Even though its been around for a decade or more, online education is still a disruptive force in higher ed as solutions to affordability and accessibility become paramount due to declining public funding.
Universities are responding in different ways to this force. Some are pulling back to a perceived core mission of face-to-face and residential learning. Others are scaling back face-to-face learning in favor of fully online programs. Still others are mixing and matching modalities through hybrid courses and blended learning experiences and programs. For those who have entered the arena of online undergraduate education, the question of how to retain and graduate students remains a pressing concern. The challenge is real – online learners can have much higher attrition rates than face-to-face students. Online learners are often older and not the “digital natives” of the younger set studying in-person on our traditional campuses. Online learning can also be disorienting for students, teachers and staff, many of whom remain connected to the notion that proximity matters if one is to provide a quality education.
Given all this, the question of how to build effective online programs for undergraduate students remains an important question, particularly for institutions who have largely steered clear of such initiatives. Of course, leaders in online learning will tell you that online education can deliver the high quality, high touch experience that face-to-face programs can provide. This notion, however, may be held suspect by faculty, staff, and students who remain skeptical of both the efficacy and quality of online courses. This is because the problem of online education, at least at the level of discourse, is that it is being discussed within a binary logic, which pits face-to-face education in opposition to online education. In mapping this binary, proximity is equated with quality, distance with compromise and mediocrity. Even while a generation of online educators have debunked such binary thinking, the tension around online remains quite palpable on many college and university campuses. Given this, how does an institution build new online programming when so much distrust remains? The answer may lie in learning communities – for faculty, for staff, and for students.
Learning communities are nothing new to higher education; they are deployed regularly across institutions to teach collaboration, enhance student-centered learning, and explore interdisciplinary thinking. While learning community models were once considered a disruptive force in higher education—challenging the teacher-centered model of student learning—today they are commonly deployed across a range of educational institutions to build the skills that students need to be successful in college and beyond. Given this, it is possible that learning communities, which have been proven to work very well on residential, face-to-face campuses, might be just the disruptive force that online learning needs, as committed online educators struggle to stem the tide of distrust about the quality and interactivity of their programs. Learning communities by their very nature are designed to bridge social and physical distance, connect learners around core problems, and develop key personal and professional life skills that are still coveted in the organizations that want to hire and retain a highly educated workforce.
My own concern with online learning is made real everyday as the University of Arizona expands its online offerings from a robust catalogue of graduate programs and into the world of undergraduate online education. It is an interesting time for a campus that has successfully built many graduate level programs, particularly ones that focus on professional degrees. At the same time, the skepticism remains, particularly for faculty, staff, and students who are being asked to reimagine our mission by expanding access to our courses and programs through the development of a fully online undergraduate campus. On top of these challenges is the additional issue of providing a high quality undergraduate degree program that educates the whole student – from the first year foundations and general education courses to the specific major and minor courses that make up their final degree.
UA Online has taken this challenge up in several ways.
First, we decided as an institution to build a targeted general education program through a few select courses. Through an open application process, we solicited instructors interested in developing an integrated general education program. The final group of faculty members spans the diversity of our institution, from across the arts and sciences and from the ranks of tenured faculty to our seasoned master, lecturing faculty.
Second, to create faculty community within the general education curriculum we are supporting collaborations across all the three main content areas – natural sciences, individuals and sciences, and traditions and cultures – as well as in the foundation areas of math, writing, and second language acquisition. In short, faculty members are building an interdisciplinary community within a general education framework.
Third, these same faculty members are building student community within the general education program by developing interactive, student-centered learning objects within their individual courses while also creating connections across courses. The courses allow students “talk to” each other in different ways, providing them a sense of participation in interdisciplinary conversations that cut across the arts and sciences. This allows students to think about how to ask and answer questions from a variety of different perspectives and approaches.
In all this, we are building UA Online purposively and in relation to our wider institutional mission, which is to enable students to think, write, listen, and learn to ask and answer questions critically and thoughtfully. Learning communities are one way in which we can challenge students to think outside the boundaries of discreet knowledge systems.
The future of higher education lies in its ability to educate students in ways that better match the complexity of the socio-economic, political, and environmental challenges that we face as a planet. To do this, we believe students must build upon a broad, interdisciplinary foundation that starts from the first day they enter university. The ability to educate students and create community is not bound by learning modality, but only by our own capacity to create interconnections. Through this, we believe students will more likely commit to and stay with their learning plan. And, in the end, they will understand that what they do here is quite special.
Contact Vincent Del Casino at 520-621-0963 and firstname.lastname@example.org