After UI's short-lived experiment, Web courses, enrollment on rise

After UI's short-lived experiment, Web courses, enrollment on rise

URBANA — MOOCs, moodles, wikis.

What's your online learning IQ?

A MOOC is a "massive, open online course." Moodle is an open-sourced e-learning platform. And with wikis, many different users contribute to online content.

At the University of Illinois, all these strategies, and more, are being used by students and professors as they increasingly experiment with online education in a post-Global Campus environment.

The UI's $18.2 million experiment was short-lived, but lessons learned from Global Campus are shaping the future of online education at the university. Those lessons include maintaining faculty ownership of programs, offering lots of support to new, especially nontraditional students, and adopting a model that is not revenue-driven.

Global Campus, envisioned as a fourth, virtual campus, launched in January 2008 and was touted by former UI President B. Joseph White and the board of trustees. It would be run like a university unit, separate from the other three campuses and offer a wide range of courses for degree- and certificate-seeking students from around the world. But big enrollment gains never materialized and trustees pulled the plug in spring 2009. Any online programs developed by Global Campus shifted back to the campuses, which is where most faculty wanted them to be housed all along.

Three years later, U of I Online ( has emerged as a sort of "clearinghouse" for online programs on all three campuses, said Christophe Pierre, the UI's vice president for academic affairs.

Pierre, who joined the university administration last fall, said that when it comes to online education initiatives, "there's a lot going on already. I was impressed with the activities on the campuses. I think we're in good shape."

'Let 1,000 flowers bloom'

As for future plans for online education at the university, any development would follow the current model, meaning they'd come up from the departments, colleges and campuses, not central university administration, he said.

"Most of the energy is on the campuses right now. Each campus is doing interesting things," said Nicholas Burbules, an education professor on the Urbana campus who has taught at least a dozen online courses since 1997. "And it's striking how different the models are. Even within my college, we have very different program designs and models," he said.

The approach seems to be, "Let 1,000 flowers bloom. See which ones bloom and take off and which ones don't," Burbules said.

Part of the appeal of online education, from a professor's standpoint, is to experiment with developing courses and programs, he said. The Global Campus approach, which focused on standardizing models, did not promote innovation or diversity of models, Burbules said.

Those various models can include eight-week courses, 12-week courses, 16-week courses. Courses that require some on-campus involvement and some that do not.

Next semester Jonathan Tomkin, associate director of the School of Earth, Society and Environment within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will offer a new kind of online course: the MOOC.

Popularized by a Stanford University online course on artificial intelligence that drew over 100,000 students, MOOCs are a means to reach many students. The UI MOOC will be on global sustainability and is open to UI students, who can receive credit for the course, and non-UI students from anywhere who will not receive credits.

"The idea is students work in this collaborative manner in projects and assess each others' work, and this means you (the professor) can potentially teach a large number of students ... You're more of a guide or facilitator," Tomkin said.

UIUC's first online degree

Nationally the growth rate for online enrollments has eased somewhat, but the rate continues to be higher than that for total higher education student enrollment, according to "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011" by the Babson Survey Research Group, which annually assesses the state of online education.

Thirty-one percent of all higher education students now take at least one course online, the report said. During the fall of 2010, over 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course, an increase of 560,000 from previous year, the report said. That 10 percent growth rate is the second lowest since 2002.

At the University of Illinois, the number of online enrollments has risen from 30,248 in 2007 across all three campuses to 37,835 in 2011. Most enrollments are on the Chicago campus, followed by Springfield, then Urbana-Champaign. Urbana online enrollments have grown from 5,845 in 2007 to 11,222 in 2011.

More programs also are coming online, including a new bachelor's degree in earth, society and environmental sustainability this fall. Urbana has 48 programs and 768 online courses, the bulk of which are master's and certificate programs. Springfield and Chicago have 25 and 41 respectively.

With the sustainability degree, the campus has offered it as a traditional, on-campus program for a few years. Beginning this fall, students can complete the work for it entirely online, entirely on campus or a little bit of both.

The bachelor's degree in sustainability will be the first online B.A. degree that the Urbana campus has ever offered, Tomkin said. In recent years, most online courses in sustainability have included UI students, plus about five to 10 students from across the country, Tomkin said.

"The college has put lot of resources in to make online courses state-of-the-art and highly interactive," he said. For example, students can meet in a virtual lounge and write and discuss topics synchronously or respond when they have time.

"We stopped asking the question, 'Which is better than the other? An in-class or online course?' We've learned each venue or medium has its own distinct advantages and own distinct disadvantages," Burbules said.

'A whole new environment'

In recent years, online education has become "a whole new environment, fueled by a combination of things," said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the UI Springfield. Those include "the economy and the lingering effects of recession (it's difficult for students to come to campus or pursue their education without working if not full time at least half time) and the wide variety of technologies available" to teachers and students, he said. Because obtaining a college degree costs more compared with previous years, many students are interested in completing the degree requirements quickly or while working as much as possible.

At the same time, mobile technology, such as smart phones and tablets, helps students become more engaged, virtually that is, with their professors and with other students.

Since online education began developing in the late 1990s, technology has improved and the threshold of what you need to know is lower than 15 years ago, Burbules said. (For example, an instructor used to have to know HTML to build a website.) That lower threshold now makes e-learning less intimidating for faculty, Burbules said.

As the UI moves toward adding online programs like the sustainability degree, Charles Evans, an associate vice president for academic affairs and former dean of Global Campus, said he believes growth will come from students who in previous years looked to for-profit colleges or community colleges to complete their online degrees or take online courses.

"We're getting our capacity ready to support a greater number of students," he said. But exactly how the university will scale programs will be a challenge going forward, he said.

"Scalability was a big word with Global Campus," Evans said. Meaning, programs might have been developed by faculty but to scale the course, to offer it to many more students, it would have to be modified or taught by others. Why develop a course if you lose ownership of it?

"We lost the touch, the real intimate touch and ownership of faculty," Evans said.

"We're seeing scaling work well at UIS," he said, however scaling up "requires us to rethink how we can grow our faculty to respond to that need."

At the same time, the university will need to address the growing needs of online students whose needs are often different from on-campus ones.

One of the good things that came out of the Global Campus was realizing a program needs to be driven by student success, Evans said. And student success requires support for students. Online students, particularly non-traditional students, need a lot of support, especially at the beginning, he said.