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Melanie Remp, coming off her sophomore year at Kansas University, wanted to get one of her course requirements out of the way last summer, to ensure she’d be ready to student-teach during her senior year in the KU School of Education.
But she also needed a job to pay her bills. And she was working at a summer camp in her hometown of Topeka, with no time to come to Lawrence for a class.
So she enrolled in an online comparative politics course from Johnson County Community College. KU didn’t offer that course online.
“It was my only option, really,” said Remp, now a junior. She checked off a general-education requirement. But she learned very little, she says.
If she could have filled that requirement with an online class from KU, she’d have considered it, she says. And she thinks she probably would have learned more.
KU has not been among the most aggressive universities in offering online education options, in comparison with others in Kansas or elsewhere. University officials admit that themselves.
“We’ve been slow to enter into the market,” Education Dean Rick Ginsberg said. “I think everybody would say that.”
But officials also say the online-education gears are spinning in the KU administration as they never have before. For the first time, leaders are developing a university-wide strategy for online teaching.
“I think this is the first time we have been very strategic about it,” said Sara Rosen, KU’s senior vice provost for academic affairs. “To date, the online education has really bubbled up from the interests of the faculty.”
That strategy is not to simply move classes online in bulk, but to focus on specific targets. Students such as Remp, who might be using community college courses during the summer or at other times to fill requirements, are one example. Other plans call for more and more fully online graduate programs for working people. Another focus is combining online material with physical classrooms, allowing students from miles away to enroll in professional programs or improving education for KU’s undergraduate students on campus.
Just as freely as KU leaders will admit that the university has been slow to dip its toes into the still-mysterious online waters, they also say that there’s little choice but to jump in now.
“You choose not to play at your own peril,” Ginsberg said.
KU is moving more quickly now, Rosen says, after starting slowly. But the trick is figuring out how, exactly, for KU to make more of a move online.
“I think that it’s also important for KU to do this with a KU quality,” Rosen said. “We’re not interested in just throwing online courses up.”
For instance, plans for a number of fully online graduate programs are in the works, and they’re largely in areas where KU is well-regarded nationally. KU has two such programs now, one in the education school and one in the School of Pharmacy.
The education school, Rosen said, is receiving a lot of the KU administration’s attention. The school is ranked highly — No. 22 overall in graduate programs nationally, and No. 2 in special education, according to U.S. News and World Report — and many of its faculty members are ready and willing to work on online courses. Rough plans right now call for the education school to roll out around five more online master’s programs over the next two years, Rosen said.
The provost’s office also is in talks with the School of Public Affairs and Administration — which has a No. 1-ranked master’s program in city management and urban policy — and the School of Business to possibly develop some fully online graduate programs, Rosen said.
“We are not trying to have a strategy that’s a one-size-fits-all for the whole university,” Rosen said, “but rather we’re being very strategic about it.”
Ginsberg said he believes the education school has to make moves like these, or it may no longer hold onto its national reputation over the long haul.
“My guess is, we can ride out what we’re doing and continue to be OK,” Ginsberg said. “But the next generation, and the generation after that — if we want the KU School of Ed to be at its level of prominence now and hopefully at a higher level of prominence, we’ve got to make some changes.”
Another goal for KU is to use individual online courses to replace classes from other institutions — community colleges, especially — that undergraduates often take to fill requirements. Rosen said KU doesn’t have statistics on exactly how many students do this, but knows that it's occurring.
KU sophomore Michael Garrett said word often spreads among students about certain courses offered elsewhere that can transfer to fill certain general-education requirements. He took one online Western Civilization course from Barton County Community College last summer while working as a lifeguard in Lenexa, his hometown.
Ann Cudd, an associate dean in KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the College this summer will offer about 40 online courses, a mix of general-requirement courses and more advanced ones. And the provost’s office is pitching in to spread the word to students that they can take those rather than a community college course.
“My hope is that if they’re KU students, then the first institution of choice would be a KU course, taught by KU faculty,” Rosen said.
Two other aims for KU, Rosen said, concern courses that won’t be fully online, but will include a mixture of online material and in-class time.
One of these strategies is what Rosen calls a “blended” class or program: where students, probably working professionals, can do much of their learning online and meet in person only occasionally, allowing them to work fulltime or even live 100 miles or more away from the campus.
The School of Social Welfare already offers blended Master of Social Work programs in Lawrence and on the Edwards Campus in Overland Park, and another will begin this summer based in western Kansas, designed to train social workers for an area that needs them.
The second strategy concerns “hybrid” courses — on-campus classes for KU undergraduates where lectures and other materials are often placed online and in-class time is used for discussion and activities. Officials say research shows many students learn much more effectively in that format.
Though KU’s administration is forming online strategies, online courses still require faculty willing and able to teach them.
“This will be faculty-led,” Rosen said.
And for faculty, shifting toward teaching online might not be easy to do.
Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism at KU whose research has turned in recent years toward the possibilities of online educational tools. He says KU has been too slow to move toward online education, and it might need to do more to make the transition do-able for faculty.
“What I hear from faculty are concerns about, ‘Where do I fit this into my schedule now?’ ” Ward said.
At a research university like KU, faculty are already under pressure to conduct research and publish journal articles. And creating an online course takes time and careful thought, Ward said.
“If online education is simply added to the plate without any support, I think it could become overwhelming for faculty,” said Andrew Torrance, a professor of law who serves as president of the KU Faculty Senate.
KU does offer support. The staffs at KU’s Center for Online and Distance Learning and Center for Teaching Excellence are both quite helpful for faculty developing online or hybrid courses, Ward said.
But Ward suggests the university do more to incentivize faculty to move into online education: make it more of a factor in promotion and tenure decisions, perhaps, or allow faculty who are adept at it to spend less time researching and more time building and teaching online courses.
Torrance said he believes some faculty are enthusiastic about the possibilities of online education, and many more recognize the importance of the issue but consider it a bit of a mystery.
“There’s a healthy dose of skepticism that if it’s done badly it could be very bad,” Torrance said.
When it comes to individual online courses at KU, another issue is cost. Rosen said KU’s online courses generally cost as much in tuition as an in-person course. And students say that one reason they use community-college classes to fill in holes is that it’s much cheaper.
“There is no comparison,” said KU senior Camille Fittell. She said it cost her less than $1,000, including textbooks, to take three Johnson County Community College courses the summer after her freshman year. One KU business course the next summer cost her $1,200 on its own.
All the same, though, she said she’d like the option to take more KU courses online over the summer or perhaps even over winter break.
Though KU has moved slowly on online education so far, that’s not the case for every university in Kansas.
Fort Hays State University enrolls thousands of students in its Virtual College and has a separate program that brings in about $1.5 million each year from students in China. Kansas State University offers a variety of fully online programs, too.
But Rosen and others say it’s important for KU, which frequently emphasizes its “flagship” status in the state, to pick its spots and maintain a high standard of quality for its online courses.
“Fort Hays has its own focus, and it’s very different from ours,” Rosen said.
Elite universities are making noise in online education, too, with Harvard, MIT and other heavyweights offering free Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, and receiving much attention for it—and attracting students from all over the country. (Cudd said she has hopes for KU to offer a MOOC or two at some point.)
The way forward for higher education may not be clear — for instance, Ginsberg cites successful sports programs as one thing that might help hold brick-and-mortar universities together in the future, while Ward says an emphasis on sports threatens to overshadow the educational capabilities a research university like KU might have to offer.
But they and others agree on one thing: Doing nothing is not an option.
“I don’t think that KU has the option of standing still,” Torrance said, “because others are not.”