The number of students enrolled in LSU online programs still pales in comparison to that of traditional students at the university, but a new plan is underway to change that. Led by Sasha Thackaberry, vice provost of digital and continuing education, LSU’s goal is to ultimately have 30,000 students enrolled in online programs—a number that would essentially match the number of undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in face-to-face programs at LSU this past fall.
Thackaberry was hired in early 2018 from Southern New Hampshire University, where she led a seismic shift in that institution’s online enrollments. The small, private liberal arts college near Manchester, New Hampshire is now nationally known for distance learning. SNHU offers more than 200 online degree programs to about 100,000 students.
Over the past 18 months, Thackaberry has been leading LSU’s quest to transform the way students think of distance learning at a flagship university with a palpable campus culture.
“The degree you’ll earn in an online program is going to say ‘LSU’ not ‘LSU Online,’” says Thackaberry. “You are going to be getting the same high quality teaching and research opportunities with world-class professors that you do in the classroom.”
Only about 1,000 students are currently enrolled in online programs at LSU, but that number will rise incrementally, says Thackaberry. New undergraduate degree programs in interdisciplinary studies and construction management will be available this fall. Going forward, Thackaberry says her team’s goal is to release new programs and courses every term.
Students won’t be bound by geography. LSU’s online courses have the same fee structure for both in-state and out-of-state students.
Thus far, the bulk of Thackaberry’s work has been in building a management and technology infrastructure that didn’t previously exist. LSU has been creating a new management platform that will be operating in-house. Previously, online management was farmed out to a Texas company.
“We’re building the whole foundation right now,” she says. “It’s a huge challenge and very exciting.”
LSU has been behind in distance learning, but Thackaberry says she believes that works in the university’s favor.
“Our disadvantage at being new at this is actually our advantage,” she says. “The market today is already built, so we know we’re building it for the future. The good news is that we can start with an innovative approach, and we don’t have to reverse engineer past mistakes.”
Another challenge of the distance learning project is demonstrating to potential users that the quality of an online degree at LSU is commensurate with a traditional degree earned on campus. Online courses, where users log in on their own time, are often thought of as being easier. But Thackaberry wants people to know they’re just as challenging and demanding as face-to-face classes and will be developed by technical advisors in her office working closely with professors.
“We’ve created a team of learning experience designers, who will sit down with a faculty member and support the whole course creation,” she says.
A typical online class will include a mix of activities, including online discussions, group projects, video conferencing, and readings and assignments that are paced, but still flexible. A student can log in at their convenience, but must complete assignments within a certain time frame.
“The degree you’ll earn in an online program is going to say ‘LSU’ not ‘LSU Online.’ You are going to be getting the same high quality teaching and research opportunities with world-class professors that you do in the classroom.”
SASHA THACKABERRY, vice provost of digital and continuing education, LSU
In fall 2015, there were almost 6 million students across the country enrolled in an online course of some kind at a postsecondary degree granting institution, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 14 million students reported no online course enrollment of any kind in the same report.
Thackaberry says there are two target markets for online programs, nontraditional learners and traditional students who want more flexibility.
The average age of nontraditional learners is 34. They are often mid-career older millennials who left traditional college without completing their degree requirements, or are working in a field they find unfulfilling. About 60% are women, and roughly half of those students have children.
In Louisiana, only 23.4%, of individuals 25 or older have completed an undergraduate degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census.
In the case of traditional students, online courses are sometimes appealing because they allow for greater flexibility. Many students like having the option of working in the summer and taking an online course on their own time. Nationwide, there’s been 26% growth in summer online courses since many students also try to hold down jobs, says Thackaberry.
While the idea of LSU creating robust online programs seems out of kilter with its campus trappings, it’s good business, says Thackaberry.
According to data released in May by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment decreased nationwide for the eighth consecutive year. By contrast, traffic is increasing for online programs, says Thackaberry.
“A huge chunk of the marketplace of online higher education is filled by a handful of universities considered to have presence in this space, schools like SNHU and Western Governors University,” she says.
Historically, the online space hasn’t been one that flagship institutions have played in, but LSU’s goal is to change that.
“We have been able to work with superstar faculty, some of whom were chomping at the bit to do these kinds of classes,” Thackaberry says. “When you offer these programs you’re not just expanding access, you’re expanding access to world-class faculty.”