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Universities Flirt With Online Learning

Even as debate continues about how problems of rising costs and unsatisfactory graduation rates, innovative web-based approaches to higher education are being piloted around the state and being embraced by students and, yes, even some faculty and administrators.

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Even as debate continues about how problems of rising costs and unsatisfactory graduation rates, innovative web-based approaches to higher education are being piloted around the state and being embraced by students and, yes, even some faculty and administrators. Taking these on challenges some of higher ed's established business practices and, more importantly, the way students and professors think about the learning process.

This is especially on display this week at the University of Texas System, whose regents have assembled in Austin for a board meeting. Among other things, they will consider a deal with myEdu, a Austin-based web company. While system officials are cagey on the details and say it’s not a sure thing, according to the board meeting agenda, it would entail “a business arrangement that would provide enhanced access to online data including academic course, grade history, and degree information.” Also anticipated, per the agenda, are comments relating to the work of a system task force on blended and online learning.

Though certainly not universally, it seems that a push toward bolstering the usage of such technology may be eagerly received among some students and faculty alike.

“Online and blended learning is something that we have done very well,” says Kristin Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the University of Texas at Arlington. It’s particularly been successful in the nursing, education and health professional fields, she noted, where professionals pursuing advanced degrees creates a market demand.

Already in their meeting, the regents have interacted with students on computers in Brownsville during a tour of a virtual classroom in the cyber world of Second Life courtesy of Jeff Wilson, an associate professor of environmental science at the University of Texas at Brownsville. He had just been awarded a prestigious Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award.

And it’s not just tech-savvy students who are getting in the game.

“We have many students who, because of course scheduling, might take most of their classes in a face-to-face environment, but they might take an art history class or a government class or a criminal justice course online,” Sullivan says.

“I think there’s maybe a misperception that faculty aren’t intensely interested in changes and intensely aware of new technologies and new student needs and interest,” says Pat Carroll, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “I don’t see resistance. There are plenty of people who are dissatisfied with the traditional drone-on-for-45-minutes lecture.”

Carroll spent last week meeting with faculty members from the University of Texas at El Paso, and community colleges such as Austin Community College and the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio. Together, the team is building an online introductory to psychology textbook. It is being developed with the help of Carnegie Mellon University’s Community College Open Learning Initiative, representatives from which were also in town.

Ross Strader, the associate director of the Open Learning Initiative, demonstrated how the program works using a similar statistics textbook. Interactive questions and problems in need of solving were embedded within the instructional text. A wrong answer prompted further instruction based on the specific error made, while a correct answer allowed the user to proceed.

Strader’s research has shown that students who do the course entirely online can achieve the same results as those who take a similar course in a traditional manner. However, those who combine his materials with classroom instruction — what’s known as “blended learning” — have higher rates of success.

Carroll, who taught an online course this summer and says, “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” believes that the technology can be brought in as a partner but that it’s important to find a way to develop higher order thinking skills.

Strader’s first demo was followed by one that showed what the course instructor sees when the students do their coursework in the program. A dashboard that shows, question by question, which concepts the students are struggling with and grasping — including how specific students are doing on each topic (and which have failed to attempt the assignment) and their common misunderstandings.

“Once we have this completely done, we can shift the whole concept of what an assignment is,” Strader says. Instead of doing a certain number of problem sets, once students could be told to proceed based on competency — as soon or as long as it took to demonstrate mastery of a concept.

It would also allow an instructor to tailor class time to address student needs. “To me, the potential here is to allow me to be a much more flexible teacher,” Carroll says. “To speak knowledgeably to what the students do know and what they’re struggling with and expand what the value of the classroom is.”          

Gretchen Ritter, the vice provost for undergraduate education and faculty governance at UT, expressed enthusiasm for Strader’s approach to online learning because it is strongly rooted in cognitive science and allows instructors to evaluate student progress in real time.

“For all of these kinds of efforts,” Ritter says, “the proof needs to be in the pudding. The important thing is a commitment to innovative approaches to education in which you also make a commitment to assessing whether or not it works.”

UT’s interest stems from a desire to create more pathways through the pipeline, she says. They noticed that students were stumbling in lower-division courses, in part because of the varied levels of college preparedness among the students. They needed what Ritter calls “better on-ramps” for students who weren’t prepared while simultaneously helping students who were succeeding to continue.

“We are also coming to think of ourselves more and more as part of a network of educational institutions,” Ritter says. Part of that means making sure students who take courses, such as introductory psychology, at a community college are adequately prepared to progress when and if they transfer to UT. That’s one reason why Carroll is working with UTEP and others.

But such online technologies can also bridge gaps much wider than those between institutions within a university system. An associate professor of French linguistics at UT, Carl Blyth also serves as the director of the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning, a federally funded project to provide language instruction materials online. Like Strader’s projects, Blyth’s work and that of his colleagues is free and openly available online, including to those want to attempt to teach themselves.

According to an internal report, for their most popular programs, such as French, more than half the usage came from outside the U.S. “Funny that the University of Texas is producing French textbooks used to teach foreigners learning French in France,” Blyth says. ”But such is the global world of open education.”

While they might be free to students, Blyth notes, the materials are not free to produce. Strader’s efforts, for example, are supported by a group of well-heeled philanthropic organizations. “The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ still has some truth to it,” Blyth says, noting that their materials go through a rigorous and expensive vetting process. But that cost burden doesn’t fall on the students whose learning expenses have been a particular concern of Texas politicians lately.

One of the benefits of this approach to disseminating information, Blyth says, is that it cuts out a lot of middlemen. When he publishes a textbook online, he can skip the textbook companies and bookstores. While controversial — some argue such a process helps with quality control — he thinks his product is superior because it is open.

“We can debate about, ‘Should everything be market driven?’” he said. “If that’s the case, publishing companies cannot publish materials in less commonly taught languages. It’s just not economically viable.” His organization’s products include materials on Hindi, Arabic, Chinese and even Yorùbá, for which there might not have a broad market but are of significant importance with regard to issues such as diplomacy and national security. He also said their materials attempt to reflect languages as they are actually spoken, instead of in the more pure — but perhaps more antiquated — version found in most standard textbooks.

He says the users, who include students and instructors, will ultimately decide how the materials are used. “We’re just trying to make sure people have access to the content. That’s where it starts. We believe the best way to use the content is in some kind of blended learning environment.”

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