Group considers future of online classes at KU

Mike Williams is a KU associate professor of journalism

James Basham is a Kansas University associate professor of special education.

A group of Kansas University faculty, staff and students delving into the rise of online education recommends that the university keep watch over the quality of digital courses and online learning while making sure that faculty are fairly compensated for their time developing courses.

Instructors and administrators have pushed for the development of more online coursework to ensure KU keeps up with its peers in the field.

But trying to translate centuries-old instruction methods into online technology is tough. So is trying to determine how online classes can or should fit in at KU, with its dozens of departments and schools and thousands of individual instructors and students.

“Everybody is concerned about how things are going to go forward,” said Mike Williams, a KU associate professor of journalism and chairman of the online education committee, which recently produced a report for the University Senate.

Decentralized strategy

While the issues are many, the committee pointed to four key areas that the university should focus on as it tries to add more online and hybrid courses: The quality of online learning and its assessment, the time it takes for faculty to create courses, how to compensate faculty and award property rights for developing course content, and how to integrate online education with the university’s mission.

Williams said some on the committee were initially concerned with the lack of momentum and overall strategy at KU in developing online courses. But administrators said KU’s strategy is more organic and hands-off by design.

“The centralized university strategy is to work with the individual units to develop their unit-level online strategies, and for the units to set goals and targets,” KU Provost Jeff Vitter told the committee. From there the university offers support services for those departments and faculty wanting to develop online or hybrid courses.

Williams said that faculty and departments would “clearly” prefer to be the ones to initiate course development.

Faculty concerns

In talking to faculty across campus, the group found many members were concerned that online classes could lower educational quality or, as a response to economic pressure, could even be used to replace instructors or defer more teaching to adjunct and non-tenured faculty.

Others see online education as an inevitability, a future the university must adapt to. “The university is a little behind the times with online education and has realized that and has moved ahead, ” said James Basham, an associate professor of special education and a committee member. “I think the change is market-driven.”

Those who have taught online courses say that instructional quality depends on both the course and the instructor. Instructors could potentially slack in updating the course once it’s online. But then again, as Williams points out, a traditional lecturer can just pull his notes out of a file and go on autopilot as well.

At the same time, the digital medium gives instructors the ability to incorporate, immediately, current events and digital media into their course. Also, Basham and Williams both said students are often more open in the digital world than in person.

Student needs

Drew Harger, a student in finance and accounting and a member of the committee, said students have their own experiences and expectations.

For one, money matters. “Are students getting what they pay for with online classes? How is tuition going to be assessed with online education?” Harger asks.

Harger said that the university should seek input from students. “I feel as a student it’s easy to push an online class to the side or think it’s less valuable” when not surrounded by peers and a professor, he said. But Harger is quick to point out that is just his own experience.

Other students — those who have to work, have children or can’t afford to move to college towns — have their own needs and could benefit from online learning in different ways.