Learning From Afar

Penn State University’s World Campus has little in common with its buildings on the State College, PA’s property. In fact, about the only parallel is that both offer learning opportunities.

World Campus is a distance learning operation, where courses are built much more around student and faculty interaction than the physical classrooms. People who don’t necessarily speak out in face-to-face environments jump right in online to express opinions and ideas. The average age of students at World Campus is 37, with a 50/50 split on undergraduate and graduate enrollment. Among the undergraduates, many have not been exactly successful in previous attempts at higher education. And while students at Penn State may tolerate standing in an occasional line, World Campus enrollees don’t have the patience. Their concept of distance education is that it’s immediate and customer-service focused. “In fact, if a student is disappointed or unhappy with your level of service, they can simply go to another online university in a matter of minutes,” said the executive director of World Campus, Wayne Smutz.

“We have to actively recruit students, and keep them engaged so they reach graduation. With online universities, retention and success are critical issues to focus on,” he added. So far, it’s on the right track. The University has 9,600 enrollees, with that number increasing by 37 percent annually.

A Distance Learning Foundation

The rules of engagement change from the start. After all, this isn’t a face-to-face opportunity for the most part, and instructors are dealing with small classes as opposed to large lecture halls. “So, this is not about lecturing at all,” Smutz said. “It’s about creating an environment in which students are provided content in various ways.”

Just ask Janet Burke, who prepared for her first online teaching experience by preparing a 40-page lecture. Today a professor in the education and educational psychology department at Western Connecticut State University with 20 years of experience, back then she figured if you speak x words per minute, then an online lesson would follow that same rule. “I literally drove everybody crazy,” she said. “When you are teaching online, everyone is so much more sophisticated. They really want the whistles and bells. When you teach, you need a lot more multimedia —streaming video, flashcards, interactive tests — a whole battery of skills that you probably don’t have [from] teaching face-to-face.”

That’s why World Campus begins with faculty development via online courses to show as well as tell. Penn State actually pays its faculty to participate in the first online course (a strategy that originally lured Burke, too) to ensure it attracts as much interest as possible. The introduction lasts six weeks.

The biggest chunk of this time should be spent on facilitating group work, noted Jennifer Varney, director of advising for online and continuing education graduate students at Southern New Hampshire University, and the head of the Advising Adult Learning Commission. Most instructors need to learn how to engage students from all over the globe, even if they’ve logged in 12 hours later than the professor. After all, lurking around a chat board or reading materials on a computer screen is not the same as distance learning, she pointed out.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges Smutz sees faculty adjusting to is student interaction. “Individuals expect fairly rapid response, and that puts a heavy demand on faculty,” he said. World Campus has a set of guidelines for faculty responses: An instructor has 24 hours to respond to questions from a student; 48 to 72 hours to grade an exam.

Some faculty members need guidance in how to write for online, lest their communication styles cause confusion. “Online forces you to be an excellent writer because if you’re not clear, you have 25 people writing back to ask, ‘Did you mean this or that?’ or ‘Is this correct?’ There are no facial expressions, so your writing has to say it all,” Burke pointed out.

Organization is another vital key. Having materials ready is always a plus with teaching, but in an online environment, your students could be taking a test while you drive to Florida to escape the latest snowstorm. If someone phones for help, you need to understand the test well enough to jump right in while switching from I-65 to I-24. On the other hand, classroom teachers need to be prepared to answer questions on the spot, whereas their online equivalents can require students to research a topic before bombarding them with inquiries.

 “I don’t say that you need to think faster. I don’t think you have to increase your IQ. But you definitely have to work harder,” Burke said. A physical classroom may require teaching for up to three hours, but online means being in that mindset nearly 24 hours a day.

A Little Support, Please
The second part of World Campus’ success hinges on instructional design. The University assigns a staff of instructional designers to every course, working closely with the faculty member to make sure the instruction is rich in online learning tools. The departments at Penn State set the graduation rules; World Campus does not issue degrees in and of itself. AMR Research ranks its Smeal College of Business as having the best supply chain program in the United States, and the school is the 2006 winner of the Sloan-Consortium Most Outstanding Online Teaching and Learning Program for the Basic and Advanced Certificates in Turfgrass Management and the B.S. in Turfgrass Science. Totaled, World Campus offers 537 courses in 62 programs.

Once a distance education program reaches this level, it’s important to offer diverse training levels to make sure more experienced instructors get the support they need, too. “I don’t need the training,” Burke said bluntly. “I want greater resources so that I can have a better delivery system.”

We’re talking about a diverse help desk, frankly. For example, if she decides to do streaming video at Southern New Hampshire University, she needs to get both the multimedia department and IT department involved because the action takes more space to post and for students to download. If she wants to stream a movie, someone must get copyright permission. “I don’t want to figure it out as a professor, because I’m supposed to teach my content area. I am not supposed to spend time with the technology, per se,” she explained.

Most of all, administrators need to make a paradigm shift if they want to see distance education blossom, said Smutz. “For a long time, higher education was a context in which students were to show up, and it was their responsibility if they succeeded or failed. With the demands that we have as a society to increase our educational levels and competitiveness, we can’t simply say that any more. We have a responsibility in terms of our faculty to help ensure students do better,” he said. Toward that end, World Campus has an early warning system that notifies faculty members and advisors when a student isn’t keeping up in the first six weeks of a course.

“Online education has opened up the issue of really attending to the teaching/learning process,” Smutz summed up.