Online Ed -- Getting it Right

A lot is being written and said about online education these days, and liberal arts and sciences institutions should pay close attention. Most universities --- and certainly the public ones -- are being urged to expand their offerings of online courses so as to decrease the cost of learning and increase the reach of college education. In my state, Virginia, our legislature passed an initiative in 2011 known as "Preparing for the Top Jobs of the 21st Century." The legislation specifically listed online learning as one means to make college education more accessible and affordable.

We, of course, want to do our part, but I think we should wade in these waters with caution.

The easy answer is to create MOOCs - massive open online courses - or their smaller for-credit cousins. The attractions are obvious: A professor videotapes his lectures, students are given texts to read, they take online tests, and the tests are graded automatically. A thousand students take the course and get their university credits. Course-credit and graduation numbers go up.

But how many students stay with these courses to the end? What do they really learn? Where is the oral give and take between the professor and student? Where is the argument among students? Where is the thoughtful response to the fine points of a student's paper? Where is the keen eye tracking a student's progress, or lack of progress?

At my university we have been wrestling with these issues for quite a while. Certainly, we want to follow our state's mandate to trim costs and educate more citizens. Indeed, we have a duty at the University of Mary Washington to facilitate learning for our non-traditional students - those who commute to college, who work and have families, who can study only at night or on weekends, or who want to take courses during the summer. We think there is a role here for online learning. But we want to do it right.

Staring at this challenge, we asked ourselves, How can we give students a classical arts and sciences experience in an online learning environment? It's a good question, and a tough one, and we approached it very deliberately. Fortunately, Mary Washington already had in place a Division of Teaching and Learning Technology, a group of thinkers and technical experts who explore our use of digital tools to enhance learning. They were onboard to help. But we wanted any professors considering creating an online course to think hard about the liberal arts and sciences experience. So, to that end, we created a set of summer workshops on just those issues. We asked the teachers attending to explore and eventually list the liberal values that should be part of learning. Those values - such as interactivity, community, reflection, critical thinking, life-long learning - formed the foundation for the online courses they would propose.

The faculty members also received a set of guidelines ranging from principles of learning theory to examples of how Mary Washington's values could be incorporated into a course. When the teachers finished their course proposals, the proposals were sent to another committee to be reviewed and vetted. That committee provided substantial feedback and changes led to approval. Through this process, which started in 2011, we have created 25 new online courses that fulfill the university's and my criteria.

One of the interesting things about our online courses is how unique and varied they are. In one, a geography professor starts the year in traditional face-to-face teaching, but then leaves on a trip to visit cities around the world. He posts videos of his visits to the cities and interacts with his students in chat rooms. An art history professor took her students to Venice - virtually - and they created an online exhibit built on Google maps. An economics professor does all his class administration via Twitter and uses Google Hangouts for class meetings.

While not set in stone, we have established some principles for teaching online. We like to keep our online classes at 20 students or less. We want a high degree of interactivity between our teachers and students, and students and their peers. We want our teachers to be accessible and we are experimenting with virtual office hours. We like to make liberal use of online resources and materials. In short, we want these courses to be as close to the face-to-face experience as possible. And not all of our "online" courses are purely so - we like blended learning. Perhaps one-fourth of our online courses are really a combination of online and face-to-face learning.

Rather than being a chore, our experience in developing online courses has turned out to be an enlightening and broadening experience for those faculty members involved. "I have learned so much about how to teach my face-to-face courses from online teaching," says Steve Greenlaw, a UMW economics professor who chaired the Distance and Online Learning Committee its first two years. "It has made me re-think the whole face-to-face experience."

I like hearing things like that. I also think it's worth contemplating something that Martha Burtis, our special projects coordinator for teaching and learning technologies, once said. Noting that everyone calls this subject "online education" or "online learning," she said we should really think of it as "learning online." I'm sure you see the distinction, and the point.