. The responsibility for completing the full proposal was turned over to professor Miriam Boeri who, despite very limited resources, was able to nurture the program through its first challenging year. The following year, Cristina Gheorghiu-Stephens took over the ongoing development and implementation of the program.

Figure 1. Average Annual Salaries of Sociology Faculty By Rank In 2012 Constant Dollars: AY 2005/2006 - AY 2012/2013

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The online bachelor’s in sociology was conceived to mirror the traditional, face-to-face sociology program that has existed for more than two decades. The traditional program offers four distinct concentrations: Criminology, Medical Sociology, Organizational and Social Change, and Cultural Diversity. The online program was launched with only one of the four concentrations initially available (Criminology) in order to ensure graduation of the first web-learner cohort (2011-12) within four years. The plan is to add the three additional concentrations over the next three to four years, depending on available resources.

Interest and Growth

Student interest was quite strong from the very beginning with some current students changing their status to become “web learners” and others transferring from other colleges/institutions. “Weblearners” at Kennesaw State University are not only able to take all their courses exclusively online but are also exempted from campus-related fees, with the exception of the “technology” and “institutional” fee. The tuition per credit hour is nevertheless slightly higher than the tuition face-to-face students pay.

The initial interest has been sustained, with the program witnessing about 100 percent growth in less than two years (see below). The growth trajectory is expected to continue as the department continues to receive inquiries from traditional KSU students as well as students from other colleges/institutions who are considering transferring from their current institutions. This growth has required an acceleration of online course development, particularly in the upper-division major requirements area. Over the last year we have been gradually developing and adding to the slate of online course offerings.

As we develop this program we are fully cognizant of the ongoing debate regarding the merits and future of online education in general. We also recognize that there is a connection between long-term online program success and the quality of course design and pedagogy - a link strongly emphasized in the literature. To ensure quality of online course development and delivery, Kennesaw State University has partnered with “Quality Matters™” to develop faculty-centered, peer review process designed to provide quality benchmarks and certification of online courses. In order to be approved for fully online delivery, all courses at Kennesaw State University must be submitted for this internal peer review process to ensure they meet specific quality standards. The review process focuses on course structure and organizational quality while departments remain responsible for ensuring content quality and assessing instructional effectiveness. Prior to teaching online courses all faculty must become Online Teaching Certified by completing a KSU recognized training class that focuses on the design and pedagogy of online teaching. Faculty must also obtain departmental approval before developing online courses.

Kennesaw State University has recently made a transition to a new learning management system, “Desire to Learn (D2L)”, which provided us with the opportunity to refresh our approach to online course delivery. During the second part of the transition year (2012-2013) the program director for our online sociology degree program participated in a campus-wide project designed to encourage online teaching faculty to share their unique expertise and “best practices” in teaching. Topics included latest research in online learning, best practices in mobile learning, increasing faculty presence in online courses, cloud computing, the importance of feed-back in the online learning environment, and successful online teaching strategies. We have been encouraging faculty to make use of recently introduced interactive technologies that can embed video and audio features in D2L . These technologies, including Panopto, VoiceThread and Soft Chalk, help maximize instructor presence and quality of feed-back in the virtual classroom. In addition, we are now working with the University’s Office of Distance Learning to produce professional quality “faculty introductory videos” to be added to course homepages. Such video clips can help faculty avoid the “ghost town” syndrome that can sometime pervade online courses lacking interactive “Welcome” documents or applications on their main page.

Over the long term, fully online programs require a comprehensive assessment process based on performance comparisons with traditional programs. We plan on including measures of performance such as grades, GPAs, learning outcomes, student retention, graduation rates and career outcomes. The assessment study will also include an examination of the profiles of students enrolled in the program relative to other sociology majors and a survey of students and faculty experiences with the program. As demands for flexible education are increasing and more non-traditional students need to update their skills to compete in rapidly changing labor markets, we expect that our online program will continue to grow. During the first two years we learned that with sufficient resources, insistence on high course delivery standards, and continued inclusion of appropriate distance learning technologies as they become available, the online Sociology degree program has the potential of becoming a long-term success.

 

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