Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.
The online undergraduate program at Arizona State University has been ranked No. 2 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, earning a score of 98 out of 100.
The program moved up two spots, having ranked fourth in the magazine’s 2018 list with a score of 95. ASU Online, with 90 undergraduate and 64 graduate degree programs, reached more than 50,000 students in the 2018 calendar year. Embry-Riddle University grabbed the top spot for online bachelor’s degree programs, with a score of 100, while Ohio State and Oregon State universities tied for third place, each with a score of 96. The list was released Tuesday after the magazine assessed 1,545 online degree programs for 2019.
U.S. News & World Report provides several higher education rankings throughout the year, most recently rating ASU as the most innovative university in the country for the fourth year in a row.
Four online master’s degree programs at ASU were ranked in the top 10 in the country: The online MBA and non-MBA graduate degrees in the W. P. Carey School of Business both were ranked sixth, and the master’s degree in criminal justice in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions also was ranked sixth. The master’s degree in engineering, in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, placed ninth in the country, up from 11th last year.
The online master’s degree in education, in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, was ranked 13th in the country with a score of 92. That program was ranked 36th last year, with a score of 82, and 40th in 2017.
U.S. News & World Report did not rank individual online undergraduate programs. The magazine scored its “Best Online Bachelors Program” based on four categories: engagement, services and technologies, faculty credentials and training, and expert opinion.
Engaging students for success
ASU Online provides high levels of engagement to its students, each of whom is assigned a “success coach.”
“My favorite part of the job is being able to connect with students and make an impact on how they do and help with any challenge they have at that time,” said Erika Stiller, one of the success coaches.
“A lot of times, students don’t know who to reach out to when they have questions, and a lot of it is helping with timing — learning how to manage your family, your work and other responsibilities on top of school.”
Part of encouraging success is helping students learn how to address issues as they come up.
“I’m helping them learn to think critically and figure out their own problems, not just tell them what to do,” she said. “I’ll ask, ‘How did you handle a situation like this before?’ I help them to figure out the answer on their own.”
Stiller said that online programs are sometimes stereotyped as being impersonal, but the success coaches offer that personal touch.
“It’s having that person you know you can always go to who wants you to do well.”
Online students enjoy flexibility, services
Online students have access to many sources of support. Nibia Orona, an Air Force veteran who’s majoring in corporate accounting, said she has gotten help from the Pat Tillman Veterans Center and also from career coaches.
“For me, being old-school, it was hard to ask for help,” she said. “I was trying to trudge through and get those answers on my own. But I realized I had to reach out and use those resources, and come to find out, I made serious progress in what I was having issues with.”
Orona, 61, said she chose ASU Online because she had been out of school for many years and couldn’t see herself sitting in a traditional classroom as she pursued her degree.
“I would tell people to not be afraid to take that chance as they get older because I run across a lot of different age groups in my classes,” she said.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up — I get to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”
Top-notch faculty and new technology
ASU Online has also made advances in technology. Last year, it became the first program in the country to offer a virtual-reality biology lab course, with students using headsets to complete their lab requirement as part of a partnership among ASU Online, Google and Labster. Several courses, including ecology, physiology and cell biology, are piloting the technology this session, according to Michael Angilletta, a professor in the School of Life Sciences who teaches the lab.
“Many faculty think the learning outcome of a lab is for students to do a specific skill, like pipetting fluid, but in reality a very tiny fraction of students, fewer than 1 percent, actually go into a research lab like the one we work in,” he said.
“So the important thing is the critical thinking, the quality of reasoning, and putting into practice how you solve problems and draw conclusions with data. That’s what you can capture in real-life simulation.”
Angilletta said that storytelling in the virtual-reality world allows for a deeper learning experience. In the ecology course, the lab is set on a newly discovered planet.
“You’ve been sent to this planet to discover what lives there,” he said. “You follow the chemical and physical laws of science, but everything is novel. You can’t Google the answers.”
In physiology, the students “travel” to Antarctica.
“They study seals who dive in freezing cold water, and they’re doing (virtual) experiments on animals they would never get close to,” he said.
Angilletta emphasized that the online labs are just as rigorous as the immersion labs, with lab reports using real data from published studies.
“Labs hadn’t changed much over time — they’re very mundane, cookbook things and I hated them,” he said.
“I would much prefer problem-solving with a narrative that gets me engaged.”
Angilletta would love to see the virtual-reality technology advance to open-ended scenarios.
“In these labs, there’s a constrained path — it’s not like anything is possible. But imagine a situation where anything could be done,” he said.
“You want students to learn that they could blow something up if they do something wrong. That’s how the brain learns complex things.”
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