The University of Illinois is trying to build an online learning platform that is called, "Global Campus." A recent report to the Board of Trustees indicated that the effort has had a slow start. (see commentary at Yahoo blogs on online learning and the global campus.)
The Illinois project is trying to deliver complete online programs at a level of quality and rigor that is similar to the campus-based experience. This is an appropriate goal and an important activity.
There are numerous challenges for mainstream educational institutions to overcome in creating robust online programs, but in many ways I think we have not been sufficiently bold in our approach to this work. The Global Campus is competing with the for-profit universities and community colleges that have an enormous head start in working with non-traditional students to create online programs (see this report on online education in the state of Illinois and my analysis) that fit these students. This just may not be the right niche for research intensive universities, but it seems to me that we do have different opportunities to engage in online learning activities that goes beyond the current online learning approaches.
Opportunities for Research Universities
There are a number of unique aspects to research universities that give us the opportunity to create a different kind of online learning presence.
Open our research laboratories to the world. Since we have active scientists who are discovering new knowledge and creating new ideas, art and so forth, we should think about ways to open these activities to people interested in learning. There are a variety of ways that we can open scientific lab, art studios and other similar activities. In some instances this can be done by making the tools available to people. For example, at the U of Illinois Beckman Institute, they have created the "Bugscope" that allows elementary school students use a scanning electron microscope. In addition to opening specialized tools to the public and students, we can open databases and other types of experimental processes in order to show this work. We can take the public inside our art museums, art and architecture studios. We can provide audio and video of music, dance, theater and many other other types of cultural experiences that get produced on our campus.
Open our classrooms to the world. There are various ways that we can open our classrooms to the world. We can adopt the "open course" idea that has been chosen by MIT in which the course material is available to the public. This may include podcasts of lectures by faculty, slides from lectures, lecture notes and a variety of other tools. We could also provide limited access to various classes as they are in progress where outside students could follow the progress of the course while it is taking place and perhaps have limited opportunities to interact with students in the classroom and/or the instructor.
Creating learning communities led by faculty. A bolder effort might involve the creation of online learning communities that would span graduate students, undergraduate students and public in ways to explore ideas and conduct learning activities. Rather than engage in educational activities in which graduate education is separate from undergraduate education and this is walled off from public participation, it is possible to create participatory learning environments in which there are various levels of learning that are integrated into a multilayer learning community. (My notes about possible roles in such a learning community and an example of levels of social participation at museums that can be adapted to other learning settings.)
Link our outreach activities to educational options. The University of Illinois and many other universities have a significant online presence in its outreach activities. For example, U of I Extension maintains many websites on a variety of topics of interest to the public. Among these websites there is a vast amount of information related to nutrition, horticulture, farming, family and so forth. From looking at the page views in the tracking of these pages, we know that millions of people are looking at these webpages, particularly the pages about horticulture.
Much of the material that appears in these websites is created by faculty and staff who work side by side with researchers and teachers and yet there is little or no online connection between the work available to the public and the teaching and research. Let me try to illustrate what I mean by this horticulture example.
As a gardener I can find out some useful things about the asparagus beetle. So let's say that I get very interested in all the various bugs that crawl around the garden and I would like to find out more about in general about garden pests. U of Illinois Extension provides an extensive array of helpful resources including newsletters for gardeners, printed materials, a calendar of F2F educational programs, and a chance to ask questions to Extension personnel. Behind this work is a department of faculty who teaches undergraduates and graduates about this work and a variety of research projects. Yet other than occasional links at the bottom of the pages, there are no links between the outreach/extension activities and knowledge and these other efforts. In short the public is very engaged in reading and interacting with these outreach resources has little or no chance to digging deeper into the other educational and research activities of the University of Illinois. Although there are some links from the research and educational parts of the unit to extension and outreach activities, these are also limited. As I noted earlier the outreach work gets lots of public attention, but if these people who find the outreach material were interested in looking more deeply into richer educational experiences such as taking courses or becoming a horticulturist, they would not easily make the connection between the outreach experiences and the educational courses. Likewise, if someone where interested in understanding more about the research behind the advice regarding fertilizers, weed control, and pesticide, they would have little idea how the outreach work is connected to the scientists who study this topic. By connecting this outreach work to the educational and research activities more directly there would be a natural way in which a person could be engaged in deeper learning opportunities.
Build a learning structure from the quick answer to the creative process
In short, what I am suggesting is that research universities have the opportunity to build an online learning infrastructure from the answers to "frequently asked questions" through intensive group experiences (e.g., classrooms) to the creative process (e.g., laboratories, studios, etc.). Although it may be possible for other types of learning organizations (for-profit universities, etc.) to build these structures, at present most of these other universities are focused on the "classroom" portion of the online learning process. Many of these organizations don't have a "research, discovery, creative process" to link to because this is not an expectation of their faculty. Likewise, few universities have a well-organized outreach program that can engage the public in general information.
There are many questions that remain to be answered about this idea. Is there a robust financial model that can sustain such a learning environment? Are there integrated software tools that would allow for this range of learning experiences? How do you engage faculty in participating in creating a structure like this? What types of support do you need to build such a structure? Are there particular science or humanity niches that the U of Illinois or other universities might fill in this structure and others that will go undeveloped or left to others to complete?
As I mentioned at the beginning I think these times call for bold ideas. These ideas would mean creating online learning experiences that are more complex than most existing models. The first steps may be to inventory the various online activities that are currently taking place and try to put them into a larger framework. This means finding the laboratory and creative activities that already have an online presence. It means finding all the online outreach activities and continuing education courses, then building links between the outreach, courses and laboratories. These first steps would be an effort to put together this jigsaw puzzle of pieces into an overarching framework and then begin to fill in the missing pieces.