New Frontiers in Education

An open faculty forum on August 27, 2012, fostered discussion of the University of Rochester’s current online course offerings, the possibilities of online learning, and how to maintain and build student engagement in an online setting.  The panel was led by:

  • Rob Clark, interim senior vice president for research and dean of the Hajim School
  • Mary Ann Mavrinac, vice provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries
  • Eric Fredericksen, associate vice provost of academic and research technologies
  • Andrew Wolf, assistant professor and coordinator for online learning for the School of Nursing

Online learning continues to grow. According to the Sloan Consortium, more than six million U.S. students had taken at least one online course in 2010. Research from the Department of Education shows students actually performed modestly better in online courses than traditional, face-to-face classes. Data gathered by the Sloan Consortium also showed that online enrollments as a percent of total US enrollments have tripled in the past 10 years.

Many types of courses fall under the umbrella of online learning. “One way to look at online learning is as a ‘learning continuum’,” Fredericksen said. “There is potential for having online learning tools at lots of points along that continuum.” Faculty members can apply technology to courses based on how much online content they wish to incorporate. Some may complement traditional learning with tools such as blogs, wikis, and videos of lectures; some may use tools to replace face-to-face interaction, while some may do everything online.

Proportion of Content Delivered Online Type of Course Typical Description
0% Traditional No online technology used–content is delivered in writing or orally
1-29% Web Facilitated Uses web-based technology to facilitate what is essentially a face-to-face course. May use a course management system or web pages to post the syllabus and assignments.
30-79% Blended/Hybrid Blends online and face-to-face delivery. Substantial proportion of the content is delivered online, typically uses online discussions and has a reduced number of face-to-face meetings.
80+% Online Most or all of the content is delivered online. Typically has no face-to-face meetings.

Table: “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011” / I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman / Sloan Consortium

One hybrid option discussed were “flip” courses, in which students receive clear instructions on reading assignments, pre-tests, and more online.  They then apply what they have studied online when they attend class by interacting with other students and professors about any issues.

Panelists discussed several reasons for implementing online learning, including recruiting incoming students, offering specialized graduate programs, building alumni connections through lifelong learning, and possibly generating revenues by expanding programs and making learning more efficient.

Panelists discussed the many benefits of online learning, including increased student engagement, active participation, and enhanced learning outcomes. A major theme emphasized by all panelists was the need to create a sense of community among students and faculty to replace the absence of a traditional classroom.

Methods for building strong student-faculty, student-student, and student-content relationships were also discussed as ways to increase interaction. Wolf, for instance, has used icebreakers, blog comments, and Twitter conversations to build an “online learning community” among his nursing students.

Mavrinac shared how libraries can serve as a resource in making the bridge between online and classroom learning by providing content through e-journals and databases and creating collaborative learning environments.  She believes the increasing digitization of manuscripts and rare books can drive learning engagement and community building among students. Mavrinac said, “Digital collections are exciting to students–they can contribute to scholarship, engage with material, and provide activities in community building in terms of collective meaning making.” With all this information available electronically, Mavrinac believes students are “only limited by imagination.”

Concerns were raised about maintaining the academic quality of courses online and how to address faculty’s varying levels of knowledge with creating online courses.  Wolf explained that faculty must be intentional, organized, and prepared in their course design. “Research shows when it is done right, and we pay attention to what we know about quality course design, it can be equal to or better than face-to-face instruction.”

In the future, the University plans on hosting more workshops for interested faculty members. Throughout this process, Clark stated there is a need to draw on all of the University’s strengths and that online learning ventures will be “leaning heavily on IT.”