New Office Furthers DU's Online Programming
In 1996, the University of Denver launched its first online program. About 25 students, many of them helping to clean up the contaminated Rocky Flats nuclear manufacturing plant, enrolled to pursue a graduate degree in environmental policy and management through University College.
There was no learning management system, such as Canvas, no multimedia content and certainly no video conferencing. All learning and communication took place via email and phone.
Twenty-five years later, the virtual classroom has come a long way. DU’s new Online Programming Services (OPS) office, an internal online program manager, is here to ensure that online learning continues its upward trajectory.
“I always knew the future was hybrid. I always knew the digital transformation of higher education was essential and necessary,” says David Thomas, executive director of OPS. “What I didn’t see was a global pandemic would speed that timeline up by 10 to 20 years. We’re living in the future right now. The future is a crazy mix of changing faculty skills, aptitudes and understandings, and changing student skills, aptitudes and understandings.”
Since its creation in April 2020, OPS has been meeting with academic units across campus to learn how online learning fits with their long-term goals. In its consultative role, OPS can lend a hand with program development, marketing, recruitment, curriculum design and student services.
“We’re trying to help lead people forward through this digital transformation,” Thomas says. “DU has the people, the skills and the experience to do what it needs to do. Sometimes it’s just trying to get all those people in the same room at the same time and aligned with the same thing.”
For years, DU has worked with 2U Inc. to launch several online degree programs, including an online Master of Business Administration or a Master of Social Work.
But University College Dean Michael McGuire and other deans recognized that certain degree programs didn’t exactly fit the 2U mold, nor did they have the in-house capabilities to launch their own programs.
In 2018, McGuire and Marty Katz, dean emeritus at the Sturm College of Law and then-chief innovation officer, tapped the DU community and began working on a broad institutional strategy, executed by a standalone University department. Then-Provost Jeremy Haefner supported the idea and brought it to the DU Board of Trustees.
Thomas began as executive director April 1, 2020, assigned to help the University understand how technology is changing the things it has done since 1864.
“I’m confident higher education will come out of this showing its value, but we do have to figure out where technology fits in,” he says. “I think that online is a perfect test tube for higher ed to think about its future.”
OPS has worked with several programs in the Morgridge College of Education, a new program still being developed in the Daniels College of Business, a collaboration between the Graduate School of Professional Psychology’s sport coaching program and University College, and the Master of Public Policy program at the Korbel School of International Studies.
“In the field of public policy, there is great potential for rigorous online education to reach a more diverse student body through a range of potential modalities,” says program director Naazneen Barma, who is also an associate professor and director of the Scrivner Institute of Public Policy.
“Working with OPS has been very illuminating, especially in terms of thinking about new students potentially reached by online programs and about the range of modalities through which online education could be delivered.”
The development of OPS predated the COVID-19 pandemic, but the global health crisis forced the division into early action.
“David just jumped in to help the University just pivot, especially with its traditional graduate and undergraduate programs, to an online modality,” McGuire says. “We were in a triage mentality at that point and really not thinking strategically about program development. I do think that also helped accelerate the recognition from other parts of the University that this is an area that we need to make sure we continue to invest in and invest in high-quality resources to do this type of learning, development and delivery within the University.”
Now that classes have returned to campus, Thomas and his team can continue longer-term strategic planning. Online education may increase enrollment and access to education, Thomas says, but it also provides an opportunity to transform the educational experience and improve the quality of DU’s course offerings.
McGuire and Katz, who got the ball rolling on OPS, expect the office to be a critical part of DU’s direction for at least the next five to 10 years.
“I feel like there are so many universities that are completely reactive around online learning,” Katz says. “I think OPS is really exciting to me because it lets us do this strategically and create something in the long run that’s going to be really special.”