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Online Mountaineer: Inside the Online Classroom

Q&A with WVU Online Executive Director Julie Thalman

October 15, 2020

I am a higher education marketing and enrollment management expert who focuses on the online learner. I provide strategic and operational leadership of new initiatives related to marketing, training, strategic planning, and the development of new online programs.

How have you noticed the educational landscape changing over the past 3 years?

I think that what was old is becoming new again. Three years ago, prospective online students wanted a program that was 100% online. In other words, they did not want to come to campus for residencies. However, what I’ve seen recently is prospective students wanting to build a relationship with faculty and peers, and choosing programs based on experiential learning opportunities. I attribute this to the growing number of online programs.

How have these changes impacted WVU students and their learning preferences?

Prospective students feel overwhelmed due to the hundreds of choices in online programs. Also, they want to feel a connection with the institution where they will ultimately earn their degree. The best thing for a student to do to make this connection is to choose an online program from a traditional brick-and-mortar institution that brings them on campus for 2-3 days for a residential experience.

Regardless of the benefits, some still feel online education is tougher to complete. What measures are in place to aid in student retention?

WVU Online offers online learners a variety of student support services that include Morneau Shepell (a 24/7 mental health service), robust online tutoring options, full-service virtual library services, and a virtual writing studio. Most recently, WVU Online created the Learner Experience Center, with a staff that includes both online admission coaches and academic life coaches. These coaches work with prospective and admitted students to ensure that they have all of the resources they need to have a successful academic experience at WVU.

What are the most important factors that will help WVU Online remain competitive in the online learning environment?

At WVU, we have created a vetting process that we use prior to launching an online degree. The first step after a new program idea is brought to our attention is to complete a third-party feasibility study. These studies look at market demand, graduation rates of similar programs, trends in job postings, cost of competitors, and the top in-demand skills requested by employers. We decided to outsource these studies to remove any possible internal bias, and it has worked quite well. While WVU Online may be slower to launch a new program than our peers, we take pride in knowing that we are working with the academic colleges to put degrees online that are viable to both students and potential employers.

Looking down the road, where would you like our program to be in the next 2-4 years? What can you share?

Great question! I would like to see us announce the creation of a WVU Online Campus. This would be a virtual campus that offers a robust portfolio of associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees, while still maintaining the rigor of an R1 land-grant institution. Ideally, this campus would offer students all the services and options that they expect from online institutions, such as multiple start dates (5 starts per year), a virtual Career Center, and discounted, self-paced correspondence courses for life-long learners.

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