Guilford: Upcoming Report on Online Education at U.Va. Could Be Groundbreaking

August 31, 2012

A forthcoming in-depth study of online education spearheaded by the University of Virginia’s Faculty Senate has the potential to be a landmark report, not just for the University, but for all of higher education, the chair of the senate's Task Force on Online Education said Thursday.

William Guilford, an associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, delivered the keynote address at the second annual Teaching with Technology fair, held in the Scholars’ Lab in Alderman Library.

The event, which organizers said drew about 100 faculty members and other instructors, featured presentations and information about a variety of technological tools, ranging from educational software to technology-enabled classrooms. Faculty members gave presentations on their experience teaching with technology, and experts gave tutorials on University resources such as UVaCollab, the Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives – better known as SHANTI – and Kaltura Media Gallery, a tool for incorporating multimedia into coursework.

During his keynote, Guilford described the process the task force used to put together a July report on online education, which presented the first-ever overview of the assorted online education initiatives at U.Va. The report, compiled in just two weeks to meet a request from President Teresa A. Sullivan, was eye-opening, he said, but far from comprehensive.  

However, a follow-up study to be conducted this semester will attempt to survey how all 3,000 faculty members at the University are using online education, a term that describes everything from online degree programs to so-called “hybrid“ courses and traditional lectures that include materials hosted online.

“This could be a landmark study on a level of depth that no one has ever seen at an institution like ours,” Guilford said. “We can really be leaders and produce an important piece of educational research in its own right.”

In researching the July report, Guilford said he was struck by the scope and diversity of online education initiatives at U.Va. The overview report sampled nearly 200 individual online education efforts, including 11 degree-granting online graduate programs.

Guilford said he realized while assembling the report that no one had a vantage point from which to observe the entirety of the University‘s efforts in online education, and that each project was mostly known only to the people working on it.

“I had no idea we had so many degree programs online, or certificate programs online,” he said. “I’ve been here and involved with online education at one level or another for 15 years, and I had no clue there were that many. So it’s absolutely no wonder that pundits can say that we, as University faculty, are slow to adopt new technologies and use of the Internet in teaching. We don’t know ourselves what we are doing. How could they possibly know?”

Because the term “online education” could apply to everything from online degree programs to digital humanities projects, the task force is working now to develop a useful taxonomy to define the information they will solicit from faculty members, he said. The study’s methodology is still being developed; Guilford previously said the results could be ready by the end of the semester.

During the keynote, he also pointed out that parsing online education from traditional education is more difficult than it sounds. Nearly all courses have some online component, even if it’s only an online grade book.

“Instruction and scholarly activities at U.Va. – and I’m sure at any other large institution like ours – have become so tightly interwoven with the digital environment and online technologies that you cannot separate them anymore,” Guilford said. “They are all one big, inexorably intertwined blob. It’s just part of normal University operations and what we normally do. To say that somehow we are not involved in it is like saying we don’t eat.”

Based partially on his own experience, Guilford said he believes that the medium of instruction is secondary to the quality of the course and its instructor. When he began posting entire lectures from his courses online some students stopped coming to class entirely. Most of those students still did fine, he said. Other students, who used the online materials as a supplement to the lecture rather than a replacement, probably did better than they otherwise would have. Still, Guilford ended the practice because he felt absent students were missing something important from the face-to-face classroom experience.  

In the end, students, not their eventual employers, are higher education’s consumers, he said. And if you ask students what they want with regard to online education, very few want the entirety of their coursework to migrate online, he said.

“I believe that learning is a human act, and it’s always been about people, not about medium. I believe that networked technology and instructional technology – more than giving us something new, which is the way that people are treating it now – are returning us, as educators, to something that we were beginning to lose,” he said.

That something is the idea that education extends beyond the classroom, and that instruction – whether it’s to five students or 500 – can serve as more than just a lecture; it can be an apprenticeship of the mind and intellect, he said.

“Digital and networked technology are simply part of our everyday lives,” Guilford said. “The classroom is no more insulated from it than it is somehow insulated from cell phone signals. The organizers of this Teaching With Technology fair provide us with the tools that we need, and they teach us how to wield these tools to maximum effect. But ultimately, every click, every bit is made by us as educators.”

The entire address will be available online.

Media Contact

Rob Seal

Director of Media Management and Managing Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications