This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).

Continuing education units, professional schools, and summer session divisions have been centers for the development of online initiatives that serve nonresidential students, experiment with new technologies, and support pedagogical innovation. On campuses where there is currently significant online content being developed and delivered, initial stages of this activity can often be traced back to the continuing education area or to professional schools providing courses for working adults. Continuing education and summer session leaders at many liberal arts institutions with strong focus on traditional age undergraduate students have watched their peers at land-grant and large private institutions develop quality online educational offerings for the past ten or more years. Participation in professional associations active in the assessment and improvement of online education, most notably the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) for this group of higher education professionals as well as Sloan Consortium and Educause, brought knowledge of current best practices and successful projects at peer schools. During the past decade these academic leaders, even at institutions with little drive toward online activities, have been able to build small initiatives, pilot projects that enabled faculty to test new teaching models and developed organizational capacity to support additional projects as the online evolution continues.

At liberal arts colleges and universities where highly regarded residential undergraduate education is considered a sacrosanct core of activity very little engagement with online education had occurred until just within the past two years. For these four-year degree programs comprised of relatively small numbers of students living in a campus environment and taking courses from highly ranked faculty, online education has been viewed as something of an oxymoron. Why, then, has there been something of a rush to action and eager attention paid to online efforts at these places of late?

Commentary on this topic in this article is based on research interviews with campus leaders at five highly ranked liberal arts institutions: Brown University, Tufts University, Yale University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Wesleyan University. Interviews with senior institutional officers and others directly responsible for online activities at these institutions provided insights about what activities are being undertaken and the motivations, hoped-for outcomes, and lessons learned from just a few years of engagement.

Since the early years of the century, significant strides in online education and growing acceptance of this mode of instruction have occurred. Excellent pedagogic quality and even enhanced teaching tactics for subject mastery and learning outcomes have been demonstrated at schools like Carnegie Mellon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford, as well as in many professional schools at excellent institutions across the country and the world. Still, fear and doubt have persisted at many top-tier institutions and made them reluctant to engage in this mode of instruction. Evidence of the rejection of online quality is demonstrated in policies that refuse credit transfer for online courses in undergraduate degree programs and block the creation of courses taught online for matriculated undergraduates. Often the number of online courses a student is permitted to count toward degree completion are capped, preserving the essentially residential nature of the undergraduate experience.

Adoption of online instruction at top-tier undergraduate institutions, priding themselves on the quality of their four-year, primarily residential experience, has lagged far behind the development of this form of course delivery at the major public institutions in the United States. While flexible access to courses without the need to be on campus at a specific time has become a key component of many undergraduate degree programs across the country and is especially popular in programs for midcareer professionals, the traditional plan of four years in residence with classes scheduled MWF and TuTh, interspersed with student activities, athletics, and campus social life has remained the model of education for Ivy League and other highly regarded colleges and universities.

This status quo is experiencing gradual impact from the broadening acceptance of online instruction, with a sudden burst of urgency brought about by the MOOC mania of 2012–2013. A belief in the value of campus-based instruction has a firm hold on these institutions still, as likely it should given the high numbers of undergraduate applications schools in this tier of higher education enjoy. But talk of “disruption” of the sort Clayton Christensen points to in industries turned inside out by the impact of technology and innovation has begun to resonate in higher education circles. Add to this an ever increasing concern about the cost of education, political pressure on cost, quality, and financial aid, and the continuing impact of the 2008 financial crisis and we see higher education being driven toward innovation and less complacent about the longtime model of campus functionality.

Prior to the current moment, the view toward online engagement at residential institutions seemed to consist of sentiments like “we don’t need to engage with online,” “that’s not what this campus does,” and “residential education and online study is incompatible”; even for students engaged in study abroad or internships the sense was that they should be “fully immersed in the experience and not taking a campus course online at the same time.” Only a few years ago senior academic leaders did not hesitate to say “we will never offer online courses for credit.”

Research and reports from experiments in the use of technology in teaching and learning at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, MIT, and other respected institutions over the past decade have brought new respect and attention to this sort of instruction and prompted some faculty on liberal arts campuses to experiment in their own classes. The installation of learning management systems (LMSs) on most campuses to aid in delivery of course content, instructor-student communication, calendaring, assignment submission, grading, and other course activities has sparked faculty interest and the development of a new level of facility with technology across faculty ranks. It is now typical for central information technology units to offer faculty support in adoption and use of technology and in the application of “best practice” technologies to achieve individual faculty teaching goals. In addition, many campuses have opened offices or centers aimed at cultivating good pedagogy and assisting faculty in course design and instructional planning. All of these now common features of most campuses have served to make the use of technology more comfortable and accessible for faculty.

Some would say that many, if not most, faculty teach “online” now; they just don’t know it. Faculty using the campus LMS and other interesting technology tools to facilitate new ways of teaching their students in campus classrooms could be described as engaging in blended online instruction. Recent attention to experiments in flipped classrooms, online courses individual faculty members simply offer on their own, and bold new degree programs like the masters in computer science at Georgia Tech, as well as experiments taking place in high schools, have prompted discussion and inspired more individual attempts at course redesign on many campuses.

At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it was really the impact of 2tor (now 2U) at the University of Southern California and Udacity and Coursera, both out of Stanford, that focused attention across the country on the potential for online education to significantly alter the traditional mode of face-to-face instruction. Media coverage was huge. Faculty teaching MOOCs were describing excitement about teaching courses with worldwide reach and amazing enrollments, some well into six digits. Suddenly alumni were looking at Coursera to see if their alma mater had courses posted. Alums and board members were asking campus leaders about this new development. Whether an individual campus chose to produce any MOOCs, to partner with an online design and support enterprise, or to hold back to see what these efforts produced elsewhere, all needed to spend time in strategy and consideration of the potential impact to their campus and the traditional residential model of instruction.

Reflections from campus administrators indicated a period of activity in developing online content that was not driven by careful strategy but was rather more reactive and experimental. While small trial efforts had been happening on a few campuses, such as some fully online summer term courses, noncredit courses for precollege students, or streaming video of campus courses for alums, high-level comprehensive plans for action had not been developed prior to 2012. Emerging interest in teaching with technology and delivering content fully online was a topic of discussion but not an urgent action item. Fast action from top-tier schools across the country joining Coursera in 2012–2013 and creating courses for massive enrollment, media buzz about this and other broad impact online projects, questions from key institutional stakeholders, and often urging from trustees all combined in the same brief period to force leadership action. The result was a series of experiments that have produced valuable understanding and continue to cause interest, discussion, and more structured planning. In some cases new leadership positions (vice president, associate provost, etc.) have been developed. New offices with titles like “pedagogical innovation” or “laboratory for educational innovation” have been created, and committees comprised of faculty and administrators charged with keeping abreast of developments in online instruction and recommending initiatives for their campus have been launched.

On many campuses, and indeed on each of the five I looked at for this piece, the unit responsible for continuing education or summer session became the lab for early efforts. In addition to offering courses for campus undergraduates in summer session or special certificate programs, these units serve populations of students who are not matriculated (for example precollege, local adults, or visiting undergraduates) or students in graduate programs while still maintaining employment (like teachers who need continuing graduate credits or enroll in masters programs in their disciplines or other employed professionals). These campus divisions could engage in experiments outside the policy-constrained core and had small programs where a few courses could be developed as trials. They often had been engaged in early efforts inspired by their peers at other institutions and so had staff with skills necessary to support such projects and the infrastructure required to build, market, and enroll for new programs. Conducting experiments in such a unit would not distract other campus areas from supporting traditional programs. Directing flexible trial programs is a common experience for continuing studies and summer session offices. A safe lab for experimentation existed.

Some might say that in 2014 we recovered from MOOC mania. No longer is the emergence of Udacity, Coursera, and 2U a call for alert and concern among academic leaders. But the call to action these entities and their bold initiatives created persists, and more serious considerations of the application of modern technology in teaching and learning has joined other key strategic topics for senior administrators. Lessons learned from both observation and early activities have demonstrated that experimentation is important and that building capacity for action is essential. In some cases, such capacity has been distributed in multiple areas, including information technology, teaching and learning centers, summer programs, and continuing education. In other cases it was developed on the fly in order to capture content for web streaming or to develop MOOCs. New recognition of essential requirements, including instructional design support, videography and editing skills, and administrative services for online initiatives, has emerged from early trial efforts. While such capacity might be best lodged in different campus areas, for example, professional schools often have their own staff for such work, there is recognition that collaboration and a ready talent pool is necessary for continued experimentation and to avoid the extremely costly effort of attempting to ramp up capacity on short notice. In some cases, the effort of building new projects on short timelines, maintaining quality standards and facing high risk due to massive exposure, created strain and opportunity cost of unanticipated proportions. Lacking some degree of readiness leaves an institution far behind and facing a steep challenge when new developments worthy of emulation surface.

A consistently noted outcome of this period of small experimental efforts is renewed interest in and even excitement about teaching on the part of faculty. Respondents interviewed for this article regularly described individual faculty who had agreed to teach in new online formats and came away from the experience extremely pleased with what they had achieved in student development and what they learned about their own teaching. Comments included the value of teaching in the massive open format of the MOOC, which was both daunting and exciting on the basis of sheer numbers but also brought an amazing array of new and differently informed perspectives to the class. Faculty identified broader learning for all of the students and new ideas and angles on material and teaching tactics they themselves discovered. Faculty teaching seminar courses online or producing short instructional segments identified new understanding of lecture segments (high impact of short and intensive lectures with activity-based learning between lecture segments), group work, and highly engaged discussion activities that can occur online. Participation from all students and improved quality of engagement, especially in asynchronous courses, which allow time for reflection, was also a valued outcome of online teaching. Student engagement and regular attendance was found to be equal to, and in some cases to outperform, face-to-face classes. The refreshed excitement about teaching expressed by these faculty can ignite new discussions about teaching across a campus and raise expectations for this faculty responsibility. In particular, the voices of faculty seen as “not particularly techie” or from humanities and other disciplines viewed as less engaged with technology carry significant influence in the faculty conversation about technology in teaching, online instructional potential, and quality learning outcomes.

Instructional design support offered by experts in continuing education divisions and at professional schools on campus is named as key to these efforts. Faculty consistently identify and value the quality of this support and the high value of engaging conversations with people who care about teaching, are interested in the content and goals for the course, and have great expertise with technology. They describe this experience as rare in their professional experience, very exhilarating and valuable to both online and face-to-face pedagogy.

Another value particular to the MOOC model is the potential to gain far broader insights on content and projects from a worldwide, multigenerational, widely experienced student population. Courses offered to students on a single campus who share common experience (even if they are from diverse backgrounds), who are typically eighteen to twenty-two years old and thus have limited world experience, can result in rather standard and perhaps less innovative learning outcomes compared with courses that include more experienced learners who don’t share the common campus experience. This, of course, is commonly understood in continuing education courses and programs where students have always brought a wide diversity of life experience to the classroom. Faculty teaching these students often comment on the excitement of having their ideas challenged by older students with varied academic and professional experience and the value of this both in the classroom (residential or online) and in continuous improvement of the course and faculty pedagogy. If online courses and the potential of engaging in both campus-based and MOOC instruction in combination can bring this experience to the residential classroom, great strides in student learning and more complex global understanding may be achieved.

While such revelations from faculty who gained experience in online teaching are consistent and passionate, administrators on all campuses still recognize a prevalent distrust of online education among faculty. They identify early adopters and willing converts as still small in numbers. More broadly, faculty advocate for the familiar and traditional classroom instruction, enhanced with technology tools, but demonstrate less interest in fully online teaching. In fact, the 2U consortium effort in which Washington University participated was disbanded after the faculty at Duke and then at Washington University voted against the project.

Perhaps the lack of a student audience in need of online instruction at schools with an unwavering pipeline of residential students diminishes faculty motivation to explore online teaching. Students (and their parents) select residential colleges for the traditional undergraduate experience they offer. Students may indicate that they don’t want online offerings, though to some degree they cannot know this since they base their preferences on their current experience. Our undergraduates (and alumni) can be more passionate about maintaining the status quo of their experience than anyone else in higher education. But as secondary school experiences change, and if new opportunities to enhance college education and career prospects through experiential learning opportunities away from the campus setting or other ideas for innovation emerge, perhaps future cohorts of students will find value in the flexibility of online course opportunities.

In some cases, distrust of online initiatives also stems from a fear of homogenization of teaching across the country, imagined as massive introductory classes taught by “star faculty” from a few campuses while multitudes at other campuses enroll online. If such a model were ever developed, it threatens to shrink the demand for faculty and even reduce the number of academic departments any one campus would need to support. On the other hand, such a development could ensure consistency of basic disciplinary understanding delivered through courses with broad quality approval, enabling faculty to spend more time teaching at higher levels within their discipline rather than in the often disliked service courses. In any case, without faculty buy-in new initiatives in teaching will not take hold.

In addition to the positive impact of these activities in provoking renewed focus on teaching, it is believed that online efforts serve to promote the institution. Well-designed and well-executed MOOCs highlight the quality of the faculty and teaching at institutions that are already highly regarded within their regions, nationally, and by their peers but may be less well known farther afield. Many also identify the potential to involve alumni continuously in more academically engaged ways, further expanding institutional reputation, reach, and the potential for engagement with activities beyond the campus. In particular, the Coursera platform enabled smaller schools with limited marketing budgets to attract attention and build their reputation for particular strengths with a far distant audience.

Administrators also named an expectation that following generations of students will bring ever-improving technological skills and the expectation that modern technologies will be used in their learning experiences. While the use of online education has not been widely embraced at the secondary school level, many expect that this evolution will occur. Secondary schools have already begun to employ flipped classroom models and the use of LMSs for student-faculty and student-student communication on assignments and projects. Research information and learning support is commonly sought out on the Internet and from platforms like Khan Academy, HippoCampus (chemistry), Saylor Academy, YouTube, and other online resources. Communications, writing, graphic display, and project tools continue to evolve and gain broad popular use in education, work, and life in general. Expectations of working with such technology tools are becoming the norm across education, as they have become common across the industries that will employ our graduates. Given this certain evolution, higher education must stay current and advance experimentation in technology-enhanced teaching and in preparing our students, of all ages, for the highest levels of performance as they complete degrees and other specifically designed learning programs at our institutions.

In similar fashion, new generations of faculty will find the use of technology in their academic professions to be a given. In fact, an additional demand felt in higher education is to support the development of digital literacy, technology facility, and the most current teaching skills for our graduate students who aim for academic careers.

It is early still to understand the potential for online education and the impact this change in the education landscape may eventually have on the traditional residential model of education for students going directly from high school to college and seeking top-ranked liberal arts degrees. It may be that changes in this particular sector will continue at comparatively slow evolution, though it is highly likely that teaching with the most current practices and flexibility in degree programs, providing opportunities for a variety of learning environments, will continue to pressure, influence, and produce innovation in this segment of higher education.

No longer are senior academic leaders comfortable predicting a steady state and rejecting online developments as passing fads. Experienced educators on our campuses note more change in the past three years than in the decades prior to 2010. Having experienced a rush of challenge and call to action, it seems more openness to change has taken hold and more strategic attention is being paid to the value and potential of online projects.

Although the core campus may experiment slowly and evolve only when provoked by necessity, it appears that the continuing education units on these campuses will remain in the lead in online initiatives and experimentation. The value of these units has grown as their capacities have been ready when needed, their “lab environment” easily deployed to experimentation, and new student populations and revenues developed.


This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).