At first, Alli Bargelski worried the sound design class she is taking online at the University of Montana would leave her feeling adrift.
"What if I don't understand something? I'm going to be lost," Bargelski said.
Bargelski, a BFA student in Media Arts, doesn't feel that way anymore. The sophomore with a focus in filmmaking is inspired by the contemporary content the faculty present in the class, and she is pleased to be virtually immersed with other students in the program.
"They do a really great job of creating a community that's strictly online," Bargelski said.
And if she doesn't understand something, as she once feared?
"With our professors, and Media Arts in general, we're so linked in with technology that if you email a professor with a question or concern, their response is almost guaranteed to be under an hour," Bargelski said. "They're available, and they want everyone to get the most out of their education."
The aspiring director isn't alone in her review of the program in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
In 2006, the first year Media Arts offered a BA, some 20 students enrolled, said Mark Shogren, department director. Now, the program counts some 350 majors, and it's turning away applicants every year.
"Our enrollment has increased dramatically over the last couple of years," Shogren said.
In order to grow beyond the confines of classroom walls and a small number of faculty, Media Arts is now offering a BA degree that's fully online, the first at UM. The classes are designed to offer students cutting-edge material in a format that showcases skills the program aims to teach.
In creating a curriculum that makes online education an experience, the seven Media Arts faculty are also pushing the boundaries of higher education, the way teachers teach.
"This is the revolution that we're in right now as educators," Shogren said.
The department is launching into the future with the support of the UM administration and with a model others can replicate. In his midyear update, UM President Royce Engstrom thanked Shogren and the department for their creativity.
"Students anywhere in the country can get their full degree in Media Arts online," Engstrom said.
Rick Hughes, a professor who helped create the program and served as chair of Media Arts when it formed, said its founders fully intended to develop a different experience for their students and raise the qualitative level of online education.
To say he is pleased with the results might be an understatement.
"I've never been more energized, frankly, and I've been doing this a long time," Hughes said.
A decade ago, Hughes offered two classes that were fully online, both electives. Back then, Hughes had money that he could offer adjuncts to build and teach online classes. Progressively, faculty put more of the courses online.
As the program developed, Hughes said those involved made a conscious decision that they were not going to just post curriculum on the web and call it online learning, as some instructors still do.
Rather, they were going to create a new environment that integrated other websites into courses and curated the best material on a topic.
Their charge was ambitious, but the Media Arts department was equipped to go the distance. The instructors teach web design, filmmaking, animation, motion graphics, still image design, and more.
"That's our wheelhouse, so we figured we should be able to create a great experience based around that whole premise of the things that we deliver," Shogren said.
"By 2011 or so, it became obvious that we had a lot of really good online courses," Hughes said.
The number of students enrolled was increasing, Media Arts needed more faculty to keep pace, but a tight budget meant adding professors wasn't a likely option. To continue to grow, Shogren approached Hughes and suggested the entire BA program be offered online, and only online.
Hughes' response? "Let's dive into the deep end of the pool."
The change doesn't cut out students who want to be located at UM, either, Shogren said.
"We already have students on campus taking the online degree as they pursue other degrees," he said. "They also have a lab strictly for them and can also take other in-house Media Arts courses with instructor consent."
Technology coupled with the energy and ambition of the Media Arts faculty has been key to the new online BA and the department's evolution.
For one, technology connects the students and educators across the globe. One Media Arts student has been in Russia; Hughes virtually meets with him every week and they share screens online.
Also, the students coming into the program now grew up with smart phones and social media. It's not a surprise, and in fact it's natural for them to find themselves in an online environment, the instructors said.
The department uses online discussion boards to get students interacting with each other in small groups. Professors will Skype with students, respond to emails, and meet face to face, too.
"So community is obviously also part of what we're trying to build here," Shogren said.
Shogren was partly motivated to offer an online degree by hearing a commercial on local radio for Arizona State University, which has high academic standards and was offering online degrees in the Missoula market at an affordable rate.
Part of the journey in Missoula was finding the right price point, Shogren said. Recently, UM approved the rate for an out-of-state distance learner at $420 a credit, or some $50,000 for a degree, a competitive offering, he said.
"Now, we have an opportunity to really grow because we're offering it to the rest of the world at a price we think is terrific based on the quality of the courses we're offering and the uniqueness of the package," Shogren said.
The notion of online learning isn't popular with all faculty and students, though. Roger Maclean, dean of the UM School of Extended and Lifelong Learning, said some professors fear students will not get the same learning experience, and some worry they'll lose their jobs as soon as they put their materials online.
"I completely understand their concern, but again, I think as you look at national data, I think we're beyond that question," Maclean said.
Some programs are a more natural fit than others, though. A science degree with a lot of lab work, for instance, might be more difficult to develop online, he said.
Maclean sees the College of Humanities and Sciences as well as the School of Education as departments that might head the same direction sooner than others. In education, he said, it's more and more critical for teachers to understand the role technology plays in engaging students in the classroom.
To UM, an online degree for out-of-state students represents another revenue stream. MacLean agreed there's a concern that pressure to attract those dollars will undercut the quality of future online degrees UM may offer.
The gatekeepers will be the college deans and provost, he said, and the students will be the ultimate deciders. So he said UM will have high expectations.
"If you're not putting out a good product, students, particularly students of today, recognize that pretty quickly," Maclean said.
The down side of the initiative is the amount of time it takes to create a dynamic experience online, he said. Faculty will need to decide if they're willing to commit the resources necessary to develop a strong program.
"And that's one of the biggest challenges developing online courses. If you're going to do it right, it takes a lot of time," Maclean said.
He said the Media Arts degree works because the faculty designed it with the student experience at the core.
An online-only experience isn't for everyone, though. Kat Keegan, who completed her Media Arts course work last spring, has high praise for the responsiveness of faculty and learning materials, but she missed one thing in the online class she took.
"I missed the social interaction. In class, I made 15, 25 friends in the four years I was in the program," Keegan said.
The program has received some notice outside Montana. Last fall, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies accepted a presentation from Media Arts into its convention, a session on designing innovative online courses.
Participants come from around the country, and WCET spokeswoman Cali Morrison said the UM team "got really high evaluations." WCET describes itself as the leader in the practice and policy of technology enhanced learning in higher education.
Shogren said the online degree is also for someone here at home in Montana, a person on the Hi-Line with a computer but without the time or inclination to head to Missoula.
"It's our version of outreach to the rest of the state," he said.
He truly believes the approach by Media Arts allows instructors to reach more students on a more personal level than the traditional professor in front of a class of 400.
And he's excited about driving students to be not only consumers of media, but content creators, creative forces in their fields.
"It makes me excited about the next 20 years of my work life in education," Shogren said. "I know I'm going to be involved in what's coming."