Online university promotes asynchronous learning

A Fredericton-based online university that began offering classes last month may be dependent on technology like the Web and collaboration platforms, yet prefers to think of itself as having that “high-touch component,” said the institution’s president.

Meritus University president John Crossley said that the academic environment is nonetheless highly personalized with university staff maintaining constant contact with students via phone. On the first day of classes, for instance, “[students] are ‘walked’ to class with their advisor on the phone,” said Crossley.

The IT infrastructure that supports the university’s online delivery and student records is operated out of Phoenix, Ariz., with the Apollo Group Inc., an education provider that also owns a number of universities across North America including Meritus. There, a data centre houses Meritus’ data, along with that of other universities, and is monitored by IT staff who have the ability to view these learning centres across North America and assess and resolve IT issues. “It’s like a great traffic control centre like you’d imagine at an airport,” described Crossley.

To illustrate the data centre’s scope, Alex Reed, Meritus university registrar and vice-president of operations, said it houses the 350,000 students from the University of Phoenix alone, adding that the traffic volume “just phenomenal.”

Meritus provides an asynchronous learning environment with the goal of making learning more accessible for adult students who may be “professionals who are travelling or working different shifts or who have to move around,” said Harvey Silverstein, dean of business and information technology at Meritus.

And the online approach is an advantage to students who get “to be part of what we call global classrooms so they get exposed to the thinking and cultures from people from all over the world,” said Silverstein.

Essentially, students can log onto the system from any location and at any time, and the asynchronous classroom setup means students can “attend” courses and participate any time they wish. However, students still do have to meet an attendance requirement based on a minimum number of course logins in a week. A participation grade, too, is assigned that requires students contribute to online discussion threads pertaining to their course.

But overall, from the student perspective, the platform is a “complete and Web-based support system for students’ interaction between student and student and student and faculty,” described Silverstein. Students are also able to register for classes, visit the library, pay their tuition, get tax receipts, and even file a complaint. “It’s a fairly robust Windows-type format,” said Silverstein. “It’s a really robust system.”

Given Meritus is newly opened, there are currently a small number of students who might be logged on the system at any given time. However, as the university garners more attention, Crossley anticipates this number will grow and the “enormously scalable” system will be able to support “hundreds or even thousands of students in a course at any given time on any given week.”

As for the student management systems that track student records, they operate a lot like customer relationship management (CRM) systems in that they track student transactions from the application process to course performance to graduation – all of which is backed up in the Phoenix datacentre.

Should students encounter technical issues with the system, they can call a help line specifically setup for Meritus but that is located in Phoenix. And all system interactions are secure, said Reed, by way of password protections, data encryptions and firewalls.

Moving forward, Crossley said the university would like to build a faculty community to allow online collaboration among instructors by way of newsrooms and feedback mechanisms, for instance.

But in the meantime, Meritus’ online approach to learning will, according to Silverstein, let students “get a head start in the whole concept of knowledge management that a lot of people in IT talk about but not many have truly experienced it.”

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