Far away from Johnson Hall, in a concrete box called McKenzie Hall, on the corner of the fourth floor, in a narrow corridor, is a little computer lab that is about to become a lot more important. Since 1991, Professor Cathleen Leue has been working in this lab, quietly running and developing the University of Oregon’s distance education courses and online testing.
It may not be quiet for much longer. Digital courses have gone from unorthodox to innovative, as Ivy league schools have broken new ground with free education from sources like Coursera and edX. Online education has permeated the UO already through programs like Blackboard. The classroom crunch has reignited interest in developing more online courses to reduce the stress on campus. Online education is hot right now, but the challenges that have haunted the model since it’s beginning have followed it into the 21st century.
“When we started in 1996, I thought we were going to be developing courses for the whole world,” Leue said. ”I think we were under the illusion that we could administer whole courses statewide. It’s a little silly when I look back on it now, I didn’t know then what I do now about the logistics involved.”
The logistics for running online classes in the 1990s were difficult, to put it mildly. Limited Internet access and doubts over the quality of online education ended most of the conversation around developing digital courses. Cheating was considered too easy and getting accreditation for online classes was arduous. The model quickly lost credibility in higher education. It was seen as unfeasible and overly complicated. Leue’s lab — the College of Arts and Sciences Information Technology — cut back their expectations.
However, online education reemerged in 2002, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to put all their course material online for free. In February 2005, YouTube was developed and with the ease of video sharing came an explosion in free educational material online. Numerous databases and websites began offering classes in every imaginable subject. About this time, the higher education world began to fear they could be at a disadvantage if they didn’t start developing online content. In May 2012, MIT and Harvard joined forces to offer free online courses in a venture they labeled edX, which started offering five online courses for free this fall. Completion of an edX course comes with a certificate of mastery and a grade, but the catch is that it comes with no actual college credit.
The heavyweight partnership between Harvard and MIT has competition. A conglomeration of universities, including Princeton, Duke, the University of Washington and University of California, Irvine, joined together around the same time to create the commercial company Coursera, which currently offers 198 free online courses. These free online classes cater to hundreds, thousands and even hundreds of thousands of students around the world. They’re called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and they have the potential to fundamentally shake up higher education.
In the midst of these colossal changes, the UO has been debating how to react. Some public Universities like UW have developed dozens of online courses and offer online degrees. Oregon offers zero online degrees currently and only a handful of online classes, but online material has spread through many of the courses offered.
Michael Gottfredson, newly appointed UO president, believes online education is already serving a vital role in education at the UO.
“Online education has a presence and a future at the University of Oregon,” Gottfredson said. “I think there’s an awful lot of exciting stuff going on. What I think can’t be done is making a distinction between online education and undergraduate education anymore. A place is not as relevant as it once was and the methodology is changing.”
As Gottfredson indicated, online education has been seeping into UO education since the ’90s.
Leue’s lab, along with providing technical support for the faculty and staff in the College of Arts and Sciences, develops quality courseware for students and faculty at the UO. Providing online distance courses and online testing has been their main responsibility.
“We started in 1996 with 250 students. Now, we have about 1500. It’s been increasing every year by around a hundred,” Leue said. “This has not stopped growing since, and it’s not because we’ve promoted it in any way, but because it fulfills a need. During summer, we have students who go home to Portland or California, but they still want to take classes.”
Working alongside Leue is Garron Hale, the associate director of CAS IT. He’s in charge of day-to-day operations and strategic planning. Instead of developing many online courses, Hale has been working on the UO testing software for over 10 years, notably with significant help from talented undergraduate students.
According to Hale, a decade of development and real world application in a major public university has produced ”a very robust program.” Leue believes the testing software could even be commercialized. Hale said they were using the software to administer 150 tests alone that day. Nothing unusual, except that they’ve hit capacity in their testing lab.
The demand has led Leue and Hale to reach out to other labs around campus to handle the number of students taking online tests.
Speaking of reaching capacity, one reason the UO is keen to develop online classes is because campus is effectively maxed out. Since 2007 more than 5,000 undergraduates have joined the student body, while the last significant classroom addition on campus was the construction of the Knight Law Center, finished in 1999.
“We are now completely out of space, completely,” Leue said. “This whole enrollment crunch, how do we handle that?”
The UO doesn’t currently face the same level of over-enrollment as UW and many California universities, but that could be changing.
“Later today, I’m going to give my students an exam and they’ll spend the class period sitting shoulder to shoulder in PLC 180,” Leue said. “I think how nice it would be to not take a whole class period out of the term and sometimes have tests outside the classroom. Without the online classes, I don’t think we would be providing enough room for everyone who has to take an economics class.”
The downside to online courses is that online education comes with a heap of unresolved problems. Earning accreditation is tricky for online courses; cheating is easier to pull off and harder to catch; the pacing and demands of online education is completely different from a classroom.
“Everyone learns differently. If you’re not a self-starter, you probably will not do well in an online class,” Hale said. “The system we’re involved in is not all things to all people.”
Leue stressed how important it is to be intentional with developing online software and courses.
“Developing a quality online course is not cheap.” Leue said. “Administrators need to be cautioned that this might not be a big cost-saver necessarily. It takes the efforts of a department and everyone involved to deliver quality online classes.”
Running a class online doesn’t absolve the instructor of responsibilities. If anything, running an online class can be more demanding because teachers need to engage students and come up with learning solutions quickly. That’s why it’s critical that teaching faculty and instructors be engaged in development.
“I’m a big advocate for getting faculty involved in this,” Leue said.
In the past, professors have been perceived as resisting technology in the classroom. However, according to an annual survey by Pearson and Babson Research Survey Group, the stereotype doesn’t hold up. Out of 4,000 professors surveyed this year, 33.8 percent said they use social media tools to teach. Close to nine out of 10 surveyed said they used online videos in the classroom.
“The faculty are interested in having that conversation, but they want a role in shaping it,” Leue said. “I think it’s something we need to decide as a University. Where is this going to go?”