At the close of a talk with a community group last week, I was asked if I was worried about the future of traditional institutions, like the University of Utah, with online competitors gaining acceptance with employers and offering credentials and degrees at lower cost. The question was a little surprising, given that the group was mostly senior citizens interested in the university but not directly linked to it. Clearly, the dialogue about disruption in higher education – the perspective that traditional, residential institutions of higher education are vulnerable to displacement by lower cost online courses and degrees – is underway both within and beyond the academy. My view is that the advances in learning technologies offer significant opportunities for us at the University of Utah to consider how online teaching and learning can promote our goal of student success and how we might strategically capitalize on innovations in online education to strengthen our institution.
The U has a significant portfolio of online courses and a few online certificate and degree programs. In Fall 2013, 28 percent of our students enrolled in at least one course, as a supplement to their face-to-face courses. Clearly, our students are attracted to online learning opportunities, most likely for the flexibility afforded by online courses, given our students’ substantial work and family obligations.
What are the strategic next steps for our online portfolio, and which institutional goals could be advanced through strategic growth?
• Expanded online offerings, particularly critical upper-division courses in large enrollment majors, when appropriate for course content, could facilitate our undergraduates’ timely degree completion.
• Consistency, quality, and access in core gateway math, science, and writing courses could be enhanced through well-designed online courses and/or discussion sections.
• Access to a U of U certificate or baccalaureate program, in an area of particular demand, could be provided to rural, under-served areas of Utah and the intermountain region through online programming. The BS Nursing program is an example of an existing U of U online program that is meeting critical needs in Utah and beyond. One-year professional masters programs in allied health, business, and data analytics are examples of high-demand degrees that may be a fit for our faculty.
What are the barriers to U faculty, programs, and departments moving in some of these promising directions with online education? Certainly, we will need to improve our infrastructure to support faculty as they explore and expand online educational opportunities, including instructional design support and increased opportunities for learning about how online teaching and learning can be optimized. In addition, we need seed funding to help programs and departments develop high quality courses, certificates, and programs in online and/or hybrid formats. Finally, we need to apply a strategic lens to the efforts in which we invest, in order to use early successes to create momentum and a financial base for continued investments.
To meet these needs and begin the design of a strategic online portfolio for the U, we have developed an RFP process to bring forward innovative ideas and identify departments and programs particularly interested in expanding online offerings. I hope that you will consider this opportunity, not because of anxiety about disruption in higher education, but because of the opportunities that online education can afford us, to better meet the needs of our students, to expand access to high-quality Utah programs, and to strengthen our resource base to drive up quality across the institution. I look forward to working with you to move the U from being engaged in online education to leading innovation in quality online learning.