Spotlight on Innovation: Managing Online Growth at Texas Tech

A popular online human resources concentration marked an early indication of the potential popularity of distance learning at the institution.

December 5, 2018

Each installment of "Spotlight on Innovation" from "Inside Digital Learning" focuses on an institution with under-the-radar efforts around classroom experiences enabled or enhanced by digital technology. If you think your institution belongs in this series, email [email protected].

The Institution: Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Tex.

A Growing Need: Students in the institution’s university studies program have their pick of three distinct areas of study from the institution’s academic colleges. Those three concentrations make up 54 of the required 120 credit hours to earn the degree.

In 2011, instructors in the program took a look at the competitive landscape and realized that they needed to start offering a concentration in human resource development. “We have a great business school, but there wasn’t really a robust program” that matched industry demand, according to Rachna Heizer, an instructor in the human resources department.

Key Insights

Identify interest in a particular discipline as early as possible, and offer courses that meet those demands.

Prepare contingencies in case programs grow quickly and new instructors come on board at a rapid pace.

Establish a consistent structure and aesthetic across online courses to streamline the experience for students and instructors.

Because all of the courses under the university studies program are electives, securing institutional funding to develop new ones wasn’t easy.

Andrea McCourt, an instructor and the program director of human resource development, decided to use online education as a tool of persuasion. Other parts of the institution had dabbled in online courses, and an administrative approval process was already in place to support new ones. But no one had successfully launched an online program. McCourt made the case that doing so in human resources would help expand interest in the university’s offerings.

“We had students who work on oil and gas rigs, four days a week, where they have no internet. They would never be able to take classes at Texas Tech,” Heizer said. “With online programs, they were able to be successful.”

With modest financial support from the institution, McCourt and Heizer began developing a set of six or seven online courses on topics related to human resources. They both had prior experience with online education at other institutions.

​In addition to pointing to online as a signifier of innovation, McCourt and Heizer have made a point throughout the development of the program to collaborate with other academic departments. The business department adopted a business law course developed for the HR program, and a similar arrangement took place with the psychology department, which saw value in preparing students for marketing themselves to businesses. Those departments now offer online courses in human resources to their students as well.

The Hunch Pays Off: In 2011, the program had approximately 100 enrollments, either for a minor or as a concentration toward a university studies degree. (If one student registers for three courses, that counts as three enrollments.) By the next year, that number had doubled, and growth continued at a rate of as much as 30 percent each year, far exceeding even the loftiest expectations.

“Initially when we started, there was no thought to, ‘if you build it, they will come,’” Heizer said. Recent semesters have seen between 800 and 1,000 enrollments in the concentration, and the number is still growing.

McCourt said her team didn’t anticipate the explosion of interest. In retrospect, she wishes she had planned ahead for how she would grow the budget over time. At some points, five or six new adjunct professors were joining at a time, all in need of hiring and training.

“We went from zero to paying for all of our costs within two years,” McCourt said. “It was a really fast turnaround.”

Each class stands apart from the others; students don’t need any prerequisites in order to enroll in any of the human resources electives. McCourt and Heizer set a precedent early on of ensuring that each class has the same look and assignment structure. Consistency helped students get acclimated to the demands of the program and established a tradition to which adjunct and part-time professors could easily adapt.

That structure proved particularly valuable when a pressing need arose for more sections of in-demand courses.

“It was easy for some of our part-timers to say, ‘I can take an extra class,’” Heizer said. “It wasn’t, ‘Now I’ve got to build a syllabus and assignments.’ It was, ‘I can take another section because the class is already there.’”

McCourt placed a high priority on ensuring that students could easily navigate courses and understand requirements and expectations. Her team emphasized to instructors the importance of providing detailed feedback on assignments to students and maintaining an active presence in the virtual classroom environment.

Lessons Learned: Hiring Heizer at the start to help develop the program was a smart move, but it would have been even smarter one or two years earlier, McCourt said. Investing more up front in curricular design would also have paid off in the long run, she said.

Faculty training and onboarding came later than it probably should have, McCourt admits. At first some instructors were confused by the importance of maintaining a course format consistent with the others in the program.

“They were HR experts, but they didn’t know online teaching,” McCourt said. “We were kind of making stuff up as we went.”

In 2016 McCourt found funding to hire an instructional designer and several student assistants to help faculty members hone their pedagogical approach. Courses get a significant refresh every two years, with input from faculty members.

This year the team also added an existing instructor to serve as coordinator of curriculum and instruction, helping with course redevelopment and providing pedagogical support to other instructors.

Texas Tech now offers a wide range of online programs, including degrees and certificates. Students can get a bachelor's degree in university studies entirely online, but McCourt and Heizer hope the online human resources suite, which now boasts 18 separate courses, will eventually itself become degree-granting. The key, of course, is more funding.

"I think we’re poised to be able to do that," McCourt said.

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