UW-Platteville continues to grow in online education; celebrating 42 years of experience

Spring campus

For more than 40 years, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville has been an institutional leader in distance education. In 1978, UW-Platteville started a print-based program and then in 1999 the institution became the first public university in Wisconsin to offer degrees online. Currently, 1,800 students are earning their degree. According to the Center for Distance Learning, 30% of the students are enrolled in an undergraduate program while 70% are enrolled in a graduate program. This past spring semester, 909 students were from the United States with representation from more than 40 states. Eight students were taking courses from Afghanistan, Canada, Jamaica and Switzerland.

Dan Avenarius, executive director of the Center for Distance Learning states online education offers another avenue for UW-Platteville students to partake in.

“Online education offers a lot of folks the opportunity to either start their higher education or to complete their path,” he said. “If there wasn’t the online option, they wouldn’t have those opportunities. I think everybody should have the opportunity to pursue their educational goals.”

Throughout the two decades the university’s online presence has served as a model for other institutions. Avenarius notes he’s been contacted by schools for advice on how they can develop their own programs. He acknowledges what makes the online presence so strong at UW-Platteville is how the programs are tied into the campus.

“We have been very selective in what programs we want to offer. We don’t believe in quantity over quality. We believe in being able to serve the faculty and students in high-quality programs,” said Avenarius. “All the courses are developed with a team of staff from the Center for Distance Learning. It includes an instructional designer, communications specialist/editor and we have production people within our help desk.”

This experience in leadership helped make a smooth transition when the university and the branch campuses went into alternative delivery mode in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The fact UW-Platteville had already been involved in offering online courses and degrees since 1999 meant there was already a considerable amount of campus faculty who were already used to teaching online,” said Avenarius. “We are also fortunate to have a staff member within our division who has created several faculty professional training modules related to online teaching and course development.”

Dr. Michael Zampaloni, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science graduate studies director, mechanical engineering professor and online engineering program coordinator, echoes Avenarius’s statement.

“We have done a good job at showing how you can create an engaging online environment for the students while also training them with the skills they are going to need in the industry after they leave academia,” he said. “We have a good model for how to teach students from across a wide geographic area, while providing a high-quality education.”

Engineering is one discipline known for its lab work. Zampaloni said graduate students still receive those hands-on opportunities in a virtual way. “A lot of the stuff we do when you get to the master’s level is more analytical and theory based,” he said. “We do several technology-based labs where the experiments, including data collection and analysis, are done virtually.”

Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Assistant Campus Dean at UW-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County Dr. Stephen Swallen adds online is a method of teaching that requires extra thought in how instructors will conduct their labs.

“In the classes I have taught online, I have done this interesting thing where you can order through private companies lab kits that can be sent to the students’ homes. They can do the labs in their kitchen or garage. They can still receive a hands-on experience,” he said. “You can build labs that are purely virtual that are online where you can do calculations, or use data sets from experiments that have already been done. The students have the chance to analyze data. You can watch a video of the experiment being done; you’re given the data to analyze it. There are ways of accessing the learning outcomes that you desire. You have to think of interesting and novel ways of getting the information across to the students.”

UW-Platteville online courses are built asynchronous. “We made the decision years ago that our courses were going to be asynchronous,” said Avenarius. “We thought that was also a drawing point to our students, it could meet anyone’s work schedule.”

The programs have grown with the incorporation of the advancement of technology. Avenarius remembers in the late 1990s online education was mostly in the format of text. “It was pretty one dimensional,” he said. “Now in the last 20 years it has really evolved where you have the ability to use Zoom and other video conferencing where students can get together to work on projects and assignments.”

There are many benefits of teaching online, especially when it comes to discussions said Marnie Dresser, professor of English at UW-Platteville Richland. She said many times in a traditional classroom setting not everyone feels comfortable contributing, however, in an online discussion everyone has to participate.

“It’s one of my favorite parts of the online aspect of teaching. It’s the ability to hear from all students and do it in such a way that students are more comfortable,” Dresser said. “My international students have told me they really like the online discussions more because they can take the time and type out what they want to say, proofread it, make sure they’re comfortable with how they said it and then post it.”

As online education continues to grow UW-Platteville and the branch campuses are excited to tackle more future endeavors.

At UW-Platteville Richland there is a large number of faculty and instructional staff who have taught online, hybrid or both through a variety of platforms, according to Dresser.

“On our campus, we are a hotspot of experience for distance education,” she said. “What UW-Platteville Richland brings to the table is understanding that even though you use a lot of technology, it’s really not about the technology, it’s about connecting with the students and making sure the course works.”

Swallen is looking forward to working with all three campuses. “We have instructors who have great experience in online teaching from English to business and across the whole gamut of intellectual disciplines. We are quite well positioned,” he said. “Online is an interesting style of learning. It is really great for folks who want the flexibility to learn as their schedule permits and responsibilities allow.”

The diversity of students and their experiences are some of Zampaloni’s favorite things about teaching online. “We have a mix of students with different backgrounds and experiences. They are coming from different parts of the country. It’s a great opportunity for the students to get exposed to different ranges of people, activities and experiences.”

Zampaloni hopes to expand the engineering program. One aspect being looked at is to add an integrated plan. “Students who start on the main campus can finish in the online environment,” he said. “They can complete their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years total. They can take that extra year and finish up their master’s program online. We are looking at potentially expanding some of the class offerings that we have and adding new emphasis areas to draw in students who may not have been interested in the program before.”

And for Avenarius, he hopes UW-Platteville will continue to look for online programs to serve the best interests of the students. “We have to offer online education that will meet the needs of students,” he said. “We ask, ‘Is there a need? Will this help fulfill not only people’s educational goals, but also their professional goals as well?’”

UW-Platteville offers six undergraduate degrees including, Associate of Arts and Sciences; Associate of Science in Business Administration; Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences; Bachelor of Science in Applied Computing; Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. The ten master’s degree programs are Applied Biotechnology; Criminal Justice; Cybersecurity; Engineering; Healthcare Administration; Information Systems Management; Integrated Supply Chain Management; Organizational Change Leadership; Project Management and Strategic Management.