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Online Learning Looks to Improve Online Student Experience

Danny Hernandez struggled throughout high school in Reno, Nevada. He often failed classes, struggled to stay motivated, and had a general disinterest in learning. 

Many people in Danny’s situation make their livings through non-academic careers. But now, thanks to Brigham Young University-Idaho and BYU-Pathway Worldwide, Danny is on his way to becoming a software engineer. 

“I didn’t do very well in high school and I didn’t really want to go to college,” Danny said. “I started Pathway because I just wanted to give it a shot.” 

Among other things, Danny values the work ethic that he first developed by taking classes online through the Pathway program. He now applies that work ethic to his on-campus studies at BYU-Idaho. 

In his inaugural address as president of BYU-Idaho, David A. Bednar stressed the importance of reaching the entire world with the school’s resources, rather than reserving them for students in the immediate vicinity. 

“We must learn how to assist and bless institute students and other (Latter-day Saint) youth in Rhode Island and Rome while effectively serving our students on campus in Rexburg,” then President Bednar said. 

Eric Karl, the Associate Vice President of Online Learning, now leads a team of online experts dedicated to serving the school’s online student body. 

Even before the pandemic, Karl and his team had envisioned a system with two online curricula: one for campus students and one for online students. When the pandemic hit, the process of implementing such a system accelerated instantly. 

Almost overnight, everyone became online students. Professors that had only taught in classroom settings had to adjust their curricula for online audiences. Now, thanks in large part to the pandemic, BYU-Idaho offers more online classes than ever before, allowing more people educational freedom. 

“It kind of opened everybody’s eyes and said, ‘This is really something that we need to embrace at a much deeper level,’” explained Karl. “So, we were heading in that direction, but I think it kind of just accelerated after the pandemic.” 

According to Karl, some 30% of the credits earned by campus students come through online courses. Roughly 1,800 instructors teach online courses, totalling about 2,500 sections each semester. Those students now get better learning experiences because of the development that online courses have seen over the past few years. 

Even now, however, BYU-Idaho does not offer every class online. Courses that require instantaneous feedback, such as science labs and trades courses, don’t always offer the same learning experience that they would if taken in person. Karl and his team are working on making every possible course available to online students. 

Right now, a primary focus of Karl and his partners at BYU Pathway Worldwide is to make all campus resources available to all online students. A student in Rexburg can, for example, visit the Academic Advising Office with questions about graduation requirements. A student in Stockholm, Sweden, however, will not likely travel to Rexburg for their inquiries. 

Factors such as time zones and busy phone lines can prevent students from getting the help they need, whether it be technical support, tutoring, access to the Professional Presentations Center, or other resources. Karl envisions an online hub where remote students can see every resource offered to campus students; in other words, a virtual Manwaring Center. 

“We want to build a digital campus that is streamlined and professional and easy for an online student to navigate,” Karl stated. “We want a Manwaring Center for our online students.” 

Jake Romney, Associate Dean of Online Education, envisions an online program that allows people to learn in all sorts of ways. 

“If we think that the traditional method of a teacher just standing in front of the classroom is all our students want or expect, I think we’re out of touch,” Romney said. 

Romney cited the differences that he sees between his elementary school children’s education and his own education at that age. The fact that kids can learn math through computer games leaves him wondering how BYU-Idaho can make its programs more engaging. 

Another item on Romney’s to-do list is creating offline access to online courses. In many countries, internet access is a commodity. Offline access would offer the students of these countries more freedom, as they could work whenever and wherever is convenient, including on mobile devices. 

“If we really are trying to serve ‘the least of these,’ that includes those who are in situations like this,” Romney said. “We really are trying to come up with innovative ways to meet students where they are as best as we can.”