Among the changes are an increase in clubs, organizations, opportunity to participate in Barrett, The Honors College
This fall, with the addition of 22 new programs, ASU Online will offer more than 300 undergraduate and graduate degrees, certificates and emphases.
Total enrollment for the 2021–22 academic year was more than 82,000 students — seven times more than the 2012–13 year. In that same period, the number of graduates has increased more than tenfold — to more than 11,500 for the past academic year.
But the explosive growth has been much more than numbers. Over the past few years, EdPlus, the Arizona State University unit that houses ASU Online, has worked intensely to create an experience for digital immersion students that’s as close as possible to that of campus immersion students in all areas — academic support, coaching, communication and fun.
“Since the launch of ASU Online in 2010, it has been our goal to provide learners access to quality academic degree programs, in addition to the full university experience, regardless of their location or socioeconomic status,” said Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus.
“Through the advancement of technology, we have been able to expand our full online offerings from the social and soft sciences to a full suite of engineering and lab science programs. We strive to not bring anything online unless it can be as good or better than what is offered in a face-to-face setting.”
Among the ways the ASU Online experience has improved:
• Stronger academic support, with a new math initiative that’s increased engagement and success.
• Targeted communication to keep students on track.
• A huge increase in engagement opportunities, with nearly 40 clubs and organizations for fully online students.
• The opportunity for learners to participate in Barrett, The Honors College.
Some of the online initiatives have been so successful that they’ve been adopted to help campus-immersion students, according to Julie Greenwood, vice dean for educational initiatives.
While ASU Online students access their program content in a different way than campus-immersion students, the degrees are exactly the same, she said.
“It’s important to emphasize that ASU, from the beginning, made the commitment to have the same faculty and the same learning outcomes, and to leverage the same content across the modalities for the exact same degree,” she said.
“So when a student graduates, it doesn’t say, ‘online criminology’ on their degree. It says bachelor’s of criminology — the same as when a student graduates from a campus program.”
We strive to not bring anything online unless it can be as good or better than what is offered in a face-to-face setting.
— Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus
Of the offered degree programs, about half are undergraduate and half are graduate. Among the new additions are Master of Science degrees in addiction psychology and biological data science, and a Bachelor of Science degree in health care administration and policy.
The most popular degrees are the suite of biological sciences Bachelor of Science programs, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in psychology, the Bachelor of Science in information technology and the Master of Arts in special education (applied behavior analysis).
The individual colleges and schools at ASU can propose online degrees, and high-enrollment programs among on-campus students are often offered online, but new programs are also consumer-driven.
“We look at Google search algorithms – what are students looking for? That helps us to understand the market,” said Casey Evans, chief growth officer.
Sometimes that means tweaking the name of an existing program to draw interest.
“It is a very academic thing to make a degree sound interesting to a very specific part of the population, but when you go to the algorithm, if the degree is not called something they’re Googling, they won’t find you,” she said.
“It’s a strategic process of thinking about the needs of the learners, the experience of the faculty and trying to merge those two things in degrees that students want.”
High enrollment is not the only factor.
“We offer a master’s in Indigenous education. We know for sure that there’s not a huge market for Indigenous education, but these are learners who live on a reservation and want to stay in their communities and give back to their communities, and the ability to do that is important to them,” she said.
Evans’ team meets regularly with the academic units to review degree programs.
“Do we need to refresh the content? Perhaps a name change or adding courses or concentrations?
“We have to think about how we keep that portfolio fresh as students are changing,” she said.
“It’s an art and a science. There is no clear data set.”
Her team has to look into the future to predict what’s needed.
“My dream is to know the jobs that will exist five years from today so that we can build degrees for those learners,” she said.
When ASU Online began offering degree programs, it was critical to track success metrics. So the The Action Lab was created to analyze data.
“Initially, it was, ‘How does the learning of our students compare with the learning of campus students? How can we iterate and improve?’” Greenwood said.
Now, The Action Lab is focusing on equity and inclusion, she said.
“As successful as ASU Online is, we are still, like most universities, seeing gaps in the success of students from underserved and underrepresented populations,” she said.
“So we continue to push the development and design of our courses so that all students can be successful. Sometimes we need to change our design or change our content to make it culturally responsive or culturally inclusive.”
For example, faculty feedback is very important to populations who are underserved, she said.
“It’s important to students in general, but this population has expressed directly to us that knowing that someone is on their side and rooting for them helps them to stay in a course longer than they may have.”
The Action Lab also is evaluating the effectiveness of new technology, such as Dreamscape Learn, as well as focusing on courses with a high failure rate.
When Greenwood came to EdPlus three years ago, she looked at high-enrollment courses that had high failure rates, and about 10 of those were math.
That led to Operation Math. Suzanne Galayda, associate director of Operation Math, said that math courses are barriers for all students, not just online. In 2020, EdPlus began working with the ASU math department, homing in on first-year courses that were problematic, including college algebra, college math and precalculus.
“We thought, ‘What can we do right now in the short term to immediately impact students and move the needle?’” Galayda said.
“You never want to leave students behind when you’re looking to the future.”
The team implemented several changes right away:
Peer support: Inscribe is a system in which students are assigned to study “communities,” where they can ask questions when they’re stuck. Student-worker learning assistants monitor the communities, answering the questions or direct the student on to further help.
The response has been “overwhelming,” Galayda said, with students not only eager to answer their peers’ math questions but also provide emotional support. “One of the things we see commonly is that students will say, ‘I’m really struggling,’ and then it’s, ‘I want you to know you’re not alone.’”
Instructors are available to answer math questions, but in reality, online students often study late at night or on weekends, she said.
Peer review: Math faculty started a system in which students review each other’s homework and give feedback before the final graded submission. The results were so successful that the Math 142 faculty added peer review in their campus-immersion classes.
“You can’t learn Spanish if you never speak Spanish,” Galayda said. “The faculty saw that peer review achieved its goal of getting students to talk mathematically to each other.”
Strategic emails: Math students face several key points during the semester. For example, students must take an assessment before a course opens. In 2019, about a third of students had not taken the assessment by the fifth day of the math course. But after the emails, 85% had taken the assessment.
Overall, after the first year of increased communications, student success improved about 8% for college algebra and about 3% for college math.
“Given the enrollments in those courses, that’s roughly 500 students in just that year who were able to continue in their major and not have to retake a math course,” Galayda said.
The math department also allowed students to split up college algebra over two semesters, but completing the course in the subsequent semester is key. For those who wait, the success rate plummets by 60%.
So now the advisers get a communication reminding them to contact their students about signing up to complete the course. This has led to better pass rates and lower withdrawal rates, Galayda said.
Exam wrap: In this new initiative, students take a survey and perform self-reflection exercises at the end of three courses: college math, college algebra, precalculus and brief calculus exams.
“Exam wrap was designed with the help of The Action Lab to really get students to reflect on what they did to study, what they felt like going into the exam, what they felt like afterward and what they recognize they need to do differently about their behavior, as well as asking them to review their exam so they don’t just take it and leave,” Galayda said.
“They actually think about what they did right and what they did wrong.”
So far, students report feeling less anxious about taking exams after completing the exam wrap.
The team will analyze whether the exercise affects exam scores overall.
Longer term, EdPlus is working on Math Spine, an adaptive-learning platform similar to BioSpine, in which learning is personalized and students can review just the content they need without having to retake an entire course.
... We continue to push the development and design of our courses so that all students can be successful.
— Julie Greenwood, vice dean for educational initiatives
An online honors experience
One of the biggest initiatives that’s now available is Barrett, The Honors College, which accepted its first ASU Online cohort in fall 2021.
Mark Jacobs, the dean of Barrett since 2003 who is retiring this summer, had wanted to offer the experience to ASU Online for a long time, but the challenge was how to make the signature honors course, which is discussion based, work on an asynchronous platform, according to Alexandra Aragon, director of academic planning and retention at Barrett.
“But with the pandemic, we had to pivot all of our honors courses to be taught on Zoom quickly, and it went really well,” she said.
So Jacobs decided to move ahead, Aragon said.
“We invited ASU Online students who looked like they would be great candidates, with good GPAs and with some college experience,” she said.
“We had almost 100 candidates for 25 spots, and they were so strong that we actually took 48 students.”
The students represented eight ASU colleges and included veterans, international students and nontraditional students. About half were in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. They all agreed to participate in a live “History of Ideas” seminar course, logging in via Zoom, she said.
“They immediately said, ‘This is like nothing else I’ve ever done. I have classmates and I know them and I see them weekly. I feel connected to my professors and to my fellow Barrett students,’” she said.
Besides the signature honors course, students also must earn honors credit in their major course requirements or electives by doing projects, such as a paper, a presentation or research with the professor.
“We helped this cohort figure out how to earn that credit. People had great ideas and we encouraged creative thinking,” she said.
“Faculty play a huge role in this. They’ve embraced this notion of what high achievement looks like in online classes.
“It’s clear that this is a population of learners who are a great fit for honors. They’re talented and curious and they want this experience,” said Aragon, who noted that two of the ASU Online Barrett students are participating in study abroad this summer.
Engaging with each other
The isolation of the pandemic sparked a craving for socialization among online students. The number of student clubs and organizations has soared from a handful in 2019 to about 40 now, and most were created in the past two years, according to Brianne Frazier, director of student success and engagement for ASU Online.
New clubs include a student-run newspaper, the first online chapter of an honors fraternity and a group operating under Greek letters working to become the first-ever fully online sorority.
There have been some challenges to launching online student groups, such as gathering people who are scattered around the world. One ASU Online student who was in the military and stationed in Germany would get up at 3 a.m. for his club meetings, Frazier said.
And like many things, online can be less formal than in-person.
“We started a pre-club option, because to be a full club, you need a certain number of members and three officers, and there has to be a constitution. Some students said, ‘We want to get together, but that’s a lot. We just want to connect,’” Frazier said.
“So we created the pre-club option where they’re not required to go into all those things. They’re still required to do some things, like their logos have to meet brand standards. It’s an easier way to not be so strict and still allow students to connect and engage.”
Students who attend on campus pay an activities fee, which funds student organizations. ASU Online students don’t pay that fee, so EdPlus helps to fund their clubs, though the pre-club groups don’t qualify for that.
Frazier’s team has worked with Educational Outreach and Student Services to have traditionally campus-based organizations include online students. Some have embraced that, such as BeYouASU, a club for LGBTQIA2S+ students and allies, but some groups have an on-campus presence that makes it hard.
Some groups have gone fully hybrid, like government. ASU Online students created their own student government advocacy group in 2020, but in spring 2022, the campus-based Undergraduate Student Government and Graduate Student and Professional Association voted to allow ASU Online representation.
The online students work hard on their clubs.
A.J. Wolfe, a senior majoring in global health, is the president of the ASU Online chapter of Phi Sigma Pi, an honors fraternity. When he enrolled last year, he joined several groups and was interested in joining a fraternity.
“As I researched, I saw Phi Sigma Pi, and it attracted me because it’s gender inclusive — male, female, nonbinary, whichever umbrella you fall under, they will take you,” said Wolfe, who lives in Virginia.
“I reached out to the national staff and asked if they were interested in starting an exclusively online chapter at ASU, and they gave me the green light.”
The organization requires a 3.0 grade point average for membership, and the ASU Online chapter has organized a book club, movie nights, workout sessions, game nights and meetups. The group will become involved in community service projects this year.
Building a chapter from the ground up has been a lot of work, Wolfe said.
“The main thing was figuring out the bank account situation since our members are around the U.S. and the world. It was difficult to find a bank that would work with us,” he said.
But they finally found a bank and should be chartered this summer, he said.
Emma Blunck, a senior majoring in mass communications and media studies in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is the editor-in-chief of The Spark, the newsletter by and for ASU Online students.
“It’s a place for anyone on the online campus who wants to write or design or edit or build out their resume,” she said.
The Spark is produced monthly by students from a variety of majors. Students don’t have to be a club member to pitch a story idea, work with the editors and then write the story.
“We keep it engaging. It’s not a full-time job and we can’t expect them to write every month,” she said.
Blunck said The Spark has received a lot of support from the university to build the club and offer professional opportunities, such as a seminar planned for the fall.
“This is my first leadership role and I’ve gotten a lot more confident managing a team,” said Blunck, a senior who lives in New York City.
Frazier’s team is promoting engagement other ways, too. The Sun Devils Connect Facebook group has more than 9,500 students, and several Slack channels are devoted to online interest groups.
And the team knows that its students have full lives outside of the classroom. Many work full time and are parents, Frazier said. One mom posted about her guilt over spending time away from her daughter while studying.
Frazier’s team put together a “kid kit” with ASU swag and sent it to her.
“We don’t just serve our learners. We know they have families and we have to engage them too,” she said.
Regier said that online students are no different from any other students.
“The fact that they are taking classes online doesn’t impact their drive or their ambition or their desire to achieve. Our goal is always to do whatever we can to help them realize their full human potential,” he said.
Top photo courtesy Pixabay