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A Campus-Wide Forum on the Future of Online Learning

More than 100 faculty, staff and students interested in discussing online classes, MOOCs and blended learning at Lehigh met to weigh the options at a recent campus-wide forum on the future of online learning.

Technology is transforming the future of higher education and Lehigh University is asking faculty, staff and students to ponder what the future holds. More than 100 members of the Lehigh community came together recently to share their ideas on online learning at Lehigh as part of a one-day forum organized by the Online Learning Advisory Committee (OLAC).

The committee has met for nearly a year under the charge of Provost Pat Farrell and Bruce Taggart, Vice Provost for Library and Technology Services, with the goal of reviewing current best practices in online education and offering recommendations to the campus about strategic direction in the coming years.

Lehigh has been active in online learning longer than most. The Office of Distance Education has worked with departments to offer courses for over 20 years, transitioning to fully online courses in 2010. Staff working within Lehigh’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning has worked over the years with faculty to re-think the use of lecture time, to use technology to extend or enhance the classroom experience, and to help students learn to use technology as a tool for research, collaboration and communication with their instructors. But the approach has always been specific to each class.

The questions at the forum—and for the future of online learning—were wide ranging. “Which specific areas of Lehigh’s curriculum could be enhanced by online forms of education? Which areas are still best served by face-to-face classes?” There were also fundamental questions about the future of online learning. Should Lehigh make it a strategic priority? How will the presence of online materials and tools ultimately change how we teach and learn on our campus? Participants were asked to choose a table devoted to their question and explore the issue with colleagues, with complete freedom to discuss whatever topic arose. Feedback was then assembled and provided to the OLAC.

Greg Reihman, associate vice provost and director of Lehigh’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, has taught online courses in philosophy every summer at Lehigh since 2005. He moderated the forum and outlined the challenges.

“Technology is changing how we teach and learn,” said Reihman. “There is no denying that changes are afoot in higher education and we need to be responsive to those changes.”

OLAC members have worked hard to engage the entire campus. For example, in spring 2013 OLAC members attended the Board of Trustees Academic Affairs Committee, a Strategic Planning Implementation Group meeting, the Department Chair’s Breakfast and met with a representative from an online learning consortium. At the end of the spring semester, the Committee offered a number of recommended next steps for advancing the campus discussion of online learning.

At present, Lehigh does not offer online courses to undergraduates during the fall or spring semesters. However, with the support of the Provost, the OLAC put out a call for proposals this past summer for the development of online courses to be offered during the next academic year. As a result, Lehigh will offer three new graduate courses in the College of Education and six new undergraduate courses provided completely online starting in Fall 2014. The purpose is twofold: to better understand what role online learning can play for faculty and students during the regular academic semester as well as to better understand what resources are required to create an online course that meet’s Lehigh’s standards of quality.

“Rather than rushing to join the crowd of ‘online universities,’ we need to focus on what we do best and why it matters and then identify technologies and approaches that allow us to do what we value most and to do it as well, or better, than we do now,” said Ward M. Cates, associate dean and professor in the College of Education.

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2013

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