The following blog is written by Jay Miller, dean of the College of Social Work (CoSW). On March 1, he was appointed acting director of UK Online. Miller has led the CoSW in launching fully online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and Doctorate of Social Work programs, both of which have contributed to a doubling of the college’s enrollment — from 605 students in 2019-2020 to 1,689 students in 2021-2022. Below he reflects on the promise and possibility of all that is UK Online.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 19, 2022) — Indubitably, the ubiquity of information technology has influenced every facet of our lives. Be it clicking for groceries, virtual conferencing or dodging the Starship as it traverses campus to deliver lunch. We have all been impacted by tech developments. In some instances, the efficiency of technology has been welcomed. In others, it has left us befuddled and frustrated. No matter our experience — good, bad or otherwise — tech will persist.
Specifically, the higher education landscape has been fundamentally altered by advancements in technology. Increasingly, constituency groups — including future and current students, faculty and staff — are in search of adaptable academic delivery models and modalities.
And it seems like they are finding it in online education.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from 2013 to 2019, online enrollment across the United States grew 30%. Interestingly, during that same time, overall enrollment and institutions of higher learning declined by 4%. In the five years preceding the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, online degree completions increased by more than 40%; completions from on-campus programs were flat.
Growth notwithstanding, concerns about online education abound. Veritably, these concerns, at least in part, are shaped by ongoing debates about companies that run online management programs (OPMs), “here today, gone tomorrow” for-profit educational institutions, ever-changing regulatory requirements and technology literacy, among others. Indeed, to actualize the promise of online education, critical discourse for addressing these concerns must continue.
Responding, Not Reacting
At the outset of the pandemic, academic institutions across the world quickly shifted to online platforms and delivery models. In many instances, faculty, staff and students dealt with a dizzying array of rule changes, academic governance issues and personal/professional stressors.
As a result, this transition was much more about digitizing content to deliver virtually. To be clear: there is a difference between educating online and online education.
In pursuit of the latter, it is imperative that we, as an institution, respond to broader societal contexts that shape the necessity for online education. Whilst promptly reacting to COVID-19 was warranted, shifting to a sustained, rigorous online presence is necessary for meeting the needs of the Commonwealth and beyond.
Like many, I have grappled with concerns about online education. Admittedly, my concerns have been more focused on how to best deliver online academic offerings, and less about if we should be doing so. For UK Online, our “how” is rooted in three separate, yet interconnected principles:
- Online education is germane to ensuring access to training and academic degrees necessary for meeting contemporary workforce demands.
- Online education stakeholders, to include faculty, staff, students, etc., must be supported in all aspects of the experience.
- Online academic offerings must be quality and appropriately rigorous.
Online education is an ever-evolving phenomena of unique complexity. To adeptly engage in the online space requires focus and intentionality. As we embark on the next phase of our journey, UK Online will:
- Foster an unparalleled continuum of online engagement and support. UK Online seeks to be a premier support unit. We will engage and be responsive to faculty, staff and students in a way that fosters pedagogical prowess for optimal online teaching, training and learning.
- Build an integrated infrastructure for online education. Online programming is part of, not separate from, our institution’s academic offerings. Thus, UK Online will focus on building an integrated, adaptable infrastructure that operates in unison with all parts of the institution.
- Engage in participatory process planning and evaluation. Shared governance, responsibility and accountability are central to our mission. For UK Online, we look to leverage the collective input, experience and expertise of our staff, students and faculty.
The University of Kentucky is a dynamic place of unique possibility — online education, in general, and UK Online, specifically, is a vehicle for expanding those possibilities. Certainly, we need to critically assess outcomes associated with exploring online programming, as would be the expectation for traditional education modalities.
It will certainly take all of us, collectively, investing in the promise. We must all work to shift from “if” conversations to “how” actions.
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.