“I have a conflicted relationship with online learning,” says Yandell. “I am both skeptical and excited about the possibilities.”
Skeptical, he says, because online classes have a tarnished reputation for being too easy. Excited because today’s technology allows for innovative and creative ways to study almost any topic.
Even medieval literature.
“There is technology that allows you to explore medieval manuscripts,” Yandell says. “It can turn the pages for you. It’s great and that’s just the beginning. I was at a conference on medieval studies, and one presenter told us how she took her students to a Second Life space where she had designed a way for them to deal with various portions of the text while forced, as an avatar character, to confront the same issues of greed that the Pardoner addresses in Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale.”
In many ways, Yandell’s love-hate relationship exemplifies the fear and fascination sweeping campus as Xavier begins to chart its path into a realm now dominated by for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix.
Exactly where or how Xavier positions itself is uncertain because the University hasn’t outlined a clear strategy—yet. But it’s coming. Yandell is co-leading a group studying the issue. (See sidebar.)
“It will be a serious concern for Scott Chadwick, the new provost, to put structures in place to address Xavier’s proper place in online course delivery,” says Steve Herbert, a physics professor who co-chaired the University’s search for a new provost and chief academic officer to replace Roger Fortin, who’s retiring and returning to teaching this summer. “Everyone knows this is something we have to do and that’s been reflected in the provost search, but no one has stepped up or is capable of stepping up because no one really has the power.”
To this point, Xavier’s foray into online classes has been a random, grassroots effort. It started seven or eight years ago, with a handful of pioneering professors who experimented with online tools such as podcasts and discussion boards to reach graduate students in business and education.
Now online classes, mostly graduate level, are offered through all three colleges. Xavier also is on the cusp of a watershed event. The University is expected to unveil its first online degree—a master’s degree in Montessori education—as early as Fall 2012.
“Our direct competitors offer online degrees, so we need to get busy,” says Gina Lofquist, director for Xavier’s Montessori Education program. “It fulfills the mission and broadens Xavier’s opportunities.”
The availability of online classes at Xavier varies greatly, however, depending on demand in a particular program and the ability and willingness of faculty to make the digital leap from in-class to online.
“Every university is in a huge state of flux,” Yandell says of online curriculum nationwide. “The field of online courses has been the Wild West for many years now.”
The result will no doubt define a revolutionary change in higher education but the process is evolutionary, a phenomenon akin to other major technological advances throughout history.
“Every new technology that has come along has made educators nervous and the public, in general, starting with the printing press,” Yandell says, “and later AV technology, email and the Internet.”
As a result, Xavier and most traditional universities also offer hybrid classes that incorporate traditional classroom instruction with online components.
“Hybrid courses concede the benefit of meeting face to face with an instructor to guide students along the way,” Yandell says. “No one seems to have clear answers about what kinds of courses have proven to be best suited for online components or what steps are being taken to ensure that the same level of rigor is maintained for online and traditional classes.”
Yet the direction is unmistakable, Yandell says. “More online offerings are clearly a key direction that higher education is moving in, and it absolutely behooves us as a faculty at Xavier to address these questions right now. Putting our heads in the sand won’t do anything.”
THE NEXT FRONTIER
Online classes have caught on at Xavier—and elsewhere—because they offer students flexibility and require nothing more than a typical PC to participate.
“The technology is cheap and accessible,” says Cynthia Kelly, a longtime nursing professor who started teaching graduate classes online two years ago. “I’m 53 years old. When I started teaching, you had to be able to write a programming language to use the technology. Now you pick and click.”
Kelly insists that today’s technology is uber easy to use, for teachers and students alike.
“You don’t have to be a techie person to use the tools,” Kelly says. “It’s really old technology. What’s new is the application.”
Online also offers universities a way to attract more and different types of students, Lofquist points out. “The rest of the world is doing it. We need to offer people options.”
The online Montessori master’s degree program is making its way through the University’s curriculum approval process and must ultimately be reviewed by the Higher Learning Commission to obtain accreditation, says Mark Meyers, dean of the College of Social Sciences, Health, and Education. Approval for a traditional program typically takes a year to 18 months, he says.
Meyers isn’t sure how long it will take to get approval for the online Montessori degree because it is the first of its kind at Xavier.
“It could get stopped for discussion at any point along the way because it is new,” he says. “It will be the pilot.”
Traditional public and private universities—Jesuit among them—are moving into online programs at a rapid pace, particularly in the last year. The Jesuit universities with established online degree programs include Regis in Denver, Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., and St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia.
But how does Xavier—or any Jesuit university—incorporate and protect Ignatian ideals of pedagogy with online curriculum? It’s an important consideration among most faculty at Xavier.
“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right,” says Elaine Crable, a veteran business professor who champions Ignatian best practices for online curriculum. “It’s not going to be a correspondence course. We’re going to incorporate the Ignatian philosophy or pedagogical paradigm into it.”
The former chair of the Department of Management Information Systems got on board with online programs several years ago.
“When we started doing this we weren’t worried about the Phoenixes of the world,” she says. “That pressure started coming in the last year with so many pop-ups. We decided it was an important addition to the MBA. Our students needed it.”
Crable, Meyers and other online proponents believe strongly in the importance of maintaining high academic standards and the Ignatian pedagogical ideals for which Xavier is known with any class the University offers.
Proponents contend that a well-structured online class can be at least as challenging—if not more so—than its traditional counterpart. Students in an online class, for example, often are required to participate “in class” by posting comments on a given topic.
“The thing about online is you can’t hide,” says Meyers, who has taught online courses in Xavier’s Department of Educational Leadership. “As an instructor, you get direct reflective evidence from individuals, even more than in a classroom. Everyone has to comment.”
At Xavier, professors choose how much or how little technology to incorporate into their classes, but the University is making it easier for instructors to make the digital leap through a rollout of Wimba, a computer-based platform for online teaching. “With Wimba, your computer is your classroom,” says Bob Cotter, associate vice president for the Division of Information Resources. “The key is that Wimba uses consumer technology. It’s Skype-like.”
CRAWL, WALK, RUN
No matter how easy the technology is to use, using it well enough to teach effectively takes time and practice, says Roger Effron, an adjunct professor in the School of Education. Effron has taught in traditional classrooms on campus and in a host of non-traditional venues, including Cincinnati-area high schools, in Xavier’s video conferencing studio and at an off-site location in Wilmington, Ohio. Last fall, though, he ventured out even farther, teaching a class to Xavier students from his second home in Venice, Fla. Effron says he even recorded a few podcasts of his lectures while sitting poolside.
“Getting used to being an online professor is very challenging,” says Effron, who received good overall reviews from his students. “You gotta crawl before you walk and walk before you run. I experimented with a few things this year. I made lots of podcasts. Next year I will probably add Wimba.”
To be sure, just because today’s students live in the Information Age doesn’t mean they all want to take online classes. To address both needs, Xavier offers multiple traditional sections for every online version of any class. Sometimes both online and traditional versions of the same course are available during the same semester. In other cases, such as with Effron’s classes, the online counterparts are offered during alternating semesters.
Kelly, the nursing professor, says it’s easy to get hooked on the technology with a little patience and some practice. “It’s like something you didn’t know you needed until you started using it,” she says, comparing Wimba to email. “If I can do it, anybody can do it. There’s really nothing special about me other than my curiosity.”
The interest in teaching online courses varies widely among Xavier’s 318 faculty, and the extent to which an instructor uses online components also varies.
“The focus is on good teaching,” says Kandi Stinson, associate provost for academic affairs. “It’s up to the instructor how much technology to use or not use.”
“I’m looking forward to experimenting with online options,” says Yandell. “The key is using the technology where it can make a difference and meet the goals.”