The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 15

Chapter 15: Leveraging Distance Education Through the Internet: A Paradigm Shift in Higher Education

Zeynep Onay
Middle East Technical University, Turkey

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.

OVERVIEW

In a global knowledge-based economy, with an ever-growing demand for learning, the Internet is seen as a vehicle for promoting effectiveness in teaching and reaching wider audiences. The number of online courses and programs offered by traditional higher education institutions, as well as new players in the education industry, has been increasing at an exponential rate. Yet the implementation of distance education through the Internet involves much more than a change of medium from face-to-face classroom interaction to an environment free of time and place constraints. Institutions are faced with the challenge of redefining their strategies to incorporate the e-learning paradigm. This chapter provides an overview of the different models that have emerged, and addresses the key issues that need to be resolved for integrating Internet-based learning in traditional universities. The breadth of strategic, administrative, academic and technological concerns encountered through the evolution of an Internet-based education system, from its inception to implementation, are discussed and illustrated by the e-learning initiative of Middle East Technical University in Turkey.

INTRODUCTION

The history of distance education can be traced back to the mid-Nineteenth century, when correspondence courses for teaching foreign languages by mail emerged in Europe. A hundred years later, televised courses heralded a new era. Distance courses were now enriched through sound and motion, and students were able to view classroom settings in their own homes. Commercial television stations started broadcasting university courses; a number of universities such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill setup their own television stations. Televised instruction paved the way to the success of Open Universities. The advent of videocassette recorders, and later, CD-ROMs further removed the time constraint imposed by television program schedules. But it is the pervasiveness of the Internet in all facets of society that set the stage for the biggest revolution in distance learning and higher education.

The Internet has redefined the boundaries and promise of distance education by enabling the concurrent obliteration of time and place restrictions. Distance education through the Internet presents unprecedented opportunities for learners as well as providers of education. Learners can follow courses at anytime and from anywhere, at their own pace. Providers can reach a much wider and diverse population of learners than ever before, increasing their outreach and productivity. The use of new technologies also offers providers the potential to strengthen the quality and effectiveness of instruction.

However, distance education over the Internet entails much more than just a change of medium for the delivery of instruction. There are many stakeholders involved, each with a different perspective and set of priorities. The change is one that deeply affects the university as an institution, and the instructor and the student as individuals. For the university, the transition to an Internet-based learning environment requires a restatement of institutional missions and priorities, a revision of conventional structures. For the instructor and student, online courses represent a shift in educational philosophy and instructional design as the emphasis moves from “teaching” to “learning,” leading to a student-centered rather than instructor-based system. The challenge for higher education is to find the best way to adjust to this paradigm.

Over the last few years, there has been an exponential growth in the number of courses, certificate and degree programs available through the Internet. In the United States (U.S.), the percentage of post-secondary institutions using the Internet as the predominant mode of delivery for distance education almost tripled from 1995 to 1998 (National Education Association, 2000). These trends are expected to continue due to several reasons:

  • In a global knowledge economy, higher education establishments are faced with a growing demand for learning from people of all ages. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimated that in the 1997-98 academic year over 1.6 million students were enrolled in distance education courses offered by post-secondary institutions. This represents a twofold increase from 1995. A similar growth pattern was observed on the provider side: the number of credit-granting distance education courses offered by higher education institutions doubled between 1995 and 1998 (National Education Association, 2000). The National Household Education Survey (NHES) also shows that nearly half of the adult population in the United States is engaged in continuing education, of which more than half are studying for professional development (Kellogg Commission, 1999). Corporate sector spending for employee training and development rose to $2.9 billion dollars in 1999 (Ubell, 2000).

  • The convergence of information and communication technologies is increasing the power and spread of global communication. Information accessibility and availability is accelerating, while the associated costs are decreasing. In the U.S., Internet access in households has risen by 123% since 1997. Over 40% of households now have access to the Internet (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000). The Gartner Group predicts that by 2005, 75% of U.S. households will be connected to the Internet (Gartner Group, 2000).

  • There is rising competition among providers of distance education. Just as the Internet brings increased educational opportunities for learners, it also means that the target student population for providers is no longer limited by geographic proximity. With over a hundred million students enrolled in higher education worldwide (U.S. Department of Education, The Web-based Education Commission, 2000), competition for this global market is not only among higher education establishments, but also between traditional universities and new players in the education industry. A large number of for profit and nonprofit organizations have emerged as providers and brokers of education; e-learning portals, service providers and virtual universities are a reality today.

Thus, the very structure of higher and continuing education is changing. In a knowledge-based society, the demand for learning will expand. Enrollments in higher education are expected to continue to increase over the next decade (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2000). The International Data Corporation (IDC) projects that the distance education market will grow at a compounded annual rate of 33% over the next few years (Weinstein, 2000). On the other hand, Internet usage will spread even further. It is expected that one billion people around the world will be connected to the Internet by 2005 (Stone, 2000). As the number and type of organizations engaged in Internet-based instruction rises, competition among e-learning providers is likely to increase. Traditional universities are therefore no longer indifferent to the push of new technologies and confront the challenge of redefining their strategies in the 21st century.

The main question for institutions involved in higher and distance education is how to respond to this challenge. The answer requires the resolution of a number of academic, administrative and technical issues. This chapter explores these issues through the various phases involved in the development of an Internet-based distance education system, from its inception and planning to its implementation and maintenance. There are several options at each phase, and various institutions have opted for different courses of action. The next section covers some of the models adopted by traditional universities and nontraditional providers of education.

MODELS FOR DISTANCE EDUCATION THROUGH THE INTERNET

A number of established higher education institutions have responded to the challenge of new technologies by establishing their “virtual” campuses as extensions to their traditional settings. Washington State’s Web University, Penn State’s World Campus, the University of California-Berkeley Extension Online are only some examples of this approach. A majority of these universities have a long past in distance education through more conventional media. Appendix A presents a sample list of traditional universities with virtual campus extensions.

Among these traditional universities, two different strategies can be distinguished for producing and delivering online instruction. While some universities develop their own software tools and class management platforms, others turn to application service providers for establishing their virtual campuses. The first strategy involves high investment costs. However, it allows flexibility and customization to the institution’s specific requirements. Indiana University developed its own course management system called OnCourse. Similarly, the University of British Columbia developed WebCT, for preparing and delivering its online courses. WebCT is now a commercial product used by a large number of institutions. The University of Illinois has built several authoring and teaching systems like Mallard, CyberProf and NetLearning Place.

The second strategy essentially consists of outsourcing all or part of the establishment and operation of the university’s online learning platform to third-party companies. There is a vast array of services offered by such organizations, ranging from technical support to instructional design, expertise for content development and/or provision, all the way to entirely hosting and operating the instructional management system. Thus, the fixed costs of the university turn into variable costs, but as in all outsourcing ventures, the institution becomes dependent on the service provider. Many universities follow this strategy, as the time to market online courses and programs is significantly reduced. For example, Columbia University has an agreement with Cognitive Arts, a designer and provider of e-learning technology, to develop courses for Columbia Continuing Education Online. The courses are provided by Columbia University, the technology is supplied by Cognitive Arts. A sample list of e-learning platforms and service providers is presented in Appendix B.

In addition, many universities have relationships with external entities for purposes like funding, marketing, or just exposure through information portals. For instance, the University of California-Berkeley, like many other universities, has received substantial grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to start online programs (Asynchronous Learning Networks, 2001). The University of California-Berkeley Extension Online also has partner- ships with marketing portals. These for-profit companies act as intermediaries between learners and providers and allow universities to gain access to a wide audience, without incurring up-front marketing costs. Education providers are represented on their portals, often in exchange for a commission per enrollment. Universities can also use pure information portals like Peterson’s Distance Learning Channel and the World Lecture Hall, for passive marketing and exposure to learners. A sample list of marketing/information portals can be found in Appendix C.

Another model is for traditional universities to establish their own for- profit subsidiaries. This is illustrated by Cornell University’s for-profit corporation, eCornell. eCornell produces, markets and delivers non-degree programs developed by faculty from the university’s schools and colleges. Temple University and New York University have also launched their for- profit subsidiaries to market courses on the Internet. In contrast, on April 4, 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced its OpenCourseWare (MITOCW) project to make almost all of its courses accessible free of charge on the World Wide Web. More than 500 MIT courses will be available on the Web within two years (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001).

On the other side of the spectrum, for-profit universities also establish their virtual extensions. The University of Phoenix, owned by Apollo Computers, is one of the largest for-profit universities in the U.S. The University of Phoenix Online was established as an extension to resident instruction, and has been experiencing a steady yearly growth rate of 50% in its online course enrollments. Park University’s Distance Education extension has been experiencing a similar growth in online enrollments. Its degree completion programs have been accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Institutions of Higher Education.

On the nontraditional side, there are nonprofit “virtual” universities like Western Governors University (WGU) and the Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University (KCVU), that act as brokers for distance education programs available through traditional colleges and universities. WGU essentially facilitates student enrollment to courses delivered by around 40 post-secondary institutions. The model is based on guiding students about what is required to gain specific competencies and where to obtain them. Once students complete these requirements, they are assessed by WGU and obtain their competency-based certification degrees from WGU. Thus, through advising services and final assessment, WGU grants its own degrees.

Unlike Western Governors University, the Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University does not award its own degrees or certificates. The model is based on outsourcing all programs and faculty from other colleges and universities. KCVU is managed by the Kentucky Council on Post-secondary Education, and is founded on a network of partnerships with traditional education providers, technology infrastructure and instructional management system providers.

In a similar way, The European Network University (TNU), a network of European and non-European universities, nonacademic institutions and nongovernmental organizations, does not grant academic credit itself, but offers courses that lead to a degree from participating universities. TNU is rooted at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Still another approach is illustrated by one of the largest suppliers of online continuing education in the U.S., OnlineLearning.net. OnlineLearning.net offers its own courses and certification programs, but also has partnerships with universities, marketing their accredited courses and programs. The company provides online faculty development programs and aids course development. It holds the exclusive worldwide electronic rights to online courses from the University of California-Los Angeles Extension, and offers courses from the University of San Diego, among others. All such courses earn academic credit.

On the other hand, a number of companies have established their own virtual universities. Kaplan, Inc., an educational subsidiary of the Washington Post Company, founded the Concord University School of Law in 1998. Concord has its own full-time faculty and a number of visiting and supplementary lecturers. UNext founded Cardean University. Courses at Cardean are prepared by faculty from leading universities like Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Stanford and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and are delivered by UNext adjunct professors. Corporate universities like Dell Learning, by Dell Computer Corp., and SunU, run by Sun Microsystems Inc., also cooperate with academic institutions to deliver online courses.

Jones International University (JIU) is an example for a not-for profit virtual university founded by a for-profit company. Established in 1993, JIU is the first fully accredited online institution of higher education. The model used at JIU involves “content experts” and “teaching faculty.” Courses are designed and developed by “content experts” and delivered by “teaching faculty.” Content experts are faculty from leading universities, including the University of California-Berkeley, Rutgers, Columbia, Purdue, Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin. Faculty facilitate the online instruction of these courses. A sample list of virtual universities is provided in Appendix D.

Other approaches include alliances between universities, and partner- ships between universities and companies in telecommunications and publishing to exploit the power of new systems and technologies. In 1999, some of the largest research universities in the U.S. and Canada joined forces to market distance education courses through a central repository on the Web. The website, R1.edu, is maintained by the University of Washington. Hong Kong Polytechnic University has partnered with Pacific Century Cyberworks, a telecommunications products and services company, to create Hong Kong Cyber University. Pearson, the world’s largest education publisher is rapidly expanding its share of the online education market. The company has alliances with universities and partnerships with solution providers like Blackboard and WebCT to supply a variety of online learning services (Blumenstyk, 2000). Similarly, Houghton Mifflin Company, a publisher of textbooks and other educational materials and technologies, has a strategic partnership with OnlineLearning.net.

Many institutions across the world are leveraging distance and continuing education through the Internet. NKI, one of the largest nongovernmental education institutions in Scandinavia, was the first European online college and has been providing online education for the past 15 years (Paulsen & Rekkedal, 2001). Last year, the British government announced its University for Industry (UFI) project. UFI is intended to be a vocational school that will offer most of its programs online (Walker, 2000). UNESCO’s recent initiative to create an e-learning portal illustrates the thrust to facilitate access to education resources on a global scale. Open universities like the Open University U.K. and Athabasca University in Canada are also adopting the online mode of delivery to increase their outreach.

Traditional universities in different parts of the world are integrating Internet-based learning into their conventional structures. The University of South Australia and Deakin University (Australia) have undertaken major projects to convert courses and programs to the online mode. Similarly, Middle East Technical University (METU) in Turkey has developed an institutional e-learning system for both on-campus and off-campus students. The next section summarizes the METU experience.

THE METU E-LEARNING INITIATIVE

Middle East Technical University was the first, among 71 universities in Turkey, to implement an Internet-based learning environment: METUOnline. One of the leading universities in Turkey, METU has over 20,000 students enrolled in graduate and undergraduate programs offered by 39 departments in five facilities.

The university has taken a centralized institutional approach for the initiation of Internet-based learning. This allowed the consolidation of scarce resources and facilitated the coordination of activities. The task of establishing METU-Online was given to the university’s Informatics Institute. The Institute is an interdisciplinary graduate school, offering degrees in areas where the theory and practice of a number of disciplines merge. Currently, the Institute has three programs: Cognitive Science, Information Systems, and Modeling and Simulation. The Cognitive Science program focuses on the cognitive aspects of computational approaches to speech and language analysis, teaching, and creative uses of computers in an information society. It amalgamates the fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, linguistics, psychology, cognitive neuroscience and philosophy. The Information Systems program integrates business administration, computer engineering, electrical and electronics engineering, and industrial engineering. The Modeling and Simulation program concentrates on the theoretical and practical aspects of modeling, virtual environments and computer simulation.

Since its foundation in 1996, the Institute has conducted several research projects on asynchronous learning. Thus, the responsibility for all planning, development and implementation activities concerning distance education through the Internet at METU was assigned to the Informatics Institute.

At the Institute, a team composed of faculty from the departments of business administration, computer engineering, education, and electrical and electronics engineering launched the METU-Online project in May 1998. The software platform for preparing and delivering online courses has been developed at the Institute and is being maintained by the Institute’s Distance Education Laboratory. The first implementation took place in fall 1998 and within one year a total of 15 courses were offered to around 2,000 on-campus and off-campus students. All online courses come from the undergraduate and graduate curricula of various departments within the university, ranging from history to astronomy. The courses are developed and delivered by resident faculty. The mode of delivery varies among courses, from fully online course conduct, to the use of online material in addition to full class contact hours.

METU-Online also enables the efficient use of scarce faculty resources to teach large audiences. At METU, all first-year students (approximately 3,000 freshmen) are required to take an introductory computer literacy course. To meet this requirement, the Introduction to Information Technologies and Applications course (IS 100) has been designed by the Informatics Institute and is being delivered through METU-Online to 1,500 students each semester.

In February 1999, the Institute launched its online Informatics Certificate Program to train instructors from other Turkish universities to design and deliver introductory computer literacy courses such as IS 100 in their own universities. Instructors from various universities followed the program asynchronously from their respective institutions. The university’s first online graduate program, leading to the degree of Master of Science in Informatics is the latest addition to its expanding portfolio of Internet-based learning applications.

The METU experience has recently prompted the Higher Education Council of Turkey, the governing body of all public and private universities in the country, to establish a national initiative for the development and exchange of Internet-based courses and programs between Turkish universities. The Higher Education Council provides funding, coordinates and regulates all aspects of interuniversity collaboration for e-learning.

The remainder of the chapter presents the evolution of an Internet-based education system, from its inception to its implementation, focusing on the issues that are of critical importance at each phase. It reflects the decision hierarchy and sequence of activities recommended for successfully integrating online courses, certificate and degree programs in universities. The recommendations are drawn from the lessons learned at METU during the development of its institutional e-learning system.

THE INITIATION AND PLANNING OF INTERNET-BASED LEARNING

Introducing the E-Learning Paradigm

Integrating a new educational paradigm into an existing system is often more complicated than establishing a totally new system. Entrenched organizational culture, academic norms, administrative bureaucracies, and technological constraints impose a greater challenge. Current experience shows that a fundamental rethinking of the missions, goals and operations is necessary in traditional institutions (Calvert, 2001; Harris & DiPaolo, 1999). Radical change is seldom possible; incremental change is often the preferred approach.

A prerequisite for success is the university’s strong commitment to this paradigm (Bourne, 1998; King, McCausland & Nunan, 2001). Its strategies must reflect how the institution wants to position itself in the spectrum of e-learning applications. This will depend on the goals that are targeted. These might include:

  • Enhancing the quality and effectiveness of education;

  • Increasing outreach to serve different learner populations;

  • Being more responsive to learner and faculty needs; and

  • Improving efficiency in the utilization of scarce educational resources.

Accordingly, different institutions are likely to leverage the Internet in different ways. Some will use new technologies to reduce the cost of delivering courses and increase outreach to off-campus students; others to enhance the learning experience of on-campus students; others still, to facilitate large class management on campus. Needless to say, a combination of several objectives is the norm rather than the exception.

Based on the objectives set by the institution, the first step in initiating an Internet-based learning environment is to establish the scope and feasibility of such an undertaking. This in turn will be instrumental in determining the organizational arrangement for the development and implementation of elearning. In addition, existing institutional policies have to be reviewed, and if necessary, revised at this stage.

Scope and Feasibility

In order to determine the scope of an institution’s e-learning initiative a number of questions have to be answered: Should online instruction be available to off-campus students only? Should the emphasis be on individual courses or degree and certificate programs? Should priority be given to existing courses/programs or new ones tailored for specific markets? Should all online offerings be developed and delivered by regular faculty?

Alternative directions are possible. Online education can be targeted to resident students, either as a supplement to face-to-face instruction or as a substitute. It could be offered to off-campus students only, or serve both student constituencies. At METU, the decision was to make no differentiation between resident and off-campus students, since the university is seeking to enrich the learning experience on-campus, as well as provide opportunities for learners who are place bound. In terms of courses to be offered online, METU took an evolutionary approach, starting with individual courses already listed in the university’s curricula, leading to the development of new online certificate and degree programs. With scalability in mind, the rationale for this approach was that encouraging the conversion of existing individual courses to the online mode would help to spread awareness to all academic units, and obtain the commitment of faculty and students. At METU, online course development and delivery is carried out by regular faculty in order to capitalize on the existing academic strength and reputation of the university.

The determination of the viability of online instruction for a particular institution requires the assessment of operational, technical and economic feasibility. At METU, the effects of organizational culture and the degree of resistance to change among administrators, faculty and students, as well as the constraints imposed by administrative procedures have been investigated to derive operational feasibility. The university’s technical infrastructure and related skills portfolio were examined to establish technical feasibility. Possible sources of funding have been identified, and a preliminary three-year budget was derived to test economic feasibility.

Organization of the E-Learning Initiative

The next decision relates to the organization of the e-learning initiative. One possibility is to adopt a decentralized approach and delegate the development of online instruction to those academic units having or planning online offerings. Another option is to take a centralized institutional approach and assign the responsibility for the entire initiative to a single unit. The choice is of primary importance for long-term sustainability. At METU, the outcome of the feasibility study resulted in the derivation of a project plan and the formation of an interdisciplinary project team under a single independent unit, namely the Informatics Institute. The main factors leading to this final choice can be cited as follows:

  • The need for coordination to uphold an institutional network;

  • The concern for the efficient use of university resources, avoiding duplication;

  • The fair allocation of resources to all units involved;

  • The flexibility to extend the scope of services to different target groups;

  • The necessity to maintain the ownership, management and balance of online offerings.

At this point, the institution’s existing policies and procedures have to be reviewed to determine their suitability for incorporating a different mode of learning.

Institutional Policies

The integration of e-learning often requires the revision of institutional policies and development of new ones. Issues that are important in this respect include: the quality of online courses and programs, the administrative procedures for online learning, the ownership of intellectual property, faculty compensation, and the management of technology and support services for e-learning.

Quality of Online Instruction

A key concern for all institutions engaged in Internet-based education is the maintenance of academic standards for online courses and programs. Credit equivalencies with their traditional counterparts, and procedures for assessing their quality have to be established. Many stakeholders still question the effectiveness of online learning when compared to face-to-face instruction. Accreditation is seen as a way to “legitimize” the quality of online offerings. Therefore, some form of accreditation, whether national, regional or institutional, has to be instituted. On the other hand, existing accreditation standards mostly pertain to traditional education, therefore, their applicability to e-learning is a contentious issue. There is a need to develop specific standards for online education and improve coordination between different accreditation agencies (Stallings, 2000; U.S. Department of Education, Web-based Education Commission, 2000). Recently, the Institute for Higher Education Policy identified 24 benchmarks to ascertain quality in Internet-based distance education (The Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2000). The benchmarks are grouped under seven headings: institutional support, course development, teaching/learning, course structure, student support, faculty support, and evaluation and assessment. Together they provide a useful template for all stakeholders to determine what constitutes quality in online distance education.

Unlike the U.S., there are no national or regional accreditation agencies in Turkey. METU has therefore, developed its own internal accreditation procedure to assure the quality of online courses and programs. The process of accreditation at METU is described later in the chapter.

Administrative Issues

On the administrative side, conformance of this new mode of delivery to the university’s existing statutes, rules and procedures has to be determined. Matters that have been considered at METU include alignment with the criteria set out by the academic rules and regulations of the university. Accordingly, the requirements for admission to and graduation from online programs are as strict as the ones for traditional programs. New administrative procedures have also been introduced to integrate the application and registration of online students into the existing system, enabling remote application, registration and payment of tuition fees. The procedure for the approval of new courses and programs by the university’s academic boards has been revised to include online courses and programs.

Another issue to be addressed by the institution is the provision of Internet services to students. This is especially a concern in countries where connection to Internet service providers is costly and bandwidth limitations restrict the speed of communication. For its certificate and degree programs, METU gives each participant an unlimited Internet account through TR-NET, an Internet service provider directly connected to the university’s ATM network. This facilitates access and allows faster communication among users.

Copyright

The digital age challenges the hitherto established principles of intellectual property and copyright. The Internet makes possible the almost limitless distribution and usage of information. Current legislation is inadequate to define the impact of copyright laws on online education. Although the Digital Millennium Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998, addresses certain aspects related to electronic piracy, the concept of “fair use” of copyrighted material in a digital environment needs further clarification. This affects universities engaged in online education in two ways. First, the ownership of individual course content has to be established. Second, intellectual property has to be protected. Consequently, universities have to review their copyright policy, not only for the material produced in the courses, but also for the material used to produce the courses. So far, very few institutions have established policies with respect to the ownership of online material developed by faculty (Council for Higher Education Accreditation, 2000). The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recommends that, in principle, faculty members who have developed material for distance education should own the copyright, except in the case of works made-for-hire that are not part of their normal workload, or when the university provides resources and services for developing the material, in which case joint ownership by a faculty member and the university is acceptable (American Association of University Professors, 1999). Another exception put forward by the AAUP is the situation where a faculty member makes a contractual agreement with the university (or a third party) to transfer part or all of his/her rights to the university (or third party). However, by and large, most universities own the rights to material, which is viewed as being part of the creator’s normal workload, using institutional resources.

At METU, the ownership of online course material can be transferred to the university if the creator wishes to do so. An agreement is signed between the faculty member and the university whereby the member of the faculty gives the full copyright to the university, in exchange of a one-off royalty payment. In a way, the university purchases the rights to the online course. The practice of royalty payment encourages faculty to take part in the university’s online initiative.

Faculty Commitment

In order to promote faculty commitment, the university needs to devote resources to faculty development on the use of new technologies and instructional pedagogies. Furthermore, specific incentives have to be developed to encourage the production and delivery of online courses. These can be in the form of giving release time for preparing online courses, reducing faculty teaching load for traditional courses, establishing revenue-sharing schemes, or counting contributions to Internet-based distance education towards academic promotion. At METU, online teaching is considered to be part of faculty’s normal workload, however, the effort is taken into account in the determination of the university’s yearly academic excellence awards. In addition, measures have been established for the distribution of revenues among the various contributors to Internet-based courses and programs.

Management of Technology and Support Services

Using the Internet for distance education also brings forth issues related to the management of the underlying technology to ensure the continuous operation, reliability, and maintenance of the system. Moreover, support services have to be provided to faculty as well as students. Often, the university’s computer center is a natural candidate for these tasks. However, in institutional endeavors, as in the case of METU, care must be taken to clearly define the allocation of responsibilities between the unit in charge of Internet-based learning and the computer center. Currently, staff at the Informatics Institute are responsible for the management of the technology supporting Internet-based courses and programs, including system administration, software upgrades, user support, and security issues. The university’s computer center cooperates with the Institute, advises when necessary, and ensures that the infrastructure on campus meets the requirements of online course and program delivery.

THE DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT OF INTERNET-BASED LEARNING

During the design and development stage, three major issues need careful consideration. The first one is related to the software platform to be used for Internet-based learning. The choice of platform greatly affects the efficiency and perceived value of online learning. The second issue deals with the selection and approval of courses and programs to be delivered online. Criteria for assigning priorities among courses/programs and the procedure for approval by the university’s academic boards need to be established. Finally, the issue of quality assurance for online instruction has to be addressed in order to maintain the institution’s academic standards.

The Online Learning Platform

The choice for the e-learning platform to be used for the preparation and delivery of online courses and programs is between in-house development and outsourcing all or part of the institution’s “virtual” operations. As mentioned previously, there are a large number of companies providing systems for online instruction, offering a wide spectrum of services. Considerations of flexibility, customization, ease of use, scalability, and cost are primary determinants for the final decision.

METU developed its own e-learning platform: NET-Class. The first version of NET-Class was ready in five months. It is a learning management system designed to incorporate features that add value to student learning and enable instructors to achieve instructional effectiveness. NET-Class provides a user-friendly and secure environment for creating, delivering and managing courses. The system has three user views: the instructor, student and system administrator views. Access is authorized by the system, and the related view is presented to the user. The tools incorporated for each view are presented in Figures 1, 2 and 3.

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Figure 1: System tools for instructors
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Figure 2: System tools for students
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Figure 3: Tools for system administration

Instructors can organize course content, generate tests, activate the automatic grading utility, administer online discussion threads, and view student access rates graphically with the tools provided by the system. NET-Class includes templates to produce core parts of a course like the syllabus, announcements, and assignments. These templates ensure consistency in the format of presentation, which prevents user confusion, especially for faculty and students dealing with multiple courses. Students can take online tests and exams, see their results in the grade book, and perform searches in the course material. The system administrator is able to add/remove courses, register students, change their passwords, and monitor resource usage. New features and utilities are continuously added to NET-Class to promote active learning and facilitate course delivery.

Course Selection and Approval

The design and development stage also involves the determination of criteria for selecting the courses and programs to be offered online. These criteria are influenced by the scope of the institution’s e-learning initiative and especially the nature of the target student population.

Given that METU adopted an evolutionary approach for integrating online instruction into its mainstream activities, the parameters used initially pertained to the selection of existing courses from the curricula of various departments. These include: the number of students enrolled in the course, whether the course is at the graduate or undergraduate level, the type of course (compulsory or elective), its frequency, faculty skills and willingness to develop the course online, and the suitability of the department’s infrastructure (e.g., availability and adequacy of student computer laboratories) for delivery. These criteria have later been expanded to cover the determination of Internet-based certificate and degree programs.

Regarding the proposal and approval of courses and programs, the regulations for traditional instruction at METU stipulate that all new courses/ programs are first approved by the related Departmental Board, then the Faculty Board. New programs are further sanctioned by the University Senate, followed by the Higher Education Council. Online courses and programs follow the same procedure with a slight difference. If the course or program to be delivered online is an existing course/program from the university’s curricula, a proposal is submitted directly to the Informatics Institute for support in preparation and delivery. Once the online version is ready, its delivery has to be approved by the related Departmental and Faculty Boards. On the other hand, new online courses and programs are first approved by Departmental and Faculty Boards, and then submitted to the Institute for support.

The preparation of all the university’s online offerings is carried out through the Informatics Institute. Priorities for course and program preparation are assigned at the Institute, based on the selection criteria described above. The Institute provides faculty training, equipment if necessary, and support staff for instructional design, graphical design and programming. Once the course is ready, it goes through an accreditation procedure.

Quality Assurance and Accreditation

The accreditation procedure is an internal quality audit, instituted at METU, specifically for Internet-based courses and programs. An Accreditation Committee, established by the University Senate, evaluates all online courses and programs. Accreditation is in two stages. The first stage takes place at the end of course/program preparation, before online delivery. Each course is reviewed to establish its conformance to the university’s Guidelines and Standards for the Design of Online Courses. These guidelines, developed at the Informatics Institute and endorsed by the University Senate, set out details pertaining to best practices for instructional design, format, layout, and navigation features of the course Web pages.

The second stage of accreditation takes place at the end of the semester in which the courses have been delivered. The Accreditation Committee assesses each course in terms of learning outcomes and effectiveness in using the various instructional tools incorporated in the e-learning platform (e.g., use of the forum by the instructor to communicate with students and encourage collaboration among students; the timeliness of feedback to questions). At this stage, the Committee also appoints an external reviewer for appraising course content. Only fully accredited courses qualify for transfer of copyright and royalty payment.

IMPLEMENTATION AND MAINTENANCE OF INTERNET-BASED LEARNING

Three issues stand out at this stage: the changing role of instructors and students, the choice between the different modes of online delivery, and the establishment of a regular post-implementation review to continually improve and maintain the system.

The Role of Instructors and Students

Internet-based education defies the traditional relationship and role of instructors and students (Bourne, Mayadas & Campbell, 2000; Kochtanek & Hein, 2000; McNeil, Robin & Miller, 2000). For the instructor, the challenge is to become a “moderator” in the students’ learning experience, as the focus shifts from “teaching” to “learning,” where interactivity and collaboration are key determinants of success (Andriole, 1997; Sherron & Boettcher, 1997). In this virtual environment, the instructor must be able to instigate discussions to keep interest alive, and maintain communication with students and inter- action among students. Instructors must understand and cater to the individual learning styles of students, and has to be able to develop meaningful learning activities over the Internet. The instructor must anticipate problems and be available online to answer or route questions.

The instructor also often has to learn new skills for preparing/updating course content and conducting the course on the Internet. Institutions must be ready to support faculty on a continuous basis. Moreover, the e-learning platform must incorporate features that facilitate class management and the task of the instructor. In cases where the preparation of courses involves a team (e.g., instructional designer, graphics expert, technical specialists) to assist the instructor, coordination among team members is an added responsibility for the instructor.

On the other hand, the challenge for students is to change from being passive listeners to becoming active participants. Student-instructor and student-to-student interaction, through synchronous and asynchronous discussion groups, are essential components of Internet-based courses. Students must take part in discussions and learn to collaborate with other students virtually. In this paradigm, students are empowered to enhance their learning process and must have the ability to do so. This requires some degree of computer literacy and familiarity with the Web on the part of the student, but more importantly, students must possess self-discipline and motivation. They need to learn how to learn.

Students need to know how to access information for learning purposes and overcome hardware and software problems. Exposing students to using information technology as a natural part of the course is a good starting point for training in most cases, but more formal training support in the form of courses or tutorials provided by the university may be necessary. Thus, the effectiveness of online courses does not only depend on organizational support and instructor abilities; students also have to adapt to this new environment.

Modes of Delivery

Four modes of delivery are possible for the implementation of Internet-based courses. In the first mode, the course is conducted fully on the Internet, with no face-to-face contact. In the second mode, online material is used to supplement classroom instruction. In the third mode, regular class meetings are held each week but with reduced contact hours; the remaining credits being taken online. Lastly, the course is offered online to only a limited group of students, while the rest of the class follows traditional classroom instruction. The mode of delivery is primarily dependent on the characteristics of the course/program and the target student population.

At METU, for individual courses, the instructor and related department decide the delivery mode, but all certificate and degree programs are fully online, as the aim is to reach place-bound students. Residency is only required for two days at the beginning of each term for orientation purposes, and two days at the end of the term for proctored final exams.

Post-Implementation Review

Understanding the impact of Internet-based learning and the extent to which initial goals have been achieved is a very important aspect of the maintenance phase. Needless to say, overall impact is affected by the diverse issues discussed in this chapter. Piotrowski and Vodanovich (2000) present a review of recent research in the area, and note that empirical studies report a range of positive as well as negative results. Inevitably, what is theoretically possible does not always coincide with actual practice (Thomas, 2000). Therefore, learning outcomes and the effectiveness of the delivery platform have to be appraised on a regular basis. These two facets must be assessed by students as well as instructors. The results of these evaluations will enable the continuous improvement of the e-learning environment.

At METU, the learning outcomes and delivery platform are evaluated through an online questionnaire to students and interviews with instructors. Individual student reactions range from enthusiasm to constructive criticism, indifference (just printing lecture notes from the Web) and resistance (why this additional burden!). Nevertheless, overall results indicate that e-learning has a positive impact on student satisfaction. Similar findings have also been reported elsewhere (Motiwalla & Tello, 2000; Ward & Newlands, 1998). The effectiveness of Internet-based instruction is especially evident in courses incorporating “virtual laboratories” like astronomy, physics or image processing, where students are able to visualize phenomena through animations and interactive experiments. In courses where some degree of classroom contact is maintained, instructors also observed higher attendance to class meetings by students, compared to previous years, when the same course was delivered in the traditional way. In terms of grades, the class averages are at least equal and often better than the average grades for the same course delivered in the classroom environment.

Instructors admit that Internet-based education is a lot of work. Experience has shown that creating an online course often takes much longer than a traditional course. Indeed, preparing an online course can take up to 500% longer (U.S. Department of Education, The Web-based Education Commission, 2000). Moreover, being available online to administer threaded discussions and respond to questions takes a lot of time. Nevertheless, many faculty at METU find it a satisfying experience, positively influencing their other teaching activities. They also say that when compulsory courses are taught online, there is more demand for follow-up electives.

Results obtained from the assessment of the e-learning platform by students and instructors indicate that the attributes of the delivery platform largely influence learning outcomes, and consequently, the instructors’ and students’ perceptions on the effectiveness of e-learning. The usefulness of the utilities incorporated in the platform and their user-friendliness are of prime importance. The delivery platform is continuously upgraded at METU, based on the outcome of these assessments.

The results of evaluations carried out at METU so far suggest that in addition to the issues discussed in the previous sections, the effectiveness of online courses/programs is also influenced by the following factors:

  • Degree of “prepackaging” in the course: It can be said that the less structured a course is, the more it can be customized to the pace and learning needs of students.

  • Size of the class: The METU experience indicates that online courses increase effectiveness in large classes (over 100 students), mainly because individual interaction with the instructor and communication among students can be established to an extent that is rarely possible in a traditional classroom.

  • Mode of delivery: When full contact hours are maintained and the material on the Web is used as a supplement, effectiveness diminishes in proportion to the lecturing content during class. Class contact should be used for discussion of assignments, case studies and seminars by invited speakers, rather than teaching the material already available online.

  • Degree of “homogeneity” among students: In the case of online courses, students who have been sharing the same environment for some time (e.g., 4th year undergraduates of the same department) tend to participate and collaborate more than students who come from different backgrounds (as in a typical MBA class). However, in the case of online programs, heterogeneity in the student population enriches the learning experience. This is especially valid for programs intended for working professionals, like the Informatics graduate program at METU, where interaction with fellow participants from different areas of expertise, exposes students to a rich and varied breadth of ideas and approaches.

No single factor is dominant. Rather, a combination of these factors is likely to affect outcome. Further research in this area could point to the determination of patterns that are most effective for Internet-based learning.

CONCLUSION

Technological developments are transforming the boundaries of work and education. Just as telecommuting and virtual offices challenge the workplace, virtual learning defies the traditional “lecture hour” and “class-room” confines of higher education. The growing demand for learning in a global economy, the availability of powerful technologies, combined with emerging competitors in the education market are driving universities to redefine their learning environment. The challenge for traditional universities is to adapt to this paradigm shift and strike a balance between the virtual and traditional components of their education services.

There is no single blueprint solution. Institutions have to develop their own models for integrating the virtual element into their mainstream activities. Nonetheless, the strategic, administrative, academic and technological issues to be addressed are common to all. Only the solutions will vary according to the particular goals and constraints of each institution. The METU case illustrates the phases in the evolution of an Internet-based learning environment, and highlights the breadth of issues to be resolved for an organized transition to a new mode of instruction.

The Internet holds enormous potential for leveraging distance education in universities. Yet adapting to a technology-enabled paradigm is not easy for traditional institutions with entrenched organizational hierarchies and practices. Initial costs are high, but equally high benefits are expected in terms of quality and outreach of education. The situation can perhaps best be described in the words of Pelton (1997): “Cyberlearning vs. the University: An irresistible force meets an immovable object.” Although distance education through the Internet is not likely to supersede conventional instruction, the Internet is a perfect vehicle to be more responsive to learner needs and increase the quality and outreach of higher education. Universities are at a unique juncture to take part in one of the biggest revolutions in distance education and realize the opportunities that lie ahead.

APPENDIX A: Sample List of Traditional Universities with Virtual Campus Extensions

California State University CSU Institute (http://www.gateway.calstate.edu/extension/Online/default.html)

Columbia University (http://www.ce.columbia.edu/online/)

Cornell University (http://www.ecornell.com)

Deakin University (http://www.deakin.edu.au)

Drexel University (http://online.drexel.edu/topclass/index.html)

Georgia Institute of Technology (http://www.conted.gatech.edu)

Indiana University (http://www.indiana.edu/~iude/)

Michigan State University (http://www.vu.msu.edu)

Middle East Technical University (http://www.ii.metu.edu.tr)

New Jersey Institute of Technology (http://www.njit.edu/DL)

New York University the Virtual College (http://www.scps.nyu.edu/dyncon/virt)

Pace University (http://online.pace.edu)

Park University (http://www.park.edu/DIST/DIST)

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu)

Stanford University (http://scpd.stanford.edu)

State University of New York Learning Network (http://sln.suny.edu/domino/slnhome.nsf)

Stevens Institute of Technology (http://www.webcampus.stevens.edu)

Temple University (http://www.temple.edu)

The University of Texas System TeleCampus (http://www.telecampus.utsystem.edu/)

The University of South Australia (http://www.unisanet.unisa.edu.au)

University of British Columbia (http://det.cstudies.ubc.ca/)

University of California-Berkeley Extension Online (http://learn.berkeley.edu)

University of Illinois Online (http://www.online.uillinois.edu)

University of Maryland University College (http://www.umsa.umd.edu/OnLine/)

University of Phoenix Online (http://online.phoenix.edu/)

University of Southern California (http://den.usc.edu)

University of Wisconsin Center for Learning Innovation (http://www.uwex.edu)

Washington State Web University (http://www.washington.edu/students/distance/)

APPENDIX B: Sample List of Online Learning Platforms and Service Providers

Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com)

Cognitive Arts (http://www.cognitivearts.com)

Convene (http://www.convene.com/)

DigitalThink (http://www.digitalthink.com/)

Eduprise (http://www.eduprise.com/)

eCollege (http://www.ecollege.com/)

e-education (http://www.jonesknowledge.com/)

First Class (http://www.firstclass.ca/v2/launch.htm)

JonesKnowledge.com (http://www.jonesknowledge.com/)

Lotus LearningSpace (http://www.lotus.com/home.nsf/welcome/learnspace)

Outlook (http://www.outlookinteractive.com/)

Prometheus (http://www.prometheus.com/)

Topclass (http://www.wbtsystems.com/)

V Campus (http://www.vcampus.com/)

WebCT (http://www.webCT.com)

APPENDIX C: Sample List of Marketing and Information Portals

America’s Learning Exchange (http://www.alx.org)

CyberU (http://www.cyberu.com/)

DistanceLearn (http://www.lifelonglearning.com)

Dr. Dobb’s (http://www.ddj.com/)

Edupoint (http://www.edupoint.com/)

Ed-X.com (http://ed-x.com)

Embark (http://www.embark.com/)

Fathom (http://www.Fathom.com)

Globewide Network Academy (http://www.gnacademy.org)

Hungry Minds (http://www.hungryminds.com)

Learnon (http://www.learnon.org)

MindEdge (http://www.mindedge.com)

Peterson’s Distance Learning Channel (http://www.petersons.com)

R1.edu (http://www.R1edu.org)

The Sloan-C Catalog of Online Educational Programs (http://www.sloanc.org/catalog/)

THINQ (http://www.thinq.com)

UNESCO e-learning portal (http://www.unesco.org/education/e-learning/index.html )

World Lecture Hall (http://www.utexas.edu/world/lecture)

APPENDIX D: Sample List of Virtual Universities

American Coastline University (http://www.amercoastuniv.edu/)

Athena University (http://www.athena.edu/)

California Coast University (http://www.calcoastuniv.edu/)

California Virtual University (http://www.california.edu)

Capella University (http://www.capella-university.edu)

Cardean University (http://www.unext.com/)

Commonwealth Open University (http://off-campus.org/)

Concord University School of Law (http://www.concordlawschool.com/)

Cyber State University (http://www.cyberstateu.com/)

Greenleaf University (http://www.greenleaf.edu/)

Jones International University (http://www.jonesinternational.edu/)

Hong Kong Cyber University (http://www.hkcyberu.com)

Internet University (http://www.internet-university.com)

Kennedy Western University (http://www.kw.edu)

Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University (http://www.kcvu.org/)

NKI Internet College (http://www.nettskolen.com)

OnlineLearning.net (http://www.onlinelearning.net/)

Open University U.K. (http://www.openuniversity.edu/)

South Dakota Electronic University Consortium (http://www.hpcnet.org/euc)

Southern California University of Professional Studies (http://www.scups.edu/)

Southern Regional Electronic Campus (http://www.srec.sreb.org)

The European Network University (http://www.netuni.nl)

University for Industry (http://www.learndirect.co.uk)

Virtual Online University (http://www.vousi.com/)

Western Governors University (http://www.wgu.edu/wgu/index.html)

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