Distance learning may traditionally have been a more solitary, text-based domain, but times have most certainly changed. Today, innovative universities around the country are utilizing the latest technologies to help devise interactive, media-rich digital curriculum. These online schools create virtual environments that facilitate improved access to peers, teachers and support structures. What’s more, 21st-century “classrooms” now rival campus-based settings in the engagement and collaboration stakes, and perhaps one day they’ll even supersede their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.
Some universities also adapt their programs by adding courses based on emerging trends and new markets – steps that ensure they remain at the cutting edge and stand out from their contemporaries.
With all this in mind, read on for the 30 most innovative online colleges in the U.S.
The first step in developing this article was determining what makes an online school innovative. We settled on dynamics such as the incorporation of new technologies, adaptability, flexibility, groundbreaking resources, unique degree courses, and how responsive each school is to the changing demands of 21st-century online students and professionals.
We also considered factors like awards and recognition, as well as the presence of any pioneering faculty members. This included a look at the top online universities in the country, consulting resources such as U.S. News & World Report’s 2014 rankings of the best online schools in the nation for bachelor’s as well as graduate education, business, engineering, information technology and nursing programs.
Of course, academic prestige itself is not enough to qualify innovation, so we had to delve deeper. This involved investigating all possible entries individually, summing up their innovation credentials and deciding whether they are doing something in particular to set them apart from their contemporaries and justify their inclusion.
Everest University Online – Tampa, Florida
Everest University believes that there are ten things that separate it from other online schools, which combine to form the so-called “Everest advantage.” Among them are profession-minded programs, flexibility and student diversity – but it’s the Tampa university’s faculty that also sets it apart. Many teachers are industry professionals, which according to Everest gives students “insights and ideas that can’t be taught in textbooks.” A variety of associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees make up the school’s curriculum, with disciplines including accounting, business and computer information science. Everest also provides a unique round-the-clock Student Support Line, which allows learners to get in touch regarding any queries or technical difficulties they may experience. Indeed, such a structure is a major reason why people choose to study here – and recent graduate Rhonda Purcell believes it served as “an extended family.”
Brandman University, Chapman University System – Irvine, California
Brandman University’s educational mission is propelled by the dual goals of “renewal and innovation,” which highlights the school’s inclination to embrace new ideas within its forward-thinking programs. Such an ethos is also demonstrated in its student support initiatives; the Online Writing and Math Community, for example, allows web-based undergraduate students to receive feedback on papers, have their scholastic questions answered and benefit from expert tutoring. Students at all academic levels are additionally able to access live writing workshops that run weekly during term time. And aside from Brandman’s virtual campus, the school has a number of premises across Washington and California – where its Irvine administrative headquarters are located.
Distance Education, Johns Hopkins University – Baltimore, Maryland
A number of prestigious departments at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University run diverse distance learning programs, among the most highly regarded of which is the Johns Hopkins Engineering for Professionals school. Elsewhere, the Bloomberg School of Public Health offers web-based degrees and certificates as well as an innovative free resource called OpenCourseWare. This exciting open archive allows students and non-students alike to download quality Bloomberg course content at their own leisure and learn from its expert faculty. Additional online programs are available from the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences – which offers a forward-looking master’s degree in bioinformatics – and the School of Nursing.
Grand Canyon University – Phoenix, Arizona
In 2014, Grand Canyon University’s online learning system received the Online College Editor’s Pick award for “flexibility,” specifically in view of its business management program. The Phoenix school uses an innovative interactive classroom called LoudCloud that allows students handy access to their assignments, the ability to organize their schedules, and the chance to socialize with fellow learners and faculty. These last include staff members who work solely in aid of distance learners – devoted to supporting them through strong programs that are delivered on a class-by-class basis to ensure an ideal education. Furthermore, faculty in the Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching are working towards pioneering methods of presenting course content online.
Liberty University Online – Lynchburg, Virginia
Over 95,000 web-based students are currently taking advantage of the in excess of 250 online degrees and certificates offered by Lynchburg’s Liberty University. Remote learners have access to far-reaching support services, including the Virginia school’s Online Library and Online Writing Center, the latter of which aids students’ scholarly writing skills. Liberty also hosts its innovative “LUbay” service through its Online Student Center and online bookstore, MBS Direct, both of which enable learners to connect with their peers and sell old textbooks and educational materials. However, perhaps one of the school’s most inventive facilities stems from its strong Christian focus: the “Online Communities” function allows students to watch live convocations, hear from others about spiritual issues and even request prayers from campus pastors.
Wilmington University – New Castle, Delaware
Based in Delaware’s New Castle, Wilmington University has developed an online curriculum of almost 100 undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs. Among them is the web-based MBA – which offers specialisms ranging from homeland security to management information systems – and bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and nursing science. The school also boasts a strong commitment to online educational innovation – as demonstrated by Sandra Bennett, Wilmington’s instructional designer for online learning, scooping a 2013 Blackboard Catalyst Award in the Exemplary Course category. Bennett explained that “many opportunities for alternate engagement, representation and action” are offered in her programs, not to mention “tremendous benefits” to both students and teachers. What’s more, the school has an inventive way for students to earn their online degrees, with the Credit for Prior Learning scheme enabling learners to gain college credits for previous relevant work experience, training schemes or certifications.
Colorado State University-Global Campus – Greenwood Village, Colorado
With its exciting programs, effective use of technology and enviable academic reputation, Colorado State University-Global Campus is passionate about producing accomplished and enriched students. Central to its mantra is “innovative thinking” – namely, the utilization of novel techniques that “facilitate student and CSU-Global success.” A significant means of achieving this goal comes through the Greenwood Village school’s independent advisory board. This group of professionals is responsible for providing constant, original and thought-provoking insight into the ways CSU-Global goes about the business of online education. The school also believes avidly in collaboration – encouraging teamwork between individuals while fostering a culture of respect. Interestingly, CSU-Global was America’s first fully accredited, autonomous and exclusively internet-based university.
Sam Houston State University – Huntsville, Texas
Huntsville’s Sam Houston State University (SHSU) offers a highly regarded online educational program recognized for its quality and value for money. The school embraces the potential of the digital age through such cutting-edge technological facilities as the accessible My Sam web portal. Additionally, the university has boosted students’ distance learning experiences by equipping seven classrooms with interactive televisions. Designed to improve “the student-professor dynamic,” the TVs enable teachers to initiate real-time videoconferencing lessons with groups of remotely located students. As well as facilitating what SHSU associate professor Julie Combs describes as a “face-to-face [classroom] format” for students in different locations, the system has been praised by instructors for its simplicity and dependability.
UWG Online, University of West Georgia – Carrollton, Georgia
The University of West Georgia (UWG) believes that its online courses stand out from the crowd thanks to their prestige and value for money. The Carrollton school also prizes invention – so much so that it has its own online learning innovation coordinator in Jessica Loiacono, who consistently ensures that students are receiving the best emerging instruction and delivery methods. Currently, UWG uses its CourseDen system to offer remote learners extensive support as well as a wide range of state-of-the-art digital learning applications. These include StudyMate Class, which helps strengthen learners’ knowledge of key ideas through interactive activities, and Atomic Learning, which enables students to get to grips with the latest technological tools.
Columbia Video Network, Columbia University – New York City, New York
New York City’s Columbia University offers exceptional web-based graduate engineering, science and business degrees through the Columbia Video Network – the online education arm of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science. Some of these options are so exceptional, in fact, that in 2014 U.S. News & World Report ranked the school first on its “Best Online Graduate Engineering Programs” list. Particularly impressive is the school’s perfect 100 score for student engagement, which may be attributed to a utilization of resources like virtual chatrooms and webinars as well as its guarantee that course lectures have comprehensive compatibility with smartphones and tablets. Online programs are available elsewhere at Columbia University, too, with several other schools and centers offering internet-based courses.
Walden University – Minneapolis, Minnesota
Part of the Laureate International Universities network, Minneapolis’ fully online Walden University strives for a “distinctively different 21st-century” academic environment, which includes the innovative use of technology such as streaming video to enable students to watch and learn from professional teachers on the job. Over 50,000 learners from more than 140 nations are enrolled at Walden’s various colleges, and each of them, the school says, will be equipped with “cutting-edge competencies” by the time they graduate. Moreover, the university offers its students the opportunity to broaden their global knowledge and experience through its overseas study programs, which for 2015 include a public service stint in Nicaragua and a community service tour of Ireland and the U.K.
Central Michigan University Global Campus – Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Impressively, Central Michigan University (CMU) landed the joint-first spot on U.S. News & World Report’s 2014 “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs” list, with full marks for “student engagement.” This may be down to the CMU Global Campus’ stated ideal of being an “innovative learning organization” that keeps its learners firmly in mind when conducting its business. Indeed, Global Campus faculty are actively encouraged to seek out the Faculty Center for Innovative Teaching and the Center for Instructional Design to ensure that online students are consistently receiving the very best in emerging educational tools and resources. Another forward-thinking benefit of studies at the Mount Pleasant school is its practice of teaming remote learners with “online allies” – that is, more experienced web-based students qualified to offer advice.
AIU Online, American InterContinental University – Schaumburg, Illinois
Based in the Illinois city of Schaumburg, American InterContinental University (AIU) has utilized technology to inventive effect in the provision of its online courses. This is most evident in AIU’s Virtual Campus – an interactive online environment laden with resources and features. Among these is the patented and highly innovative intelliPATH “adaptive learning” system, which enables individuals to digest course content according to their preferred ways of working and learning. Students can also benefit from AIU’s digital library, the 24/7 availability of such content, downloadable mobile apps and the M.U.S.E. tailored content delivery platform. AIU’s programs include bachelor’s, master’s and associate degrees in areas such as information technology, criminal justice and design.
Distance Education, North Carolina State University – Raleigh, North Carolina
North Carolina State University’s Distance Education arm can boast a truly tech-savvy reputation. As part of the Raleigh school’s Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) initiative, its web-based education programs utilize an industry-leading technological framework. This means that students and faculty can benefit from developments such as lecture capture in custom classrooms and even off-site recordings – the latter made with the help of video production personnel. New starters can also gain from one of the school’s innovative ventures before they start studying, thanks to a Distance Education Virtual Orientation that helps get them up and running. North Carolina State’s online graduate programs include those in civil, biological and agricultural engineering, while a computer science degree and an MBA are also available, among other options.
Full Sail University – Winter Park, Florida
Winter Park’s Full Sail University prides itself on a “creative approach to online learning.” Backing up its credentials, the school was in 2011 honored with a 21st Century Best Practices in Distance Learning Award. This accolade is presented to establishments that champion developments in remote learning, often by utilizing web-based and computational technologies. Among Full Sail’s innovative initiatives is Project LaunchBox, which provides students with heavily discounted notebook computers loaded with the latest creative software. It’s designed to facilitate “seamless collaboration” between fellow learners and teachers, the latter of whom the university describes as “a team of industry insiders.” Academic options, meanwhile, are created with these new computers in mind and include master’s degrees in innovation and entrepreneurship, internet marketing, and entertainment business.
University of Phoenix – Phoenix, Arizona
Academic advice is available to the University of Phoenix’s online learners via eCampus, a purpose-built community website that also provides access to the school’s library. Other innovative web-based services include online orientation and tailor-made learning software, with the Arizona university placing an emphasis on original adjustable tools that work to bolster students’ strengths. Further support is given in the form of career advice, while networking opportunities exist thanks to the university’s business partnerships. Peer-to-peer communication, meanwhile, is inventively initiated via PhoenixConnect, the school’s scholarly social network. A range of online associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees are offered by the institution, including an MBA with a technology management focus and a master’s in administration of justice and security, the latter of which features a global and homeland security concentration.
Post University – Waterbury, Connecticut
Waterbury’s Post University connects online students to a virtual library network that allows internet-based learners to access over 4,600 journals, nearly 4,000 academic articles and an incredible quantity of historical material. Furthermore, for those business bent, the school’s online MBA includes what its website describes as a “forward-thinking curriculum” with a primary focus on corporate innovation. This enables the program’s students to exercise their creativity and demonstrate their entrepreneurial know-how in both creating inventive new products and finding groundbreaking improvements to business operations. Interestingly, Post’s web-based MBA was the winner of a silver Connecticut Quality Improvement Award Innovation Prize in 2009. The Connecticut school additionally offers a range of undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as certificate programs, with bachelor’s subjects varying from accounting and computer information systems to instructional design and technology.
Office of Online & Distance Education, University of Nebraska-Lincoln – Lincoln, Nebraska
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) innovates through its novel online programs. These include a bachelor’s degree titled early childhood education in a mobile society, which prepares students for addressing the unique needs of youngsters who travel frequently as part, for example, of military families. Meanwhile, the Lincoln school’s pioneering meat culinology undergraduate certificate blends scientific and manufacturing approaches to food. UNL, in addition, understands the busy, on-the-go nature of the lives its web-based MBA students lead, and to this end it ensures that learners can access course materials via tablets or smartphones wherever they happen to be. Plus, among UNL’s other innovative support services is a careers center tailored to the professional requirements of its business school students.
Capella University – Minneapolis, Minnesota
Capella University has pioneered a “competency-based curriculum,” which it believes enables students to learn new, career-related skills as effectively as possible. The school also thoroughly demonstrates its commitment to innovative educational methods with its adjustable FlexPath learning approach, which permits learners to study at their own speed. Further distinctions for the Minneapolis-based institution include two Blackboard Exemplary Course awards, a Distance Education Innovation Award from the National University Telecommunications Network and a Council for Higher Education Accreditation Award for Outstanding Institutional Practice in Student Learning Outcomes. Capella offers web-based bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and certification programs in nursing, health care and public safety, to name but a few.
Western Governors University – Salt Lake City, Utah
Having opened enrollment in 1999, Western Governors University (WGU) can justifiably call itself “an online university for the 21st century.” Indeed, in 2012 CNN blog Schools of Thought described WGU as “a school without boundaries,” and in 2013 Fast Company included the Salt Lake City university on its “Most Innovative Companies” list, alongside firms like Google, Apple and Tumblr. WGU is geared towards mature students – namely those with other work or family-related commitments, which is why it values flexible, self-paced learning so highly. This is shown in the school’s innovative “competency-based” curriculum, which encourages students to arrange their own study times and complete programs as efficiently as possible. The university is also big on personalized supervision, low tuition costs, high-quality programs and, crucially, the backing and input of around 20 well-known organizations such as AT&T and Hewlett-Packard.
Online and Distance Education, Ball State University – Muncie, Indiana
Ball State University (BSU) describes its faculty not just as instructors but as “educational entrepreneurs.” Such terminology alludes to their forward-thinking, ideas-driven approach to online learning – which recently helped the school land the 2014 Strategic Innovation in Online Education Award from the University Professional & Continuing Education Association. The accolade was welcomed by Jennifer Bott, BSU’s associate provost for learning initiatives, who said that it is recognition of the fact that “Ball State is providing innovation in online learning.” “Even more importantly,” she added, “it shows that our innovation is sustainable and based on strategic planning, led by an understanding of what our students need.” The year 2014 also saw the Online Learning Consortium present BSU with an Excellence in Institution-Wide Online Education Award. Among the Muncie, Indiana school’s faculty, meanwhile, is associate professor Terry Wiedmer, a former winner of the Rawlings Outstanding Distance Education Teaching Award.
Northeastern University Online – Boston, Massachusetts
Northeastern University Online’s programs employ “as many technologies as you can imagine” to deliver a cutting-edge digital curriculum. Indeed, Allison Ruda, the Boston school’s director of online experiential learning, encourages web-based students to be “active learners” comfortable with taking risks in a “very media rich” setting. School of Law faculty member, Rick Arrowood, further explains that whereas learners may exchange ideas with “two or three students” in an on-campus environment, the “online format allows you to interact with every single student.” These students could be enrolled in one of Northeastern’s more than 60 bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and certificate programs, including bachelor’s options that range from information technology to leadership. The school’s accolades, meanwhile, include a Blackboard Catalyst Award for its novel online faculty-training scheme and an honorable mention in the National University Technology Network’s Distance Education Innovation Award.
Arizona State University Online – Scottsdale, Arizona
Arizona State University (ASU) is, in its own words, a “new American university” that has won praise from The Wall Street Journal, Time and Newsweek, with the latter referring to the school as “one of the most radical redesigns in higher learning.” Online learners at the Scottsdale-based school benefit from ASU’s technologically cutting-edge LearningStudio, which connects students to professors and peers via live chats, podcasts and narrated lectures. The university is also not afraid of making big decisions to render its courses more accessible to potential learners. This was most notably demonstrated in its unique 2014 partnership with Starbucks for the coffee giant’s pioneering “College Achievement Plan,” which enables thousands of the firm’s employees to gain an online bachelor’s degree tuition free.
USC Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California – Los Angeles, California
The University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering had the honor of topping U.S. News & World Report’s 2014 “Best Online Graduate Computer Information Technology Programs” list. The Los Angeles-based department’s leading online courses are delivered by the Distance Education Network, which benefits students with exceptional synchronous and asynchronous possibilities. This means that online learners can interact with real-time lectures alongside on-campus peers via a free phone line in the school’s studio spaces; either that, or if they are unable to attend they can download the exact same lecture at a later time. Further collaborative, cutting-edge technology is used throughout the programs, too. For instance, Cisco WebEx allows for additional group interactivity, while Skype, online polling and a brand new discussion board are also available.
Kaplan University – Davenport, Iowa
Describing itself as an innovative “leader in higher education,” Kaplan University believes the online learning environment should be as “human” as possible. Its web-based courses – which range from graduate, undergraduate and associate degrees to certificate programs – are supported by physical campuses in Maine, Maryland, Nebraska and, primarily, Iowa. Each curriculum, meanwhile, utilizes impressive technology that makes managing classes and communicating with faculty members and other students simple: interactive message boards are commonly used, for example, while technical support is provided via a live chat tool. Specialist advisers are also on hand to help throughout the entire program. And another key resource for online learners is the Kaplan Online Library, which facilitates access to more than 50,000 e-books, as well as articles, journals and mixed media information.
UF Distance Learning, University of Florida – Gainesville, Florida
The University of Florida (UF) hosts a diverse online curriculum that features a range of undergraduate and graduate programs as well as doctoral and specialist degrees. The latter are developed by UF’s College of Education, and there are two programs in particular that demonstrate its ability to remain at the cutting edge of teaching education and practice: Teacher Leadership for School Improvement, and Teaching, Learning and Facilitating Educational Change with Technology. Among the innovative facilities web-based learners have access to, meanwhile, is the Career Resource Center. This center allows students to discover professional opportunities and plot their job choices more effectively through such inventive features as its Certified Gator Professional workshops, which promise to help online students “craft [their] brand.”
Virginia Tech Online, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – Blacksburg, Virginia
Virginia Tech Online’s offerings include graduate qualifications in ocean, systems and aerospace engineering – and such innovative programs, delivered in a boundary-pushing online environment, are certainly winning plaudits. In 2013, the Blacksburg-based school was presented with an Institutional Achievement Award from the National University Technology Network, with judges praising the school’s development of distance learning alongside its mission to “improve the quality [of], expand access to and minimize the cost of education.” Three years previously, Virginia Tech faculty members Simin Hall and Ico Bukvic earned Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning Faculty Research Fellowships following their pioneering contributions to online education. Further distance learning developments, meanwhile, are initiated at the Center for Instructional Technology Solutions in Industry and Education, which also looks into technological innovations.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Daytona Beach, Florida
“The Embry-Riddle name opens doors,” claims Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide, the online branch of the Daytona Beach institution. Indeed, the Florida school is something of a distance-learning pioneer, having set up its first postal correspondence course way back in 1971. And while Embry-Riddle is naturally known for its aeronautical programs, the university also offers a range of online bachelor’s, master’s and associate degrees and certificate programs, including a bachelor’s in communication and a master’s in leadership. Faculty members are veterans in their fields, too, while a network of over 150 campuses worldwide and some truly cutting-edge technology together provide all the support students need. Perhaps the school’s most impressive feature is its in-house EagleVision virtual classroom system, which is designed to replicate the physical classroom setting in as much detail as possible – right down to hand raising.
Boston University Online – Boston, Massachusetts
Boston University (BU) has a long history of game-changing studies and inventive educational courses. Moreover, BU Online, the university’s digital learning arm, brings this rich tradition of innovation to web-based students across the planet. The school’s forward-thinking approach to online education was recognized in 2014 with a Blackboard Catalyst prize awarded for its “exemplary course” in quantitative methods for information systems. Furthermore, BU Online excels in the realm of student support, with the university’s graduate computer information technology program providing mentoring, writing workshops and career guidance to keep its learners happy and well looked after. The school additionally offers a host of interactive graduate and undergraduate degrees as well as online certificates and individual and professional programs.
Penn State World Campus, The Pennsylvania State University – University Park, Pennsylvania
Penn State – officially The Pennsylvania State University – has been pioneering remote learning since 1892, when it established one of the U.S.’ earliest distance-learning programs. Just over a century later, the school founded the Penn State World Campus and became one of a select few leading U.S. higher education institutions to broaden its reach via the internet. Aptly, the World Campus is based at the university’s Innovation Park, where remote learners have as much access as their on-campus counterparts to Penn State resources – such as North America’s eighth-biggest research library. The strength of such facilities helps make the school’s online courses exceptionally robust equivalents to its more conventional campus-based programs. The unique Center for Online Innovation in Learning, meanwhile, works alongside researchers to explore how technology can drive advancements in online learning environments.