Sandy Schaeffer, director of the Advanced Learning Center at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, has been actively involved in online and adult education in industry and higher education since the 1990s.

Aug 05 2010

Online Learning Is Here to Stay


Online learning is no passing fad. The Sloan Consortium reports that as of 2009 more than 4.3 million U.S. college students had taken at least one fully online course – a class in which all the coursework is delivered via the web.

A study we conducted at the University of Memphis found that more than 10 percent of our enrolled class-time hours will run online by next year, a clear indication that learning over the web is here to stay.

How does online education test an IT department's resources? For starters, online students do all of their work away from campus. They don't use the college's computer labs, but they still need access to special software required by their instructors. That documentary DVD presented in a history classroom now must be delivered to a home computer. And the help desk will need to troubleshoot quizzes that lock up in the system late at night after regular business hours.

The faculty also requires much greater support. In the past, technology resources for online courses were usually limited to a few tech-savvy professors. But as online programs grow, IT can expect increased demands from a diverse mix of faculty with more varied (and often limited) technology skills.

Another major change is that faculty members are accustomed to teaching classes by themselves with curriculum they design. In contrast, coordinating the varied technologies associated with online learning demands much more collaboration among individual faculty members, their departments, administrative support and IT.

In this new environment, teaching becomes increasingly codependent on other areas of the campus in ways that challenge cultural norms. For example, research faculty may find themselves working on course development teams, collaboration that is largely absent from the traditions of American higher education.

Preparing for Growth

What's the best way to prepare an IT organization for online learning's growth?

The percentage of colleges surveyed that say substituting online courses for face-to-face classes is a component of their H1N1 contingency plan

Source: Sloan Consortium, Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009; based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities

First, find out what is happening with online learning on your campus. Who is driving the growth? Is it a top-down directive? Are the professors pushing online learning? Or is it coming from the students? Which departments are actively pursuing new programs? If you don't have the answers to these questions, you are missing important facts. Conduct research to quantify the growth of online learning on your campus. Arm yourself with specifics on technology requirements and timelines.

Second, develop strong lines of communication between your IT staff and your college's academic and administrative departments. Foster collaboration between the groups driving online learning. Professors teaching online will demand a high level of service, and it may not be possible to meet every request. Your ability to manage expectations will depend on good lines of communication.

Third, look closely at your IT organization and make sure your staff has the right framework and skills to support online learning. An expanding number of users – many of whom may never set foot on campus – will consume an increasingly significant slice of your IT resources.

At a recent EDUCAUSE roundtable, several CIOs on the panel said an important challenge they face is to show how their personal IT leadership differentiates and grows their institution. One way to demonstrate that kind of leadership is by delivering the IT infrastructure and services the college needs to sustain a competitive and vibrant online learning program. With more students working during the school year and midcareer professionals juggling the pressures of work, home and school, now is the time to take action.