At a retreat meeting Saturday, the University of Virginia Board of Visitors explored ways to enhance online learning and other digital opportunities for students at UVa.

As more and more schools across the country — including Penn State, the University of Georgia and Liberty University — offer more online courses and certificates, the technology provides opportunities for a wider variety of students to pursue their education.

To explore how UVa might better serve its current and future students, Kristin Palmer, director of online learning programs at the university, presented different ways in which universities and colleges utilize online learning — including enhancing the education of residential students and offering online learning opportunities for off-campus students.

At some schools, Palmer said, changes in the type of education people are seeking have shaped the way they offer online options. More and more people, she said, are returning to college to further their education in specific skills to advance their careers. For example, students in their 30s and 40s are taking computer science classes to keep up with the rapidly advancing technology, Palmer said.

Other schools offer degrees and programs that guarantee a job after the student has fulfilled their educational obligations. Still other schools offer a variety of online micro-credential and certificate classes for people who need to quickly and easily gain a marketable skill.

Currently, UVa offers more than 50 online courses, 20 certificates and five degrees, according to Palmer. The school also supports Massive Open Online Courses, which are often free to the public and cover everything from psychology and philosophy to mathematics and computer science.

Still in the brainstorming phase, UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan said at Saturday’s meeting that the first step would be to research the market and determine what would and would not work for UVa. She said online curriculum support for students will be very important, as will options for nontraditional students.

“We’re willing to think outside the box,” Sullivan said. “The sweet spot is that there is so much new knowledge and people beyond college age want it.”

Board member Jeffrey C. Walker agreed with Sullivan and said there were many opportunities to develop curriculum support, such as allowing students to reserve study space and classrooms online. To better support students, Walker said it would be important to talk to other schools that utilize online learning to find out what works and what doesn’t — particularly in terms of which classes are more proficiently taught online and which are more suited to traditional classrooms.

After putting together an Online Education Advisory Committee, Palmer recommended that the board identify a leader to work on driving digital learning efforts. The board then could fund small projects to measure the effectiveness of different learning technologies and digital environments.

Once those research findings are disseminated, Palmer said the different schools at the university could look into what would work for their specific needs. She also recommended the board create a fellows program to fund and support professors and subject matter experts to encourage them to continue making fresh content for digital classes.

While discussions are still in the early stages, the board will continue to look at the pros and cons of offering more online options for UVa students.

Saturday’s meeting wrapped up a two-day board retreat that was held at the Morven estate in Albemarle County.

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Lauren Berg is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, or @LaurenBergK on Twitter.

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