The keys to building a successful online program

As online learning becomes more mainstream, some of the most prestigious universities in the country have begun exploring the option of fully online degree programs that would allow qualified students from around the world to participate in higher learning from their laptops. The idea is so good it’s a wonder that no universities thought of it before.


Well, it turns out that some universities had thought of it before, and one of those universities is California University of Pennsylvania. The university developed an office of web-based programs six years ago and since then the online degree programs at the university have blossomed into the standard for what a successful and effective online degree program should look like.

Millie Jo Rodriguez is the executive director of the Office of Web-Based Programs for California University and recently she was gracious enough to take the time to speak with me about what makes the program so successful, how it has grown since its inception, and what she thinks separates the California University program from the rest.

Your program is considered one of the best distance learning programs in the country, what do you think it is that makes your program so effective?

The student’s ability to communicate with the school is really important because then, as a student, you really know what it is that you are getting into. I think we have a very strong communications structure in place that helps separate us from the pack.

Students have multiple points of contact for information and we house all those resources in one place. We have our own financial aid adviser and someone who can help with bill-paying. Once students reach out to us, we can assist them from their initial inquiry through graduation.

Also, we have chosen high-quality niche programs and have experts that teach in our courses. One thing we didn’t want was to go out and put a program online that everyone else has. We wanted to pick programs that we could invest in and that were areas of expertise.

In terms of academics, we require that all of our faculty members are trained in the online learning management system before they start teaching the class which I don’t think is the case elsewhere.

Since California University of Pennsylvania is a traditional, brick-and-mortar school that just happens to offer online degree programs, how different are traditional classes from online ones?

For us, there isn’t much of a difference at all. In fact, for some of our online classes, there very well could be a campus counterpart that features the same coursework and is taught exactly the same way. In many cases, especially when it comes to languages, the online format is actually better-suited for learning.

It can be tough to learn language information and then retain that information after you leave the class. But with our online classes, lectures are videotaped and the students can go back and view them over and over again.

For the most part, the outcomes of the classes are the same no matter whether it’s online or on-campus. Students are rewarded the same way and they are held to the same standards they would be if they were taking their classes on campus.

Your website mentions that you tend to keep most of the programs small, usually 35-40 students, why is that?

We group students into cohorts at the master’s level so that we have a group of students who start and finish the program at the same time. Yes, there are times where the classes go above that number. But our goal is to keep the classes small to ensure there aren’t an overwhelming number of students that our faculty member needs to manage.

Interaction with a faculty member and with fellow classmates is an important component of our classes and that is very difficult to create when your class-size is too large, so this makes it more manageable for the students and the faculty members.

But with such small class sizes, how do you balance those small class sizes with a program that I assume is growing in terms of popularity?

We try to accept as many students as we can, and the admissions standards are the same for distance learners as they are for traditional students. So if they are meeting the requirements to be accepted to our program, then we will do the best we can to get them started.

Many of our programs have three starts per year, so students usually end up starting the program rather quickly. But you are right that our program is popular. We are going into the sixth year of the program that we built from scratch. Before we created this office, we had started the process but we didn’t have very many students. Now we have around 2,000 students enrolled.

Many wonder whether professional employers value an online degree the same as they would a traditional degree and others wonder whether online students are actually prepared for the working world. Have you encountered any problems with your graduates or have they been finding success?

We have had no problems whatsoever with our graduates. A lot of the students come to us with an associate’s degree and are just looking for skill enhancement rather than a new job but there haven’t been any issues. Part of that has to do with us choosing certain programs.

We aren’t in the online MBA business on purpose, because we feel the market may be a bit saturated in that subject and we want to ensure the best positioning for our students. We chose very unique programs, ones with opportunities once the student has graduated.

And because we are a brick-and-mortar institution, not an “online only” school, employers feel confident that our students are well prepared. California University has a reputation for providing quality education that goes back 160 years.

It is my understanding that the cost of tuition for an online program is traditionally cheaper than the cost of tuition for the brick-and-mortar institution. Is this true for California University of Pennsylvania? What accounts for the differences in tuition?

Online programs at California University do come as a value to our students since they do not have to pay the same fees, room and board costs as our traditional students. We don’t factor in these additional charges to keep our tuition rates competitive and fair for our distance learners. 

It seems, on the surface, that keeping track of International Students would be more difficult, given the time differences, language obstacles, and differences in the educational system. Do you make special accommodations for international students? How do you help International Students get comfortable quickly in the program? 

Because of the nature of our courses being conducted in an asynchronous manner, we have never run into access issues with our international or military students stationed in other countries. If there is a need for them to be available, I have found these students to actually be accommodating to the faculty member and the classmates. Everyone works together to find the best time to meet or uses the tools available within the learning management system to interact at different times on the same topics. It works very well.

More and more people seem to be considering online education now, especially at the higher education level. What do you think the value is of online education? Why does it work better for some students? How has it helped some of the students in your programs in a way brick-and-mortar schools couldn’t?

Online education requires everyone to participate and interact in the class. You can’t hide behind a book or sit in the back of the class and absorb information. You have to be an active learner! This provides a more well-rounded learning experience since you are getting points of view from all walks of life, various levels of learners, and even differences culturally. I don’t feel that a campus-based course always gives you this same depth with regard to the interaction among the classmates and the faculty.

The other clear advantage is the convenience factor. Learners that didn’t have access to higher education because they work full-time and have family commitments are now able to meet their educational goals because the classes fit into their busy lives. It is giving people opportunity where it didn’t exist for them before.

There seem to be other programs you offer that might require actual practice in a physical sense and also might have some themes and practices that would be difficult to convey via online learning. Have you encountered any of these problems in the history of the program? How do you help those students who might need real-world practice actually accomplish that practice, especially if they live hundreds of miles away?

We work with our students to ensure placement in an area that is most convenient for them. For example, some of our education programs require an internship. With these, we work with a school district where they are located to meet this requirement. There is an internship supervisor assigned from our campus and they even travel to those locations or use tools like Skype for the purpose of observation. We utilize every technology available to us to make our programs accessible for our working adults.

And just for fun...

Many of our online students visit campus for the first time on graduation day. We invite our online students to join us for Commencement ceremonies, so they can see our beautiful campus, shake hands with the university president and pick up their diploma in person.