Oregon State University’s nationally ranked online undergraduate programs are about to add a new distinction. Starting in spring term 2023, the Oregon State Honors College will become one of the first honors programs in the world to be fully accessible to online students.
“The expansion of the Honors College opportunity to all undergraduates at Oregon State, regardless of campus or learning modality, is a critical milestone in our history and has the potential to set a model for honors colleges and programs around the country,” says Honors College Dean Toni Doolen.
One-third of undergraduates at Oregon State are currently enrolled online through OSU Ecampus, almost three times the percentage from ten years ago. Growth in Ecampus has been the most significant factor in the 30.3% overall increase in enrollment at Oregon State University over the past decade.
As with expanding the Honors College to OSU-Cascades in 2017, adding an Ecampus honors degree pathway fulfills longstanding priorities for Doolen: access and opportunity.
“We feel that from an equity perspective, just the fact that you’re an Ecampus student should not prevent you from earning OSU’s highest undergraduate degree,” she says. “Being a land grant university, this is about how we can serve all our students equitably.”
Pandemic Built Online Experience in the Honors College
College leadership has considered the prospect of expanding the Honors College to Oregon State’s online degree offerings since as early as 2016. For several years, the Honors College has offered a variety of successful colloquia courses through Ecampus as an option for Corvallis and OSU-Cascades honors students, building a core of faculty familiar with intentionally developing the distinctive elements of honors classes — highly engaged, collaborative learning — for the online format. Translating the honors thesis experience and the Honors College’s cocurricular offerings to a fully remote context was a more speculative challenge — until spring 2020, when the university switched to emergency remote delivery of almost all programming due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through the next year and a half, honors staff, faculty and student leaders built and implemented a range of online programs and supported hundreds of students at every stage of the thesis process, from identifying and launching research to finalizing, defending and presenting their work. Succeeding through unprecedented and unexpected challenges reinforced the viability of a successful fully online honors experience and built a base of knowledge within the college.
“What we learned through the pandemic is we can do a lot of things in a remote way and space that are quite successful,” Doolen says.
Supporting Thesis Success for Online Students
The COVID experience demonstrated that honors student thesis research and writing translate readily to an online environment. Remote collaboration has long been a core feature of the research enterprise for faculty and for many students, and more than a year of remote living and learning increased familiarity with the tools that facilitate success in this kind of work.
Regardless of location or modality, the most important element in thesis completion is often strong mentorship, and the Honors College has worked closely with faculty and leaders in the largest undergraduate Ecampus programs — computer science in the College of Engineering; fisheries, wildlife and conservation sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences; natural resources in the College of Forestry; and psychology in the College of Liberal Arts — to confirm their commitment to supporting online honors research.
Since the beginning of the college in 1995, each thesis has been a unique experience, and that will not change, says Doolen. “What I love about our current thesis process is that every process looks different. There is no student thesis process that looks like another.”
New Possibilities in the Ecampus “Classroom”
Oregon State University Ecampus is a global leader in distance education — consistently ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News & World Report — because of the ability of faculty to create and deliver highly effective courses asynchronously, with students completing projects and engaging with the class at different times. Oregon State faculty who teach online routinely employ teaching strategies and tools that integrate experiential learning elements. These strategies also help students make connections between classroom work and real-world challenges, and discussion and collaboration are key components of many Ecampus classes.
This experience has established a strong foundation for bringing honors courses — which are also highly experiential and collaborative — into Ecampus. The Honors College has offered Ecampus courses since fall term 2018, and faculty surveys indicate strong enthusiasm for the opportunity Ecampus provides to teach honors classes in new ways.
As with all Oregon State faculty who are new to teaching online, Honors College instructors will participate in a six-week Ecampus workshop, working directly with an instructional designer to develop their classes specifically for online delivery. Ecampus also supports professional development opportunities, faculty luncheons and forum events where instructors can share ideas and best practices for online course design and teaching.
Creating a Holistic Honors Experience
One of the most significant — and exciting — challenges in delivering a full Honors College experience to Ecampus students is creating robust community engagement and cocurricular opportunities. These are critical to meeting the Honors College learning outcomes of engaged and scholarly inquiry, and there is little precedent at other institutions. Some of the offerings created by the Honors College during the pandemic, such as virtual research presentation events, online conversation groups and remote connections with alumni, point in promising directions, but developing programming will entail innovation and new thinking.
The potential impact of this development, though, is enormous. The Honors College and Ecampus have the opportunity to make Oregon State a national leader in this space, expanding the possibilities for online learners. The Honors College and Ecampus are jointly supporting the creation of a new professional faculty position in the Honors College to lead in creating cocurricular programming for Ecampus learners that enhances their experience and builds community.
Ready for New Opportunities
Faculty and staff are ready for an Ecampus Honors College pathway — and so are students. A survey of current Ecampus students indicated that while awareness of the Honors College and an honors education more broadly was low, interest was high: nine out of 10 survey respondents expressed at least some interest in earning an honors degree.
While prospective Ecampus honors students are typically different demographically than the first-time college students who make up most of the honors community on the Corvallis campus, they share a strong interest in how honors experiences can enhance their career skills development. This provides a robust basis for thinking about cocurricular opportunities.
At the same time, Honors College leaders recognize that the likely differences between on-campus and Ecampus students are significant. Fifty percent of current Ecampus students have high financial need, a much higher percentage than in the current Honors College population. The college recently implemented a lower differential tuition for part-time students, which will benefit many Ecampus students. Still, thinking carefully about delivering value, as well as financial support systems, will be critical to program success.
For Doolen, this is a welcome challenge, with the potential to drive innovation and new thinking on campus as well. “We have always prided ourselves on our capacity for agility, adaptation and innovation,” she says. “We’ll invent, we’ll fail, we’ll try new things, we’ll do more invention. This is a new horizon for us and for honors education more broadly. I don’t doubt that we will figure out how to do this and do it well.”
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