Doubling down on distance learning


Jacob Greenia

Dr. Bobbi Jo Carter

As JSC moves closer to becoming Northern Vermont University-Johnson, some of the college’s online programs such as the External Degree Program (EDP) and JSC Online stand to see expansion and outreach to specific areas of the United States.

JSC’s EDP program has expanded since it reached 500 active students in 2005 according to JSC’s Sep. 23 Self-Study Report in 2016. Since 2010, the EDP program has added five degree options, opening opportunities to students in Vermont who would otherwise be unable to continue their education to the completion of their degree.

New Associate Dean of Distance Education Bobbi Jo Carter said EDP students can expect the program to grow, not dissolve into a single entity, despite rumors that say otherwise.

“Because the focus of EDP is to serve the students in Vermont, and even though they’re taking the distance learning program, we want to give them the same kind of hands-on support system that on-campus students have,” added Carter. “I am frequently asked, ‘is EDP going away? ‘It isn’t. It isn’t going to merge to become one distance learning program, because there are different needs that students here in Vermont have as opposed to truly remote students.

“We want to continue to grow EDP, we want to continue to serve our students with that hands-on approach,” Carter continued. “I’m really doing a lot of work in trying to gather information from them to figure out how to better serve their needs, what is it that they’re not currently receiving in terms of support, accessibility, course variety, all kinds of things of that nature.”

According to Associate Dean of Enrollment Services Penny Howrigan, both the EDP program and JSC Online program have shown favorable numbers in applications processed. Meanwhile, overall numbers for first-year, transfer, EDP, returning, and JSC Online students’ applications are up 21 percent from last year.

“Together, for those two programs [EDP and JSC Online], we were up in applications by 19 percent for spring comparing to last year,” said Howrigan. “Right now, as of this morning we’re up 19 percent in applications for EDP and JSC Online. For deposits, we are close to last year. We have 76 students and we’re comparing to 81 [from last year]. We’re down a little bit, but it’s not quite over yet because with the distance learning we have a new module that will start in March.”

As for the future of the distance learning program, JSC Online, Carter says the current strategy is to mine prospective students from coast to coast.

Carter’s work thus far within the distance learning programs has yielded expanded opportunities for community college students throughout both Alabama and Mississippi with an estimated 100,000 students and 75,000 students, respectively, per Howrigan.

JSC has transfer programs called articulation agreements with community college systems in both states to open a new pool of distance education students enrolling in online courses at JSC.

“We’ve really expanded our outreach across the country, specifically in the Southeast; Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi,” Carter added. “And now we’re working on the West Coast, which would be Washington, Oregon, and California.”

One unique program in particular, Carter said, receives a healthy amount attention in the distance learning community.

“We’re getting a lot of interest in our WAM [Wellness and Alternative Medicine] program—I literally just spoke with one of our Distance Learning advisors and he said that of the new students for spring [semester 2017] for JSC Online are all WAM,” said Carter. “It’s a great opportunity for us, because we’re one of the only regionally accredited institutions in the country to offer this online. So, having that novelty will give us an advantage in recruiting students.”

In a rapidly evolving technological landscape in academia, it might be reasonable to project the expansion of distance learning programs at JSC, and the dwindling of financial support for the locally-centered EDP.
Carter said that her work also entails making improvements to the model already in place for EDP students, rather than phase it out.

“I’ve heard that sentiment from a number of people who felt that the current framework had kind of outlived its usefulness,” Carter said. “They were doing a lot of wonderful, wonderful things with EDP when I got here. Fortunately for me, I was able to bring in a little bit of a different perspective since I have experience with other schools in other states.

“Really, I was able to take the great pieces of EDP and work with the students, work with the instructors on what it is that we can add to this,” she added. “How can we supplement this to better serve everybody?”

In addition to Carter’s hiring in the past summer, the EDP program was included on the Education Advisory Board’s Forum on Continuing and Online Education to further examine its leadership, recruitment of students, and marketing strategies.

The growing field of distance education does mean having the technology available to students and faculty: widescreen monitors for enhanced perspective for long-distance video streaming, motion cameras to follow the conversation, and the visual communication software, Vidyo, which is currently in use for connected classroom courses.

Carter does reiterate that by adding more students for the EDP program and JSC Online, the costs balance out with more funding to create more opportunity for students from all over Vermont and the country.

“I don’t know that growing distance learning will have any impact on tuition,” said Carter. “Technically, the nationwide research that’s been done actually shows that it’s more expensive to deliver distance learning. People think that the overhead is less because you don’t have the traditional classroom and things of that nature.

“But the technology required to support it [is needed] to adequately deliver content in a variety of ways; video, audio, et cetera,” Carter continued. “So, I don’t know that it’ll have any impact in that regard. In all honesty, if we grow our numbers, we do bring in more money for the institution. Any money for the institution is going to allow the institution to be able to provide more things for students.”