U-Va. takes major step in online education

July 17, 2012

The leadership crisis that rent the University of Virginia last month arose partly out of fear that other elite schools were moving into the vanguard of a coming digital revolution, and that U-Va. stood to be left behind.

That argument, advanced by the leader of the university governing board, turned out to be based on a faulty premise. Almost no one on campus knew at the time the breadth of the collective investment that U-Va. was already making in online education.

On Tuesday, the investment will yield a major payoff. The university is joining a prestigious online consortium led by two Stanford University professors. With one stroke, the Virginia public flagship heads toward the front of a potentially transformative movement to online learning on a global scale.

The university’s participation in Coursera, an initiative to offer free online courses to the masses, answers a criticism that loomed large in the recent power struggle in Charlottesville that began with the abrupt resignation of President Teresa Sullivan and ended with her reinstatement.

U-Va. Rector Helen Dragas, who leads the governing Board of Visitors, thought university leaders had ignored the Internet at their peril, like the music industry and media companies before them. In the months preceding her attempt to oust Sullivan, Dragas had read various articles about a coming online “tsunami” that would upend higher education, e-mailing one to a board colleague under the heading “why we can’t afford to wait.”

As it turns out, university leaders weren’t waiting.

Officials from U-Va.’s Darden School of Business first contacted Coursera in April, after learning that the Silicon Valley start-up had attracted venture capital and was expanding from Stanford to other top-tier universities, according to Milton Adams, the university’s vice provost for academic programs. A Darden delegation visited Coursera in early June, a few days before Sullivan resigned.

In the ensuing debate, Dragas singled out an apparent lack of online vision at U-Va., which, she reasoned, seemed to have “no centralized approach” for online education.

That critique gave new urgency to the Coursera partnership. Last week, university officials contacted Daphne Koller, co-founder of the initiative, and negotiations accelerated. U-Va. signed a contract over the weekend. Its participation will require no financial investment from U-Va., except for staff time, and yield no revenue for the university.

Founded in fall 2011, Coursera offers a platform for partner universities to experiment with a vast global audience. Students earn no college credit and the universities make no money. But many in higher education see future potential for both. More than 680,000 students from 190 countries have taken Coursera classes.

“These are some of the best universities in the United States,” Adams said. “This is a great opportunity for us to experiment ourselves, and to try to learn from our colleagues.”

Over the past decade, online instruction has exploded in higher education. But the nation’s top universities have been slow to embrace online for core undergraduate and graduate programs. The movement seemed at odds with the residential, dialectical learning experience that is their chief product.

Now, opposition is melting away. A compelling body of research has shown that some online initiatives yield improved outcomes at reduced cost, an irresistible proposition.

“We don’t want to be another industry that didn’t see change coming and, because they didn’t see it in time, they’re dead,” said James Dean, dean of the business school at the University of North Carolina, which is known for its online experimentation.

Any lingering doubts were swept away in May, when Harvard and MIT announced a $60 million partnership to offer free online courses to the public under the edX brand.

Coursera, chief rival to edX, is responding Tuesday by expanding from four institutions to 16. The new partners include Johns Hopkins University, the University of Illinois, Duke University and CalTech.

“I think people are recognizing that this kind of experience is where a lot of the future of higher education lies,” said Koller, a Stanford computer scientist.

EdX and Coursera allow top schools to expand their global brand and share their intellectual capital with the world in the manner of academic missionaries. Perhaps as important, the online laboratories allow each institution to cultivate an internal digital culture.

“Simply put, online learning can substantially improve on-campus learning as well,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX. “The way we educate students really hasn’t changed much in centuries.”

Some educators suggest that the global online platforms offer more flash than substance, and that financial benefits for schools are dubious.

“There’s no income from it. Nobody’s made a case that there will be any income from it,” said Marva Barnett, director of the Teaching Resource Center at U-Va. “Why is this such a desirable thing?”

Like many of its peers, U-Va. has lacked a central approach to online instruction. Until this month, no one had taken an inventory of the school’s online offerings.

Now, faculty are racing to take stock, and the emerging digital portrait is surprisingly rich. U-Va. offers at least 11 fully online degrees, all at the graduate level, and 15 professional certificates. Scores of undergraduate classes are taught partly online, and nearly every professor conducts at least some class business over the Internet.

“Almost all the faculty at U-Va. are doing it. The breadth and scope are shocking,” said William Guilford, an associate engineering professor who completed a quick tally of the university’s online efforts last week with a 53-member task force.

Sullivan has an ambitious plan to retool introductory courses as “hybrids,” replacing much of the human labor with technology and freeing professors to focus on higher-level classes. Her initiative would go further than most elite universities have dared in replacing human instructors with software.

Partly in response to Dragas, faculty leaders have announced a campus-wide “challenge,” offering $10,000 grants to professors who draw up “technology-enhanced” courses as a way to jump-start Sullivan’s initiative. The deadline is midnight Thursday.

Dragas declined an interview but offered a prepared statement that seemed to applaud the university’s efforts.

“The rapidly escalating application of technology in the delivery of higher education, especially by well-respected institutions, is a significant development — one worthy of substantive inquiry that should include appropriate input from internal constituencies and expert resources,” she said.

“Without the benefit of such a study, the Board of Visitors has certainly not formed an opinion about the University’s future in this area. The Board’s primary interest is in the University’s development of a strategy that promotes the highest order of excellence in the quality of our students’ learning and enrichment, especially in a resource-constrained environment.”

Over the past few years, several initiatives have pushed online instruction into more college classrooms.

One is known as instructional “flipping,” an adaptation of the age-old classroom lecture that is fast taking root in K-12 schools and colleges. Students view recorded lectures as homework, freeing professors to use class time for discussion, group exercises and problem-solving.

Another is “computer-mediated” instruction, which asks students to complete courses online in a series of self-paced lessons, a technique Virginia Tech has pioneered in introductory math. Some skeptical parents, who pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition, wonder whether their children are getting their money’s worth from this arrangement. But advocates say the model can yield vast savings for a university without sacrificing student achievement.

“The student learning has in most cases improved, and it certainly hasn’t diminished,” said William “Brit” Kirwan, Maryland state university chancellor. “This highly interactive online education is going to be a dominant trend in higher education. Is it going to replace every course in the university? No.”

The newest development is the wave of global online platforms, which give Harvard, Stanford and now U-Va. a stake in a movement that Dragas last month had suggested was an “existential threat” to the flagship university.

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