Online learning has evolved from ‘distance education,” which evolved from the early forms of correspondence courses. The 100+ year span of this history has used various methods of communication, from the U.S. Postal Service in the 1800s, dedicated TV networks in the 1960s-’70s, videoconferencing systems in the 1990s, to the predominant course management systems currently used today. The innovation of CMS’s and other web tools have brought us to what we currently consider online learning. It is this form of online learning, growing at a torrid 20% per annum rate in higher education (Sloan C, 2010 report), that makes it the major trend in higher education over the past decade. But what has been the impact of this trend for institutions of higher learning?
In the graphic below, I list several stages in the “institutional process toward online.” Although other models approach online development from the student or faculty perspective (e.g. Salmon model), I wanted to approach online learning from the perspective of institutional change. More than any other factor, in my opinion, technology innovation in the form of hybrid and online learning has accelerated an array of changes in college teaching, despite resistance from many faculty and even college administrators. In essence, we are in the middle of a “paradigm shift” in teaching– the subject for another post.
What the diagram above illustrates is an evolutionary process from traditional pedagogy to web-enhanced and hybrid courses, to online courses and programs, to online degree programs and strategic collaborations, and finally, to a global vision of online. This institutional process toward online learning is the focus of this post. In Part 1, I will address the first 4 boxes in the diagram. Subsequently, Part 2, the last 4 stages, will be covered in a future post.
When I use the term of “traditional pedagogy” in the context of college teaching, we are all pretty familiar with the model: an instructor with advanced knowledge in a particular area, lecturing to a class of students in a “brick and mortar” classroom. This basic approach to teaching has been with us for hundreds of years, and has tremendous efficacy based on the skill, experience and knowledge of the instructor. I am fortunate in my capacity as Director of our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at CCNY/CUNY to have observed some excellent teachers whose dedication to their students and their students’ learning are inspiring. Without judgment as to right or wrong, much of the teaching at CUNY and beyond still uses the model of traditional pedagogy.
Over a decade ago, I started exploring the potential to bring technology into my own courses when teaching at Lehman College/CUNY. Blackboard was in its infancy then, yet I could see the potential for using this tool to improve learning in my class. In a similar manner, other technology-savvy instructors were going through a similar process of exploration and experimentation with new technologies. Often this process was sustained without significant support from their departments or colleges or other instructors. I would categorize this phase as the “web-enhanced” stage of institutional development toward online.
Early adopters, as per Everett’s “Diffusion of Innovation” theory, were the initiators of web-enhanced courses and, to a large extent, the first hybrid courses on campuses. Typically, individual instructors who already had some experience with web-enhanced courses, wished to experiment further with teaching some of their sessions online. Often these instructors were unofficially conducting hybrid courses with (but sometime without) the approval of their department chairs. This early stage was often experimental in nature, with innovators throughout the academy “piloting” these courses until they were given official sanction. Early hybrid instructors often became advocates for hybrid and online at their institutions, and some went on to lead online learning on their campuses.
With more recognition for hybrid instruction at colleges, and positive experiences of professors and departments, hybrid courses became more accepted by college administrations. Often, faculty development and training in this area started in earnest, and administrators saw the advantage of scheduling flexibility from the standpoint of both students and the institution. Within CUNY, this phase would have happened 4-5 years ago (2006- 2007) with several colleges offering hybrid courses over many disciplines. For example, I was allowed to teach a hybrid course in Fall 2007 at Lehman College/CUNY (Language, Literacy and Technology) after discussions with a department chair within the School of Education. Now that course is routinely taught in hybrid mode.
The jump to fully online courses is a significant one from an institutional perspective. For example, new procedures need to be put in place to evaluate non-tenured faculty and decisions made regarding class size. Other policy and procedural issues should also be addressed. That being said, the move to fully online courses on the part of some early-adopter professors is inevitable. Once an instructor has had a positive experience using a course management system and other tools in hybrid courses, some are naturally going to be interested in testing the fully online waters.
As CUNY colleges saw the need for greater institutional support of faculty in developing hybrid and online courses, many campuses instituted formal faculty development programs. These programs covered both Blackboard training and the basics of online pedagogy, spurring additional interest from faculty who wanted support prior to committing to the hybrid/online model. This “online courses” phase of my model is where most CUNY campuses find themselves today. Faculty, particularly younger and those tech-savvier, are getting more comfortable with the idea of a fully online class or two in their course load.
The CUNY Online BA program, established in the Spring of 2003, was important in jump-starting CUNY’s online efforts. Many professors within CUNY got started teaching online courses for the CUNY Online BA program, part of the School of Professional Studies. This program has been instrumental in helping many instructors get online experience that they subsequently brought back to their respective campuses. I am a poster child for this effort (one of many). The Fall 2011 semester will be my third year teaching a fully online senior seminar (Principles, Practices and Policies of Online Learning) for the CUNY Online BA program. With the experience gained from several years of online teaching, I am now part of a team conducting faculty development at City College for professors who wish to teach hybrid/online courses.
In summary, the first few stages of institutional online implementation are well underway on nearly all CUNY campuses. Initially, this process toward online was started by motivated faculty who served as advocates of technology in teaching. With increasing institutional support in the form of faculty training and incentives for hybrid/online teaching, there has been significant movement in this area and even the hiring of staff to support these efforts. Increasingly we see a mix of teaching modes on CUNY campuses, from traditional pedagogy to include more hybrid and online courses. This trend will likely continue for some time, as CUNY catches up to other public institutions of higher education in online implementation.
In a future Part 2 post, I will continue to explore the next four phases of the institutional process toward online, namely, hybrid/online programs, fully online degree programs, strategic partnerships and collaborations, and global vision and reach.
Note: StrategicPlanning (PDF File of Graphic)