By Harry Minium

Nearly every college and university in the United States moved classes online this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many have seen enrollment declines over last year.

Old Dominion University, however, experienced a 13% increase in the number of classes taken in summer school.

Jane Dané, ODU's associate vice president for enrollment management, doesn't believe that's a coincidence.

"As students learn more about our online classes, they realize the quality of instruction and the online experience that ODU offers," she said. "We anticipated years ago that more students were choosing online programs, and our faculty invested in the best teaching strategies program to meet that need."

ODU's online program is the largest and most sophisticated in Virginia and has perennially been ranked among the best and most affordable in the nation.

Not only has that resulted in more students this summer, it gave the University a major advantage when it moved 3,000 classes online this spring because of COVID-19. ODU completed the process in about two weeks.

"If you're at an institution that is mostly designed to deliver in-class learning, the transition was likely more difficult," said Andy Casiello, the University's associate vice president for distance learning. "For an institution like ours, it was more natural because online learning is part of our DNA. We've been doing it for so long."

Rusty Waterfield, an associate vice president who leads the Information Technology group that did the work to convert the vast number of classes online, said the process was much easier because so many faculty members already teach remotely.

"We have professors here with almost 30 years of experience teaching online," Waterfield said. "They know how to engage students. They know how to create compelling content for online learning. I can't imagine that we would have been able to deliver the level of product we did this semester without their expertise and experience."

ODU's program uses graphic designers, creative writers, animation specialists, instructional technologists and multi-media experts to design interactive classes for professors. Graphics pop up at appropriate times and students engage in group projects, online presentations and interact with professors during and after class.

"Everything you do is built months in advance," said Kyle H. Nicholas, who heads ODU's online program for communication and theatre arts. "We try to build a course to stand on its own for several years. That requires a lot of thought and a lot of planning. It also requires many sets of eyes on every course."

The result is a learning experience that rivals being in the classroom, even in majors such as dental hygiene, nursing and fashion merchandising, three of more than 110 degrees that can be partially or wholly completed online.

For instance, ODU offers lab work that doesn't require students to come to Norfolk. There are virtual labs in subjects such as electrical engineering and chemistry. Nursing students work with patients in a clinic, hospital or doctor's office in their local area. In some cases, lab kits are mailed to students.

"Our students know they can get a real college education online that's comparable to what they would get in the classroom," said communication lecturer Alison McCrowell Lietzenmayer, an ODU graduate from Virginia Beach who teaches online courses for the University from her home in Seattle .

"They have access to the same internships and the same interaction with faculty members as students on campus."

More than 97% of ODU's online students say they are satisfied or very satisfied with the education they received. The online program has been growing every year for more than a decade and will continue to grow, Casiello said.

Last fall, nearly 60% of ODU's approximately 24,000 students took at least one online course while 27% were fully online, Casiello said. ODU has graduated nearly 20,000 students through its online program.

ODU is hoping to attract some of the 36 million Americans who attended college but have yet to graduate. Many dropped out because of financial reasons. Given the job market, may decide to finish their degrees.

Recent unemployment numbers indicated that while the jobless rate was 15.3% for those only with high school diplomas, the rate is less than half that for college graduates - 7.4%.

Casiello said learning online is the easiest way to improve your economic circumstances, especially for people with full-time jobs and families.

For instance, Dominick Fink, a cheerleader for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, left ODU several years ago seven classes short of a degree. Because she is a single mother and a full-time cheerleader, finishing her degree was daunting, especially after she decided to change majors.

Yet she completed her degree last summer without stepping back on campus.

"Learning online isn't what I expected," Fink said. "There was a lot of interaction with faculty and other students. It was challenging but never boring."

ODU's online program also has advisors who work with students from the time they express an interest in taking classes.

"When we find students who want to enroll, they will work with somebody who has experience in a degree program, someone who will help with the admission process and help get them started in a program," Casiello said. "Those advisors stay with students throughout the program."

Dané said ODU strengthened the success coaching team for the spring and summer by retraining employees whose duties were limited because campus was closed. She added that ODU has placed more classes than usual online for the fall semester.

"We're doing everything we can to meet the needs of our students," she said.

ODU got into distance learning in 1994 with its "TELETECHNET" program, which broadcast classes by satellite to every community college in the state. Former Gov. George Allen, who worked with ODU to get the program started, credits the University with helping people in rural areas gain access to four-year degrees.

In 1999, ODU built Gornto Hall, where its distance learning program is still housed. In the early 2000s, ODU began moving its program online.

"ODU began TELETECHNET as an effort to reach people in rural areas who could not otherwise attend a four-year school," Casiello said. "We still have the same mindset. We're here to help students who can't come to our campus but who still want a degree.

"We help them to get that degree and improve their lives."

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