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The University of Rochester plans to strengthen its offering of online courses over the next few years, leaning on a new relationship with a consortium as well as a committee established to address the challenge.
UR last week announced plans to enter a consortium of institutions offering for-credit online courses, but it also has its sights set higher.
It recently called together a universitywide task force led by Robert Clark, dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and interim senior vice president for research, to investigate ways to further expand online offerings.
The task force has spent the last several months assessing the current and future use of technology and digital media in the classroom, ranging from traditional in-class courses to blended ones to those offered fully online, UR officials said.
The task force brings together representatives from all schools at the university, ensuring the result is a cohesive system that meets all of the institution's differing needs, Clark said.
"We don't want to end up with silos of experimentation, to have each of the schools come up with their own ideas and trying them out," he said.
Nothing is off the board, Clark said.
"Our No. 1 goal is to deliver the highest quality education, and if we can use whatever tools for online or on-campus education, we'll use it," Clark said.
The university's latest partnership with a consortium, Semester Online, is seen as a way to kick-start online efforts. The consortium is working with 2U Inc., which was created in 2008 to develop for-credit online courses.
UR joins the consortium with other institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, Duke University and Washington University in St. Louis. Semester Online is intended to offer students an expanded selection of courses from these institutions while giving them flexibility to pursue other academic goals.
Clark said Semester Online is one of the many approaches UR will take in expanding online education. The partnership allows the university to work on a scale not possible working on its own, he added.
"Rochester's interest in online education rests in how it can leverage technology to build connectivity between students and faculty, and how it can develop and enhance the educational experience broadly," Clark said.
The university will have other resources as it attempts to build a wider system of online offerings. The School of Nursing has been offering online courses since 2002.
"Students were coming in with degrees from other fields but missing some key prerequisites," said Andrew Wolf, instructor in the school and coordinator for online learning at the university. "They had a hard time finding the courses in the time they needed to take them, so we decided to start offering them online."
In the decade since it started offering online courses, the School of Nursing has expended to include hybrid online programs, including an R.N. to bachelor of science program and a graduate degree in psychiatric nursing. Today there are 41 online courses or hybrid online programs, and 26 percent of enrollment for last year was in online programs, Clark said.
"Our online programs and the number of students enrolled in them has grown significantly every year," Clark said.
From that experience, Wolf said, the university has been able to see what aspects of online education work and which do not.
"When this started, we initially looked at it as a distance learning option," Wolf said. "What we found was that the students taking these online courses were enrolling because they needed time flexibility.
"They needed to be able to complete the courses late at night or on the weekends or around the other obligations that they had, and were not necessarily enrolling because they were far from the campus."
There are also successful online education ventures the university can study, Clark added. Khan Academy, a non-profit venture that offers a free online collection of more than 3,500 short lectures, is a good example.
Clark said an online program at UR could follow a similar model, using shorter videos of lectures viewed outside the classroom that tie into independent projects or team work completed in a class.
"When you look at kids' text messaging and their use of technology, one could argue that their attention span is not as long as it was 20 years ago," Clark said. "We need to balance what we see as educators as the best way to present material and the ways that are most effective for our students."
Though many universities have begun offering programs or certain courses online, the future of online education is largely unknown, Clark said. That gives UR, itself a renowned research institution, the opportunity to help develop what will be used.
"With the University of Rochester being a major research institution, this fits, that we would investigate this further," Clark said. "We want to play our role in developing the future."
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