Meeting Them Where They Are
Over the last 25 years, Penn State World Campus has given students—traditional and nontraditional alike—the opportunity to earn degrees on their terms.
When he was a turfgrass management professor in the early 2000s, Al Turgeon would regularly attend the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s annual conference and trade show, where he would teach workshops and represent Penn State World Campus. Each year, he would meet superintendents from around the country.
Except he already knew them, through the online courses he taught.
“When you interact with students that intimately in that online environment, you get to know them by their words, the way they express themselves, the way they ask questions, but there’s not a face associated with it,” Turgeon says. “And then I’d be at the World Campus booth and sometimes several of them would come up [and] meet me for the first time. That was quite a thrill.”
Turgeon was part of the group that first embraced online instruction at Penn State, but his experience is not unique. More than 35,000 alumni have earned a degree at least partially through World Campus since its launch 25 years ago. They have been adult learners who finished or started degrees well into their careers, active military personnel who completed coursework while stationed around the globe, and students who earned most of their credits at a residential campus but finished online after moving for a job or internship. They’ve come from a variety of backgrounds but have shared a desire to enrich their lives—and résumés—on their own terms. And in those 25 years, the campus has steadily grown and adapted to meet their changing needs.
Penn State has been providing correspondence education since 1892, when the Pennsylvania State College began sending instruction materials through the mail. But in the early 1990s, as schools around the nation experimented with using newly available internet technology to offer engineering courses, and as video compression sped up the World Wide Web, university administrators began exploring opportunities to “go online.” In doing so, Penn State became the first major institution in the country to adopt online learning as a universitywide policy.
The university tasked Jim Ryan, then vice president for outreach and cooperative extension, and associate vice present for outreach Gary Miller with creating a plan to bring Penn State firmly into the world of online education. Their initial estimate for what it would take to launch an online program, factoring in software and marketing costs, was $6 million; others thought it might be closer to $10 million. Some of that money ended up coming from a chance encounter at a national electrical engineering conference.
It was there that then–engineering professor Thomas Larson was seated next to a retired IBM executive at dinner. Larson mentioned that Penn State was seeking entry points into online education; the retired executive told him he had recently been hired by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which was looking to develop and fund online education in colleges and high schools. A partnership soon emerged, and Penn State used a $6 million grant from the foundation for staffing, hardware, and funding for faculty.
A previous $1 million grant from AT&T had allowed the Office of Outreach to purchase the time of senior faculty from various Penn State academic units to develop online teaching protocols. “We had a structure and some good people,” Ryan says. “All they had to do was learn new processes.” All that most faculty members knew then was face-to-face teaching; getting them to think outside of that box was an anticipated challenge. What Penn State needed were asynchronous courses and programs that filled the needs of online learners, and faculty willing to adapt their methodologies. In its turfgrass science program and Turgeon, it found both.
For several years, Turgeon had been coordinating the College of Agricultural Sciences’ efforts on distance education, which initially involved satellite communication. He had been keeping an eye on video technologies being used for online classrooms elsewhere and “wasn’t terribly impressed.” That changed when he discovered Mosaic, an experimental web browser developed at the University of Illinois. The program allowed users to scan images and add narrative text and navigation icons, all of which fit Turgeon’s desire to use illustrations in his teaching. He also took an interest in HTML coding, and by the time Ryan and Miller were looking for faculty and courses suitable for World Campus—Turgeon was part of the study team of faculty and administrators they created—his vision began to take shape. Introduction to Turfgrass, with 17 students enrolled, was the first course offered when World Campus launched in January 1998.
Within two years, more than 250 students, the majority of them working professionals, had enrolled in the course. It was particularly popular with golf course superintendents, who could tend to their greens during the day, then go home and learn how to create better growth and cultivation environments through their coursework at night. “We had this underserved audience out there that were very happy to be able to earn degrees as they were working,” Turgeon says. “Critics would say, ‘You can’t do laboratories [with online teaching].’ Well, hell, they were working in the laboratories.”
Developments in technology, including high-speed modems, and regular meetings with fellow faculty members helped Turgeon and other early World Campus adopters tweak the curriculum. He supplemented the online image presentations with case studies and had his students review one another’s work. “We did an analysis comparing the performance of online students with resident students,” Turgeon says, “and we found that they were comparable—that the online students did just as well, and that for them, it was a meaningful and effective learning experience.”
Karen Pollack ’87, ’96 MA Com, ’07 PhD Edu, associate vice provost for online education, was one of the first managers hired to develop online programs at World Campus. She had taken correspondence courses as a Penn State undergrad and was pursuing a Ph.D. in learning design at the time. The idea of students being able to build online programs around their own schedules appealed to her.
Pollack remembers some faculty being hesitant to switch to online teaching, often citing a lack of experience with technology. Those who were willing to take a chance, on the other hand, determined the content of the first World Campus programs. “It was, ‘Who is the most excited and interested and willing to keep an open mind about this?’” Pollack says. “Since those early days, World Campus has remained focused on delivering programs that will best serve the most.”
As more students enrolled, Ryan says, World Campus was able to build a revenue-sharing model with the academic units from which the faculty would come. “We went to the deans with a net income sharing model in which the colleges would gain the majority of the balance for their priorities and World Campus would take the remainder for future program development,” Ryan says. Gradually, course and program offerings grew, determined both by the needs of a student body that tended to be older and with more of an eye on graduate degrees, and by the trends of the day.
“It was a slow process. But the culture was changing around us at the same time,” Ryan says. “Because of our background and our funding and support, we were able to get to the marketplace as one of the first four or five in the country, and the dominant institution of those five.”
Not every course had staying power; Pollack remembers the Y2K prep course and webmaster courses being extremely popular at the turn of the century but being discontinued not long after. World Campus advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in business and industry publications, and at trade shows. One of its biggest pitches then remains one of its proudest points today: Most World Campus instructors also teach residential courses at Penn State. It’s the same education, but in a different format. “What differentiated us from any other provider—the University of Phoenix in particular was big—was that no one else can say it was a Penn State degree,” Pollack says. “It’s the real Penn State.”
Ana Beatriz Di Rienzo Bulcão almost joined the Penn State fencing team in 2013, but the Cotia, Brazil, native didn’t receive as much financial aid as she had hoped. Instead, she shifted her focus to training for the 2016 Olympic Games, where she finished 31st in women’s foil.
When it came time to begin qualifying for the 2020 Games at tournaments around the world, Bulcão knew the process would be physically and mentally taxing, yet she wanted to take on an academic challenge without putting her Olympic dreams on hold. “Then I found World Campus,” she says. “I could have a little bit of both worlds.”
Bulcão ’22 Bus missed qualifying for the 2020 Games, but she did complete a business degree in December 2022 while training mostly in Italy. As she prepares for a shot at the 2024 Games in Paris, she has one eye on using that degree to meet her long-held goal of making fencing more accessible in Brazil. “I really like managing, and I think with my experience and traveling, I can make progress in the organization and confederation of Brazilian fencing,” she says.
Bulcão says the communication courses she took helped her become a more persuasive writer and a more competent public speaker, and an internship at a sports and entertainment website gave her social media experience that she’s using to connect with followers and potential sponsors. Several of her classmates were, like her, logging on and contributing to group projects from sites around the world, often on nights and weekends. “It was a challenge,” says Bulcão. “But everyone was very supportive and working hard.”
Mike Russo, who had enjoyed a successful career in human resources working for companies such as American Airlines and Textron, was also familiar with doing coursework at odd hours at locations around the world as he pursued two bachelor’s degrees—one in labor studies and employment relations, the other in organizational leadership—and then a master’s in human resources and employment relations through World Campus. Russo ’12, ’13, MPS Lib did much of his coursework on airplanes or in hotel rooms, on one occasion chatting with classmates while on a work trip to Bengaluru, India, and working on a course in negotiation strategy while he was in London—negotiating on behalf of his employer at the time—on another. “I probably flew 2 million miles during that time,” Russo says. “I could not have done normal courses when I was traveling.”
He earned all three degrees in 3 1/2 years, and the day after he updated his LinkedIn profile to reflect his new qualifications, he took a call from an external recruiter for Bayer, who had a job offer. The company had been looking to fill the role for more than a year, and the recruiter had been eyeing Russo, with a caveat. “We kept looking at your profile thinking you’re a perfect fit for this job,” the recruiter said, “but without your master’s, I didn’t want to call you.”
On June 3, 2012, Dana Air Flight 0992 took off from Abuja, Nigeria. Shortly after takeoff, one of the plane’s two engines began to malfunction; soon, both failed. The plane crashed and exploded into flames. All 153 people aboard perished.
Abiodun Awoyemi, then a geoscientist in Lagos, was saddened by the tragedy and moved by the stories of the victims. He also learned that forensic analysis revealed that 27 people aboard the craft, all at the rear of the plane, had survived the crash, and an investigation showed an uncoordinated rescue operation. Had there been more emergency responders on the scene, Awoyemi thought, perhaps some of the passengers could have been saved.
Determined to help avoid future tragedies, Awoyemi ’18 MPS Int decided to shift his career path. He enrolled in the Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security degree program, public health preparedness option, through World Campus. As he took classes, he started his own emergency management consulting company. “I knew there was a gap in emergency services in my country,” he says. “I wanted to gain some knowledge that would help me fix the gap.”
For five years after the crash of Flight 0992, Awoyemi visited the crash site every June 3. When he was unable to return to Nigeria last year, he went to Houston instead to attend the 10-year remembrance, where he met with a family that lost their two daughters to the crash. “I stay in touch with the cause, and the passion has not wavered or died,” he says.
In May, Awoyemi accepted a position as the director of emergency services at Fayetteville State University. He has completed training with FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute and says, “Everything I know started from that program I took at Penn State,” and he maintains contact with his professors. Awoyemi still feels a sense of loss when he reads stories about fatal accidents in Nigeria. He says he left his home country because of his frustration with the lack of interest from leadership, but he hopes to return one day and put what he has learned to use. “When I am able to make an impact here in the United States,” he says, “maybe that will give me the voice when I move back for them to listen to me.”
Before he came to Penn State as a professor of electrical engineering in 1999, Robert Gray was a lead engineer in the United States Air Force who helped to introduce GPS in the F-16 fighter jet; he created a course that would help both pilots and maintenance workers understand the new technology. The problem was that both of those groups were scattered among Air Force bases around the world, so Gray had to send copies of his transparency slides to those groups and deliver the course through teleconference calls.
Gray saw the potential for remote learning then and, once he started at Penn State, discovered that more of his freshman students were coming to campus with experience with online learning each year. When he was asked to lead the World Campus master of electrical engineering program in 2014, he jumped at the chance. “We started with five students,” he says. “We have close to 70 now.”
Gray and other faculty members reviewed World Campus courses on instructional design and online teaching, and over the first few years of the program they shaped the curriculum to the strengths of the instructors; recent student feedback has led to developing courses on artificial intelligence and wireless communication. Gray was eager to try his hand at online teaching, and the master’s program was his first chance to teach grad students at Penn State, which he has relished. All of his students are full-time professionals, and the majority of their employers cover their tuition costs. One of the courses Gray teaches involves a final research project, and he encourages students to meet with him prior to the start of the semester so that he can help them get a jump on it. “I’m teaching 100% online right now, and I love it,” he says. “I see myself finishing at Penn State this way.”
Renata Engel was a first-generation student who walked into the tuition office at Penn State Fayette one day to discover that someone had paid her bill. She never learned who it was, but that act of generosity and community stayed with her. Later, as a doctoral student, she taught an online engineering course at the University of South Florida. “I was in a studio,” she recalls. “There [were] 20 students with me, and hundreds of students across Florida seeing me through microwave technology or getting the tapes.”
Seeing how valuable the experience could be to students who were working full-time jobs and raising families, and what she could glean from it as an instructor, left an impression on Engel ’82 Eng, who came back to Penn State in 1990 as a professor of engineering design and engineering science and mechanics. “I had been teaching in a classroom for quite a while, but that [experience] made me a better, more effective teacher and educator,” Engel says, “because I had to look at different ways of explaining things, how to engage learners at different times.”
As director of Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence from 2000 to 2006, Engel worked with experts in educational environments and broadened her understanding of education, which, like her online teaching experiences at South Florida, would inform her leadership of World Campus. “It came down to three things for me: Engage deeply with content, engage deeply with (the instructor), and engage deeply with your peers,” she says.
Engel made student support a priority when she came to World Campus as vice provost for online education in 2014, hiring a student affairs director and expanding mental health resources, career services, and paths to create student government and other organizations. When the COVID-19 pandemic altered residential learning in 2020, she and vice president and dean for undergraduate education Yvonne Gaudelius helped plan Penn State’s pivot to remote learning.
Engel says administrators and staff recognized that students who took advantage of Penn State’s temporary change of campus option would be better served by retaining their respective academic advisers from their original program but adding a World Campus adviser to help them navigate the switch. Although students continued to take remote asynchronous courses—in which students engage with learning modules, assigned readings, or quizzes on their own time and receive feedback from the instructor—they also expressed a desire for more remote synchronous opportunities. “Our students didn’t have a change in modality, but they were still living in a world where a pandemic was going on,” Engel says. “Their jobs may have gone away. Their children may have been home with them as they took classes. We were also responding to what was happening with them to make sure we were continuing to provide the support they needed.”
Today, students who are just out of high school or who have grandchildren in high school have numerous options for online postsecondary education: Some 420 institutions offer courses primarily online, and more than 2,500 offer online degree programs, according to data from BestColleges.
Pollack says that while many universities have used online management program companies to design and develop courses or borrow faculty from other institutions, Penn State continues to keep all of its programs and instructors in-house. “I feel good about the fact that when I talk to colleagues at other institutions, they wish they’d had the time and space to develop it,” she says, “and integrate it up throughout the fabric of the institutional culture.”
The approximately 19,000 students currently enrolled in World Campus follow the same semester model that in-person peers do; administrators have mulled giving students the option of starting courses at various points of the calendar year instead of a fixed semester start date. Pollack believes that future World Campus students will have more options for blended or hybrid courses. “It’s more a matter of thinking, ‘What won’t be possible?’ than ‘What will?’” she says.
Engel envisions a modest expansion of World Campus’ current 175 degree and certificate programs offered in the next few years to accommodate emerging fields. Artificial intelligence and data analytics have already led to the addition of new courses. “These are programs that are interdisciplinary,” Engel says. “And I think that’s where we will see most of the new growth.” She believes that World Campus’ beginnings are the best way to predict its future.
“It was always looking outward at what is needed. What are the educational needs? What does the workplace need? What do our community and society need?” she says. “I think there will always be learners who will be looking for different kinds of pathways to education.”