I was privileged to participate in the first generation of online learning. The shift from print and broadcast television to satellite to online delivery was a true revolution in how colleges and universities define distance education and engagement in the 21st century. Today, as a new cadre of leaders step forward to guide the field into its second generation, I’d like to share some thoughts on where the field might go.
What follows is not about technology. I am sure we will continue to see technological advances in the coming decade, as we saw in every decade since the 1960s. Instead, I want to focus on the larger issue of how the second generation of online learning can contribute to an institution’s traditional mission of community outreach, service, and engagement. The first generation of online learning made every institution capable of reaching well beyond its physical campus to serve individuals with undergraduate and graduate courses, certificates, and degree programs. This is now a mature function at many of the pioneering institutions. However, other aspects of outreach and engagement have suffered. Noncredit professional development and research and technology transfer, for example, have lost what once was a central position in the outreach mission at many institutions. The strategic question for the next generation is: how can the strategic use of online learning revitalize—perhaps even revolutionize – the institution’s engagement with important communities that it serves? I’ll focus on three kinds of engagement that can be strengthened by online learning.
1. Supporting K-12 Education
For three decades during the Cold War—from the 1960s into the 1990s—colleges and universities—especially university public TV licensees—supported K-12 education by creating video lessons at all grade levels that were then broadcast over both university-owned and community-owned public television stations. At Penn State, for instance, we developed instructional series such as Investigative Science in Elementary Education (ISEE), which offered video demonstrations of various natural phenomena; What’s in the News, a weekly social sciences series for middle grades; and Art for the Day, a series on artistic expression. We broadcast these and many other series that we acquired from other sources, every weekday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the school year and supported those broadcasts with teacher guides and in-service professional development programs for teachers. That service faded as nonbroadcast media—videocassette and videodisc, primarily—became easily available for teachers, obviating the need for a centralized distribution system.
Today, the issue is not the Cold War but technology-driven globalization, which is bringing new social and economic challenges to communities that now have to compete in a global information society that has made it essential for young people to leave high school with skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM disciplines—that they will need in order to move into careers that require these skills. We can envision several ways in which colleges and universities can use online learning to help K-12 schools address these curricular needs and, in the process, produce graduates who can move on to advanced study in the areas most needed by the new global information economy:
Dual Enrollment Courses Online learning makes it relatively easy for high school students to take online courses from a college/university and simultaneously earn both college credit and credit toward high school graduation. It requires an agreement between the two institutions. Students benefit by earning advance credit toward their college careers, reducing the time to degree and reducing the overall cost. Some states provide funds to support the cost of tuition and fees. The offering college/university benefits by filling vacant “seats” in an online class, by creating a relationship with potential future undergraduates, and by visibly serving the needs of their local communities.
Curriculum Support through Open Educational Resources In addition to offering full courses, colleges and universities can support K-12 education by providing curriculum support through OERs—online lectures, demonstrations, simulations, experiments, etc.—much as they did in the days of broadcast instructional TV. In some cases, these could be excerpted from full courses. In other cases, faculty (with support from the same instructional media design teams that work with them on full courses) could prepare material that address specific instructional needs at different grade levels. When done at scale, this kind of effort requires a close working relationship between schools and the university, to identify needs, to evaluate available OERs, and to organize online delivery and support for the final products. In the days of ITV, production of new materials was often funded by the state Department of Education, while delivery costs were shared by the schools and the originating public TV station. While online learning has become a source of new revenue for many institutions, this service would be self-supporting but not necessarily a source of net revenue, unless the institution could tap into a national system for distribution of OERs.
2. Engaging Professionals and Employers One advantage of online learning is that it allows us to build communities, to bring together people of similar interests across wide geographic areas. This offers a special opportunity for universities to engage employers to ensure that all employees, regardless of location, have access to professional development opportunities. This can operate at the state level or nationally and internationally. It can bring together specialists who otherwise would be too sparsely distributed to be able to justify a traditional classroom activity. Online learning has already been well used to deliver undergraduate and, especially, postbaccalaureate certificates and degree programs that target dispersed professional specialties in a particular employer or group of employers. It can also include more targeted services—OERs, TED-type presentations, and webinars that communicate new research findings and technology transfer opportunities, noncredit management or process training, updates on new regulatory policies, etc. The range of services and delivery modes can be grounded in an agreement between the university and the employer or group.
3. Promoting Inter-Institutional Collaborations
Both of the initiatives described above can benefit from inter-institutional collaborations. In fact, institutional cooperation and collaboration may be critical to achieving sustained success. In the K-12 area, for instance, collaborations that allow one institution to bring to its local schools OER resources from multiple institutions around the country, making it easier for the institution to meet curricular needs across grades and disciplines. Equally important, working within a network of institutions also will help to reduce cost and duplication of effort, while building quality standards and opening opportunities for collaborative content development, bringing faculty from multiple institutions together to improve the K-12 curriculum and to respond to regional needs.
Inter-institutional collaborations built around the needs of specific professions and/or employers can also provide additional value to both the participating universities and the client organizations. Such collaborations can help faculty from participating institutions identify opportunities for collaborative research and consulting with the client, as well as opportunities to develop courses that complement those of other institutions, so that a student can work toward a major at one institution and a minor at another. The opportunities for collaborative teaching, research, and technology transfer targeted to real needs in the profession are significant.
Similarly, multi-national collaboration among universities offering online programs can serve to internationalize the students’ experiences, providing new insights on subject matter, better preparing students to succeed in a global, multi-cultural workplace. At the same time, employers will come to know that their local university will meet their needs by bringing the best expertise available, not just what is available locally.
Collaboration is not a new idea in our field. Over the decades there have been several important inter-institutional collaborations around media-based distance education. Examples include the National Technological University (NTU), the American Distance Education Consortium, the To Educate the People Consortium, etc. The early days of the online era saw collaborations around the needs of the nuclear power industry and other industry groups. The Great Plains Inter-Institutional Distance Education Alliance (IDEA) stands as a model for institutional collaboration to improve access to needed disciplines across state lines. The Worldwide University Network (WUN) is an excellent example of research universities that have come together to collaborate around applied research needs in areas such as climate change, public health, and understanding cultures. It is not difficult to identify institutions that are innovating in one area or another. What is missing today, however, is a national organizational infrastructure that encourages and supports innovation by providing policy structures and business models for collaboration. The K-12 OER environment, for instance, would greatly benefit from national partnerships among producing universities to coordinate access to OERs from different institutions and manage the sharing process. We need a system that is focused specifically on K-12 curriculum needs and through which we can help teachers identify needs, evaluate materials, share lesson plans and support materials within the community and, perhaps, offer professional development opportunities. In the days of video, PBS and several regional networks provided that umbrella. We need to build an infrastructure to support different kinds of collaboration today.
Developing a Strategy
A useful first step would be for a foundation or other recognized leadership organization to convene interested institutions to explore the internal and inter-institutional policy, planning, and business issues that must be resolved in order to develop successful collaborations at the national level. The result would be a community of institutions committed to working together to use our now mature online learning systems to meet the needs of schools and employers at a scale that will open new opportunities for innovation.