Faculty Senate Task Force Releases Report on U.Va. Online Learning Initiatives

July 18, 2012

The University of Virginia is home to a variety of online education efforts ranging from degree programs to innovative online teaching tools, according to a new report from the Faculty Senate's Task Force on Online Education.

The report, compiled at the request of President Teresa A. Sullivan, is the first University-level review of online learning programs, according to William H. Guilford, task force chair and associate professor of biomedical engineering.

"This was simply an overview, a fact-collecting mission," Guilford said. "There are no judgments in this report about online learning. It's simply a matter of knowing what we're currently doing in this arena."

The report comes as U.Va enters into a partnership with online-learning pioneer Coursera. Four U.Va. courses soon will be available worldwide, at no cost, to anyone with a computer and Internet connection. The "massive open online courses," or MOOCs, offer coursework from the world's best universities while strengthening brands and broadening outreach.

The task force consisted of 53 members, including representatives from all 11 schools within U.Va., as well as from the College at Wise and service offices – such as ITS and the University Library – and relevant centers. Coordinators compiled information on online learning initiatives in their respective areas.

Faculty Senate chair George Cohen, a law professor, said the report is an "unprecedented compilation of the things that have been going on in the online area."

"It's a real opportunity to think through, 'What do we mean by online education?'" he said. "There are a lot of different components to it."

The task force sampled nearly 200 individual online education efforts at U.Va., including course supplements, degree programs and online learning infrastructure.

According to the report, about half of the University's online education efforts are directed toward undergraduate education. About 22 percent are directed toward graduate student education, about 10 percent toward medical education, 8 percent are resources for educators, and 1 percent is for K-12 education. Programs directed toward the general public account for approximately 8 percent.

The report cites 11 degree-granting online graduate programs, including six in engineering, three in nursing, and one each in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and education.

Though it aims to show the big picture, the report is not a comprehensive account of every online learning initiative at the University, Guilford said. The task force is about to begin a more thorough review to be completed toward the end of the fall semester, he said.  

"This is a first-of-its kind survey, an overview and sample of what's going on at U.Va.," Guilford said.

Because the University's various online learning initiatives are decentralized, they may be well known inside their departments or schools, but not across the University at large, he said. Technology-enhanced classrooms and other instructional technologies – though a major resource at U.Va. – are likewise decentralized, aside from those managed by ITS. At present, no central office catalogs, coordinates, supports or advertises all the University's online education efforts.

"Broadly speaking, these things are not always all that well-known across Grounds, between schools or to the outside community," Guilford said. "In some sense you might say that we're achieving at a high level, but are not necessarily recognized as such."

Nursing associate professor Emily Drake is a task force member who has both taught and taken online courses. The Nursing School has been engaged in online education for years, she said, and in 2009 was awarded $1.2 million by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to increase graduate-level training for nurses in rural and underserved areas. Online learning is central to that effort, she said.

"We've really been able to extend the geographic reach of the University and offer master's and doctoral programs to nurses who might otherwise be isolated," Drake said.

Online learning – whether degree programs, online courses or supplements to traditional classes – has its own demands and rewards, and when done right is more complex than simply putting lectures online, she said.

"I think that one of the great things that came out from this report is that different schools at the University got to know more about what other schools are doing," she said. "There's no need to reinvent the wheel. There's actually a lot of expertise here in online education."

The task force report also characterizes U.Va. as a leader in the digital humanities, and identified online learning efforts in that area that have huge educational impacts, but are not designed to fit specifically with one course.

"In the English Department they have an archive, 'Mark Twain in His Times,'" Guilford said, citing one example. "This is an extraordinary educational resource that has at least half a million users per year. This is a really remarkable educational facility that is supplied to the educational community, not just at the college level, but at the K-12 level."

Among the faculty task force report's other findings:

  • U.Va. also offers seven mixed online and offline degree-granting programs in engineering (two), education (two), commerce (one) and business (two).
  • UVaCollab is the dominant platform for delivery of adjunct- and hybrid-mode online class materials, and is also being used as the platform for delivery of online-only courses. A total of 4,063 courses (89 percent of regular offerings) maintained rosters on UVaCollab this spring, delivering online content to essentially all U.Va. students.
  • At least 28 extramurally supported research and development programs at U.Va. are focused on online learning. These are found in Arts & Sciences (nine), Nursing (five), Engineering (six), Education (four), Architecture (three) and Medicine (one).
  • Users of University-wide online support services number in the millions annually, while users of open educational modules and resources number in the hundreds of thousands, at a minimum.

– by Rob Seal