Pilot programs aim to speed degree completion for UES students
“If we’re not adapting, we’re falling behind,” director of Furman’s Undergraduate Evening Studies (UES), Beth Crews, said during a recent discussion about the evolutionary leaps higher education has taken in the last two decades. “And the pilots we’ve launched this summer,” she continued, “are an effort to propel UES towards the mindful growth and adaptation that’s consistent with the Furman experience.”
When Crews became director of UES in September 2013, she analyzed the program’s strengths and weaknesses, sought areas for improvement. It quickly became clear that one of UES’ greatest strengths—offering a Furman education in an affordable, convenient format for adults—was also, in-part, linked to a significant weakness: the length of time it takes a student to graduate.
Offering a bachelor’s in business administration or accounting, the UES program requires, on average, nearly four years of enrollment before its students graduate, despite the fact that over 85% transfer into Furman as sophomores or juniors. The rigorous curriculum, combined with career and family responsibilities, typically limit the average UES student to taking just two courses per semester. “At that pace,” Crews explained, “a student with no prior college credit could face seven years of school before graduating, and that’s seven years without a break, with no disruptions. And for adult students,” she continues, “seven years of ‘smooth sailing’ rarely happens.”
The pilot projects are an attempt to address this issue. “As I looked at comparable institutions with similar non-traditional undergraduate programs,” said Crews, “it was clear there were options out there to explore. What if we could take our current format —each class meeting once a week for 15 weeks each semester—and tweak it into something that could accelerate degree completion, without sacrificing the quality students expect to receive with a Furman education?”
After benchmarking successful programs nationwide, UES’ director initiated two pilots for the 2015 summer semester: block scheduling and hybrid courses. Block scheduling divides the traditional 13–16 week semester into two separate blocks for which courses begin and conclude within each block’s timeframe. Students meet twice weekly to finish the course in half the time. This summer, Block A consisted of 7 courses which ran May 18–June 27, and Block B, with 8 courses offered, began July 6 and will conclude on August 13.
The second initiative involved the debut of hybrid courses, which blend in-class sessions with online learning. Of the 15 courses UES offered this summer, 11 were hybrid. “With the hybrid format,” said Crews, “we were able to include technology as a means of enhancing the learning experience and simultaneously, add scheduling flexibility.”
Jane Love, at Furman’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), helped prepare instructors, offering them support and guidance with adapting their pedagogy for the blended learning environment. Some instructors chose to upload lectures online and utilize in-class meetings for problem-solving and face-to-face discussions, while others chose the opposite route. Said Crews, “The class discussions through online forums have been rich and engaging. I think there’s potential in that venue that some may find surprising.”
Preparing students for the pilots was also key. Before summer registration opened, UES distributed detailed information to students to ensure they were aware of how the initiatives would affect their schedules, course load, and financial aid. UES staff wanted students to understand that the compressed schedule would be especially challenging, and therefore, recommended students take only one course per block of the pilot run. Said UES Student Services Counselor, Jennifer Grissop, “We always take into account students’ career and family responsibilities before recommending courses, regardless of how the curriculum is delivered. But when launching something so completely new, it’s critical to send the right message. That message boiled down to ‘caution over cramming’.”
Advisors described the options made possible through the pilots, such as taking one course in each block or taking a course (or two if they must) in one block only, which would free up half of their summer.
Grissop explained, “With our traditional summer term, students would finish spring exams on a Thursday and start the summer term the very next Monday. When you have a family, no break through the summer is rough. It means students have to miss class in order to take a family vacation. With the pilot schedule, we were able to offer students a week off in May, before summer courses began and another week off between blocks A and B during the week of July 4th.” This flexible schedule probably explains why UES experienced its highest jump in summer enrollment in more than five years.
“So far,” said Jennifer, “the feedback’s been mostly positive.” The counselor acknowledged that the summer’s diverse range of courses, intentionally chosen to ensure pilot concepts would be well-tested, is revealing certain subjects may be less adaptable for accelerated delivery methods. Also, students who chose to take more than the recommended one course per block have expressed being challenged by the heavy workload.
Overall, UES director Crews is pleased with the variety of classes offered, the willingness of faculty to experiment with their instruction, and the support the initiative received from the larger academic affairs community at Furman. “This is our toe in the water,” Crews said in regard to the hybrid and condensed semester formats.
“Back to your regularly scheduled program,” is in store for students this fall as UES returns to its traditional semester format while staff evaluate the pilot data and then determine the future of the program’s curricular design. “There are many variations of this type of delivery. We’ve seen them implemented, successfully so, at other institutions,” Crews explains. “Finding the most effective way to deliver the best possible education to our students is the goal.”
Learn more about Undergraduate Evening Studies at Furman.