Business Matters

New ventures in online education: A conversation with Michelle Marks

Q. Why devote an office to Academic Innovation and New Ventures?

A. It’s important for this university to devote an office to academic innovation and new ventures because we’re a public university, one that cares about being affordable, one that cares about being accessible to more students. The landscape of higher ed has changed here in Virginia and around the country. Education has gotten more expensive, it’s gotten less accessible for students who need it the most. Mason has gotten more diverse as an institution and will continue to do so, and we have a mission to serve all of those students. My office finds creative ways to find pathways into the university for more students.

Q. Why extend online programs?

A. It’s important to expand online programs because our students are demanding it. We have a diverse group of students with a diverse group of needs. We have traditional-age students that are coming over from high school, a high school experience that probably already included taking online classes. These students have been learning through technology for their entire lives, and they expect that when they get to George Mason. I was talking with a student the other day who is taking two courses online and two courses on campus. She’s having a terrific experience. One of her favorite professors is a professor of the online course. There are also a group of students who are working fulltime. Many of our professional graduate students don’t want to drive to Fairfax in traffic twice a week and, if they have the option to take classes online, they’re going to take that option. We have students that work shift work. I was just talking to a nurse the other day who works all night long. The only way that she can attend George Mason is through online programming. And there are also students who just don’t live close enough to George Mason to be able to attend classes on campus.

Q. Who benefits the most?

A. Adult learners benefit most from online pathways. Students that are 24 or older are actually making up a significantly greater percentage of the market for higher education around the Commonwealth. We believe that there are a million of the individuals who have taken some college credit. Maybe it’s at Mason, maybe it’s at some community college and for whatever set of reasons – whether to have kids, whether to take care of family members, to take a job – they’ve stopped out of school. And these individuals aren’t necessarily going to be the type to go live on campus. They need an online pathway to be able to complete a baccalaureate degree. An online education allows students to continue working, to continue taking care of children, to bring education to them and meet them at the point where they’re at. It could be somebody right now who’s in the military, who started their bachelor’s degree, but had to stop out as they move around and needs an online option to come back to school.

Q. What is our online strategy?

A. This university has done a great job in the last decade putting courses online, some very high-quality courses, by the way. What we haven’t done is focus on putting complete degrees online. So our online strategy is to put at least 15 graduate programs in the next three years online with a partner called Wiley. And, at the undergraduate level, it’s to take more programs and put them fully online so that if students want to graduate with a baccalaureate degree from Mason, they can do so entirely online. But even that won’t be enough to meet the demand of Virginia and meet the demand of the nation. So our office continues to look for ways to find more accessible pathways to meet the needs of not only traditional-age students, but to meet the needs of adult learners in the Commonwealth and in the nation.

Q. Why collaborate with a partner?

A. Partnerships are essential to Mason’s online strategy because it allows us to focus on what we’re best at, which is teaching, which is instruction, which is spending time with faculty members working directly with students. It enables companies who have created and developed expertise in areas like technology, like digital marketing to come in and assist us with those functions. A lot of these capabilities are also very expensive and, in a resource-challenged environment, we ought to be spending time focusing on what we’re great at and finding partners to do the rest.

Q. How do we ensure a quality product?

A. In all of the partnerships that we do – whether it’s with Wiley and the online partnership or with anybody else – George Mason University always retains academic control of those partnerships. We’re happy to bring on technologies and support services that partners can provide. A lot of times, that makes financial or logistical sense or enables us to scale our relationships faster than we could do them ourselves, but we always maintain academic control. That means we’re teaching in the classroom, that means we’re setting admissions standards, that means we’re setting graduation standards.

Q. How can faculty get involved?

A. Faculty can get involved. If they want to teach online, they can go to the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning. We’ve put even more resources in the Stearns Center to help faculty members either learn how to teach for the first time online or – for those who’ve already had the chance to teach online – to continue to develop their skills. They can also reach out to my office and serve on advisory boards for our various initiatives or e-mail me directly or e-mail my office at to find the right ways to get involved.