Wisconsin considers how to increase online learning

Posted April 13, 2023

The University of Wisconsin System has begun a process of increasing online education for the future. This includes a possibility for students to attend online courses offered at different campuses.

UW-River Falls Provost David Travis is a member of the system’s Online Strategic Growth Task Force that has been studying the issue. The task force in November released a draft report, “Accelerating Online Education.”

“The UW system has created a strategic plan where they’re trying to come up with some priorities in how we can grow the online program presence throughout the whole state,” he said. “As far as the state goes we’re pretty far behind. If you look at Michigan, even Minnesota, Illinois, states right around us, they have a lot more programs they offer.”

Since 2001, the number of UW students taking online courses has grown steadily, with a spike during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to draft report. During the 2001-2002 academic year, a total of 13,543 students at UW campuses took online courses. Last year, the total was 123,932.

“While (UW System) enrollments have declined about 10 percent in the past decade, enrollments in online courses have doubled,” the report states.

There are many benefits if the UW System decides to pursue more online learning, Travis added.

“The advantage is you can get to more people,” he said. “They don’t have to come to campus. There are a lot of adult learners, people that have never gotten their college degree. They made it to 60 credits and stopped out. They might want to come back and finish their degree online. They may have families. They may have jobs. So there’s a lot of advantages to doing it. It’s a matter of finding the resources to kind of do that, and not compromise what we do really well here already.”

The increase in online education could make it possible for students enrolled at a UW school to take online courses through any of the campuses in the UW System.

“If you want to take a class on ceramics or something, to figure out which school offers an online version of that course, you’d literally have to go to each campus, look at the course catalog, go through and figure out if it’s online,” the provost said. “So what other states have done is they’ve put together an archive of all of that across all of their campuses.” That, Travis said, is one of the first things the UW System has to do.

But UW-River Falls is known for its hands-on learning, with many students studying agricultural sciences. This poses a possible problem for the proposed increase in online education.

“So when you’re primarily focused on hands-on learning it’s hard to have the time to teach online classes at the same time. I mean it’s really a different kind of, you know, learning approach,” Travis said. “So part of it is, ‘Do we have the resources, do we have the people, do we have the time to do it, and if they do, or if we want to prioritize that, what are we willing to give up?'”

During fall semester 2021, according to the report, 67% of UW-River Falls students were enrolled in at least some online courses.