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U.Va. Panel Explores the Future of Online Learning in Higher Education

Questions abound when it comes to online learning: What are the specific considerations for teaching online education? How is online course completion/certification recognized differently than in on-site education? How can the University of Virginia effectively maintain its student honor code in an online learning environment?

But perhaps the biggest question is this: Is online learning the future of higher education?

On Nov. 14 in Clemons Library, the U.Va. Tech-Connect Community held a well-attended and thought-provoking panel discussion featuring three of the University’s strategic thinkers on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and distance-based learning – J. Milton Adams, senior vice provost; Billy Cannaday, dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies; and Kristin Palmer, project manager for U.Va.’s partnership with Coursera, a social entrepreneurship and online-learning company.

According to July’s report from the Faculty Senate’s Task Force on Online Education, U.Va. is already on the ground floor of offering a variety of significant online education efforts – ranging from degree programs to innovative online teaching tools.

The report was released just as the University had entered into its partnership with Coursera, which also provides an online platform for courses with other leading universities, including Duke University, Princeton University, and Stanford.

Cannaday said it is important to focus on the student experience, learner expectations and engagement with the faculty member in the development of online education.

“Don’t think about the technology first,” Cannady said. “Unfortunately, what happens is people say, ‘I want to jump online, and I want to do this,’ and they’re not real clear about why what they want to do is so important to do online.”

Adams emphasized that much of online education today is not directed toward the typical four-year college student but to older adult learners who want to advance their careers or focus on a specific skill for a job.

In partnering with Coursera, he said, U.Va. is exploring how to deploy online education within the four-year educational experience – whether liberal arts, nursing, engineering or business – by learning how to use technology to make the student experience more focused and adaptive.

“An important topic today is how do we make great education accessible and affordable to everyone,” Adams said.

On the subject of U.Va.’s honor code within the context of the online learning experience, Palmer explained how fundamental social networking has been to the success of Coursera, underscoring the power of the peer network.

“Granted, right now MOOC classes are not for credit, but there’s a foreseeable time that that will be a possibility,” she said. “There will be pressure for students to deliver quality work. You will be ousted by your peer network if you’re cheating, and the technology will be able to track those cheating patterns.”

Cannaday discussed how distance learning converges with President Teresa A. Sullivan’s vision for a global University, how it increases access for the U.Va. population who cannot always stay for four years, and how it ultimately creates learners for life.

“The whole notion that you would retire at 55, and then just glide the next 20 years, that’s a fable,” Cannaday said. “Technology enables us to be able to have a population of learners that are here for a lifetime — and you can keep them connected for decades.”

Palmer reminded the group that the Coursera initiative is still an experiment.

“In every one of the courses we’re putting out, it’s somehow adding value to the courses on-site,” Palmer said. “The students on Grounds are having a richer experience because we are facilitating part of the content through the Coursera delivery platform.”

Beginning in early 2013, through Coursera, U.Va. will begin offering these non-credit, free courses: “How Things Work,” with physics professor Lou Bloomfield; “Know Thyself,” with philosophy professor Mitch Green; “The Modern World: Global History Since 1760,” with Philip Zelikow, White Burkett Miller Professor of History; “Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses, Parts I and II,” with Edward D. Hess, Professor of  Business Administration at the Darden School of Business; and “Foundations of Business Strategy,” with Michael Lenox, Samuel L. Slover Research Professor of Business at Darden.

In discussing the economic model for online education, Cannaday emphasized the importance of enlarging the number of people who engage in distance-based learning, especially the non-traditional adult learner. At the moment, venture capitalists are underwriting the costs of experimentation with organizations like Coursera as MOOCs gain momentum and expand their offerings.

He believes that, as online learning becomes more of a norm, these costs will go down. “Nevertheless, we need a business model that really does have a long view that deals with faculty development,” he said. “This is not talked about a lot, but it’s a cost.”

What, then, is the future of online learning in higher education? Perhaps the future is already here.

Students now have greater access than ever before to the world’s foremost experts.  Professors can now reach more students in one course than they could have hoped to in a lifetime. Universities can now teach millions worldwide, and make time on-campus for interactive in-class learning.

By “flipping the classroom,” instructors can now assign students to gather online video materials ahead of time, so face-to-face time in the classroom is spent on higher-level engagement.

“For people who are older – who have a job and a family – the flexibility of online education has tremendous value, and so that certainly is a future that I expect will grow,” Adams said. “But how will we use online education at a place like U.Va. that’s based on residential education?

“We will use technology to enhance what we already do to produce a higher quality learning experience. Then it will prove its worth.”

Tech-Connect regularly hosts brown bag seminars and other events around exciting new tools, services and emerging ideas in the world of technology.

Tech-Connect will hold its third panel Nov. 27 from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Harrison Small Auditorium when the topic will be “How to Find Online Education Offered at U.Va.”

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