This week, University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers released a report outlining five guiding principles for the promotion of innovation in higher education that will likely serve as a roadmap for other Texas schools looking to grow their own online education programs.
"Rapidly advancing technology is changing virtually every aspect of our lives, and education is no exception," Powers wrote in the report. "The changing landscape presents challenges, but it also gives us great opportunities."
Online education has been at the forefront of a statewide debate over the future of higher education and its role in making college more affordable and accessible. And in the report released Thursday, Powers said that fusing technology with learning science allowed UT to customize course materials and target students' individual needs.
The UT System Board of Regents, the governing board that oversees UT institutions, has been particularly interested in online education. It established the Institute for Transformational Learning in 2012 and awarded it $50 million to develop online degree programs and create innovative teaching tools.
In the future, Powers wrote in his report, UT should be guided by five principles: Ensuring the curriculum for online courses is as rigorous as courses taught in classrooms; supporting innovation and incentivizing faculty to innovate; making sure the technology-based learning model is financially sustainable; sharing content created for online courses across the university; and ensuring that innovation remains a top priority.
UT has pumped millions into initiatives that put more technology in large lecture style courses. This fall, the university will launch the first of nine massive open online courses taught by UT professors and free to anyone interested. More than 80,000 students have signed up.
Although Powers' report was met with excitement in the education community, implementing all of the guidelines will be a challenge for UT. Among the challenges is the fact that UT has not given faculty a university-wide pay raise for five consecutive fiscal years. That might make it difficult to support and reward faculty for innovation.
UT spokesman Gary Susswein said although the university has not identified a specific funding source to support Powers' guidelines, it has provided funding incentives for its online educational ventures. For instance, Susswein said, each professor who teaches a massive open online course was given $10,000 to develop the course.
Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Higher Education, applauded the report and UT's efforts to improve online education. Lindsay said the initiatives would move the university closer to fulfilling Gov. Rick Perry's challenge to create a $10,000 degree program for students.
"I think it is possible and viable," Lindsay said. "By leveraging online technology, the university will be able to increase the number of students it enrolls and lower the cost for courses given."
Bill Beckner, a UT math professor, said it is an exciting time to be creating online courses, but designing them is not easy.
"Online courses require substantially increased effort by faculty not only in terms of presentation and organization of material, but most importantly on how to engage the students," Beckner said.
About 12,000 UT students registered for blended or online courses in the 2012-2013 school year, and that number is expected to grow by up to 50 percent in the upcoming academic year. The university currently offers 14 courses in its Course Transformation Program, where students use technology in large, lecture style classes to promote active learning.
UT officials said the university is working on 36 new online courses and expects to release about two each month in 2014.