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Original Article:
Technological Transformation (summer 2002)


Online Instruction Proliferates
on Campus

July 2008

THE EXPANSION of technology in higher education seems to be an unstoppable force. There is no avoiding it, even for those who see it as an encroachment on the purity of academia. In the summer of 2002, National CrossTalk examined an ambitious national program, run by the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), to use computer technology in large introductory courses as a means of improving instruction and cutting costs. Since that time, interest in such approaches has only grown.

“We’ve expanded well beyond the initial 30 schools in the original process,” said Carol Twigg, NCAT’s executive director. “There are two additional national projects, with 20 schools in the first project, and 60 in the second.”

The first of the two projects, called Roadmap to Redesign, lasted from 2003 to 2006, while the second, called Colleagues Committed to Redesign, began in January 2008. “We took the lessons learned from the original Pew-funded process and streamlined it so schools wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Twigg said.

NCAT is also putting major emphasis on developing state-funded programs that replicate the national process. “We have six state programs going on—in Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Maryland, and SUNY in New York,” Twigg said. “SUNY has 60 institutions, and they’re going to award ten grants, similar to the national program, but in this case the state is providing the funding.” That will ultimately result in 70 to 80 new redesigns by 2010.

“We are in discussion with other state systems to launch additional programs,” Twigg said. “It’s really exploding. We’ve gone from the original 30 schools to about 200, in one form or another.”

The corporate world is getting involved as well, through the Redesign Alliance, a national association for colleges and companies. “The Corporate Associates Program involves companies that are members of the alliance—mostly higher ed publishing and software companies whose materials are used in the redesigns,” Twigg explained.

The corporate associates (of which there were five in the 2007-08 academic year) are paying an annual fee of $50,000. Smaller companies can also participate in the alliance for $5,000 per year. “Companies that pay the $50,000 membership get more in return,” Twigg said. “The smaller companies can’t afford that, so we give them a chance to get involved.”

The proliferation of programs such as these speaks to the desirability of what they promise. But do they really work as intended? Do they pay off?

Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, has his doubts. “I still have my reservations about that,” he said. “Carol Twigg is now in the third voluntary semi-funded project that involves individual institutions. Each successive round has been a little less successful than the last. The first 30 programs were spectacularly successful, but in the ensuing rounds, there has been a little less bonsai spirit.” Ewell, who also serves on NCAT’s board of directors, suggested that the declining success of the programs is “largely because institutional commitment is less because they’re not receiving any money.”

As to the savings generated by online courses, Ewell said that it is disingenuous to suggest that they are plowed back into academic programs. “The bottom line is fewer faculty,” he said. “If there is no increase in what one might call efficiency in the instruction, there’s no point in doing this. You can go in with a straight face and say you’re going to grow enrollment and not have to get rid of anybody, but this will result in fewer full-time faculty per student. That clearly is the case.”

Nevertheless, some faculty find this very exciting, and are anxious to embrace the new technology. “What you’re seeing is a quiet revolution, a generational shift,” Ewell explained. “Thirty-year-old faculty like the teacher technology. They’re good at it. They understand it.”

A case in point is Felicia Friendly Thomas, a professor of clinical psychology at Cal Poly Pomona who was featured in the 2002 article. At the time, Thomas had to master the new teaching technology in order to conduct a redesigned introductory psychology course, and has since become an advocate for online learning.

“I have done a number of research studies on learning in the online environment, and presented at numerous conventions over the course of the last four years in every imaginable topic of online learning and instruction,” Thomas said. In 2005, for instance, at the Western Psychological Association convention, Thomas gave a presentation entitled, “Can one teach about human behavior in a non-human environment?”

While Cal Poly was considered only “partially successful” in its redesign program, according a report by NCAT, and did not complete or fully implement its redesign plans, online instruction is more popular there than ever.

“At Cal Poly we have pre-registration, and this is one of the courses that closes almost immediately on the first day it is available,” Thomas said of her online introductory psychology course. “It’s extremely popular. I usually have twice as many students trying to get into the course as there are spaces.”

The use of online resources is popular in a growing number of non-introductory and upper-division courses as well, and Cal Poly has licensed an educational database program called Blackboard to help facilitate this. “All of our courses are automatically uploaded into Blackboard,” Thomas said. “An instructor can decide of he or she wants to use some, all or none of the features available within Blackboard. Even the regular, traditional courses have that available to them.”

Most of the resistance to online pedagogy comes, predictably, from faculty. “A few recalcitrant faculty can stop dead the process,” Twigg said. “Something that will typically happen in a research university is that the research-oriented faculty are resistant. One of the reasons we chose to focus on introductory courses was because there is less possessive ownership of introductory courses, and generally star faculty are not involved in them.” Peter Ewell was more blunt, referring to the courses as “mega-classes that nobody wants to teach anyway.”

The students, on the other hand, seem to be embracing the new technology. Thomas says that they are demanding online courses, and Twigg concurs. “Students like it,” she said. “They become big advocates of changing other courses. We have plenty of stories of students who failed in the traditional course, and then passed the redesigned course.”

A lot of the math programs, in particular, show impressive results, according to Twigg. “They make gains in scores initially, and then the sores continue to go up,” she said, citing the University of Alabama as an example. “In Alabama, prior to their original redesign, only 40 percent of students passed college algebra; after the redesign, in the first year in implementation, it was 60 percent. That number has increased steadily to 80 percent.”

Another much-touted success story is the Math Emporium at Virginia Tech, a facility with hundreds of computers, staffed by faculty and teaching assistants, where thousands of students satisfy introductory math requirements.

“I don’t think there is as much resistance to using educational technology as there was ten years ago–it’s how things get done,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Cost Project, an organization that focuses on college affordability and institutional productivity. “When it is done comprehensively it clearly both saves money and produces better results.” She cautioned, however, that the technology has to be used in the right way. “Whether this is resulting from comprehensive, thoughtful redesign–whether it’s something other than just putting the Internet in the classroom–remains to be seen.”

—Todd Sallo

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