Early Adopters of Online and Distance Education Continue to Innovate

Are you ready to find your fit?

By Jennifer Roland

Online learning is quickly becoming an important part of the college experience, whether students are supplementing their on-campus experience with courses from their own university, taking advantage of expertise at distant institutions with Massive Open Online Courses and for-credit courses, or completing a degree completely online around work and family obligations.

A recent study from the Online Learning Consortium shows that 30 percent of students are enrolled in at least one online course – and 14 percent are enrolled completely online.

As more colleges and universities get into the online game, we wanted to look at how online and distance learning got started at some of the pioneers and see what they’re doing to serve their students’ needs today.

Creating an Online Learning Revolution at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In 1960, professors at the UIUC created the first online learning system, the Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO). This system grew from a series of on-campus terminals to a worldwide network of terminals and mainframes. In addition to the online learning tools we use now, PLATO is credited for the genesis of general use online applications, such as email, forums, chat, and multiplayer games.

Although PLATO began as a small project in the sciences, this early success in the digitization of education has become a campus-wide focus. According to Adam Fein, Assistant Provost for Education Innovation at UIUC, online learning is part of the campus strategic plan with a focus on making learning accessible and flexible to meet the needs of today’s students.

Fein said nearly 22,000 of the university’s 45,000 enrolled students are online, and even some of the residential students take advantage of the school’s online offerings.

Online learning “creates accessible paths, particularly for the adult learners who can’t leave their families” for full-time, on-campus study, Fein said. And, he continues, summer and winter online sessions let students take extra coursework or study while at summer internships, ensuring that they complete their degree program in a timely manner.

In fact, the online learning experience is so integrated into UIUC, they no longer track whether students are online or on campus – a student is a student, no matter how they connect with their coursework and teachers.

A Focus on the Student at Nova Southeastern University

Created with a focus on integrating technology into higher education, NSU created a distance education program for educators in 1972 and offered its first electronic classroom in the College of Engineering and Computing in 1985.

One of the early presidents of NSU, Abraham Fischler, famously said, “the student is the classroom.” That sentiment, according to Michael Simonson, associate professor of instructional technology and distance education in the Fischler College of Education, guides how the university grows and changes.

Many schools are working to add more online offerings, he said, but Nova is actually adding more face-to-face learning to meet student needs. When they add programs and design new courses, the administrators look at what the student needs and what they can provide to achieve that – the delivery mechanism must match, and they have no preconceived notions that courses must be online simply because that is what Nova is known for.

In Simonson’s college, 95 percent of the instruction is at a distance. Throughout the rest of the university, he said, the percentage sits near 50. And with campuses in Florida (the main campus is in Four Lauderdale/Davie, and satellite campuses sit in Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Fort Myers), Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas, Nova is uniquely situated to “bring the learning to the student, not force the student to come to them.”

A Blending of Delivery Methods at Pennsylvania State University

Penn State is our earliest innovator in distance learning, offering free courses on agricultural topics by mail in 1892, radio broadcast in the 1920s, and by closed circuit television with two-way audio in the 1950s. These long-distance offerings continued until the advent of widespread computing. In fact, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream took a $5 direct mail course on making ice cream.

As Penn State has shifted to online learning, explained Karen Pollack, assistant vice provost for online undergraduate and blended programs, they’ve continued to focus on flexibility: “Our goal is to meet student needs at all levels with more than just a residential class.”

Additionally, Pollack said they want to ensure that all online offerings not only provide the same level of academic rigor, but also the “authentic Penn State experience.” Students can build relationships with faculty and peers through online means as a supplement or replacement for in-person interaction.

With this focus, all degrees – whether online or face-to-face – will offer the same level of quality and prestige as students look past college to post-graduate learning and career plans.

As online learning grows and becomes even more interactive, we’ll continue to check in with the early trendsetters in distance learning and our more recent leaders.

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