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BOONE — When COVID-19 shut down college campuses in March 2020, online classes — a topic of importance for North Carolina and University North Carolina System pre-pandemic — became even more necessary.

A year before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Gov. Roy Cooper had stressed the importance of opening up more opportunities to North Carolinians. Cooper — along with the Higher Education Task Force for My Future NC, of which App State Chancellor Sheri Everts was a co-chair — announced a goal of 2 million working-age North Carolinians having a degree or credential beyond high school by 2030.

Throughout the pandemic, the importance of educational access became even more essential as UNC System schools transitioned to courses being nearly all online.

Now that the pandemic is seemingly nearing to an end and higher education is in the process of getting back to normal, the topic of educating more non-traditional students has been rejuvenated. University of North Carolina System President Peter Hans stated in a June 3 newsletter that he has “been thinking a lot about what the future holds for adult learners.”

“A lot more people are going to need a second chance at higher education, the opportunity for a meaningful college experience in the middle of their lives and careers instead of at the beginning,” Hans stated. “And we need a new, expanded vision of who our colleges and universities are meant to serve.”

According to Hans, more than 60,000 non-traditional students in North Carolina are taking classes from out-of-state providers, mostly online.

“In the months ahead, we’re going to make a significant effort to turn this vision into a reality — to translate the extraordinary value of a UNC System education into a form that working adults can access,” Hans stated in the newsletter.

At App State, the commitment to adult learning lies in the founding mission to open access to education, according to the university.

“Under the leadership of Chancellor Sheri Everts, App State’s support for online and adult learners has steadily grown and developed,” the university stated. “Chancellor Everts has made it a priority to work with education professionals across the state to address issues of increasing access to education and decreasing achievement gaps.”

According to App State, the average age of an App State online student is 34 years old. As of fall 2020, App State’s online student population was 7.6 percent of the total population.

The number of undergraduates in programs that are entirely online remained the same from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and increased by just over 11 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021, according to the university. The number of graduate students in online only programs increased by 39 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and by 56 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021, according to the university.

For faculty who teach an online course, Appalachian’s Center for Academic Excellence provides professional development opportunities, support and consultations. This includes access to workshops and online course certification by Quality Matters, an organization that works to promote and improve the quality of online education and student learning nationally and internationally through development of current, research-supported and practice-based quality standards and appropriate evaluation tools and procedures, according to the university.

CAE has also worked with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) to provide additional self-paced, online instruction for faculty. According to the university, the AppState Agile Academy is available to help faculty design a highly adaptable course utilizing online, hybrid and face-to-face components.

The university also stated that the Quality Online Teaching and Learning ad hoc committee of App State’s Faculty Senate was formed in fall 2019 and has worked since then to provide recommendations on quality assurance for online courses. The recommendations are being reviewed as the work is ongoing.

Faculty are also awarded stipends for attending and developing a course through the 10-week Online Teaching Excellence Institute, and for seeking online course certification via Quality Matters.

“Some of the most important ways App State shows support for adult and non-traditional learners is through making our spaces welcoming and demonstrating we understand their needs,” the university stated. “Under Chancellor Everts, the Plemmons Student Union has become a place that is more inclusive of adult and non-traditional learners. Examples include the addition and a lactation lounge, opened in 2019, and the Student Veteran Resource Center, opened in 2016.”

Some of the resources App State provides non-traditional students includes a Trails to Success program offered through App State’s Cratis D. Williams Graduate School to provide professional development for adult learners. More information on that program can be found at graduate.appstate.edu/enrolled-students/professional-development-trails-success.

The university also offers a Non-Traditional Student Work Group that serves students who are 25 years old or older, are married, partnered or divorced, are parents or caregivers for family members, are a military veteran, reserve or active duty.

More information on online classes at App State can be found at online.appstate.edu.

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