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In Online Learning, Vive L'Evolution

Despite the hoopla surrounding the launch of MOOCs and edX, smaller institutions and for-profits have been steadily improving online learning for years. Post University shares its strategy for online success.

This story appeared in the September 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology, with an accompanying video viewpoint.

Recently, much has been said in the press about the changes occurring in higher education. MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the entry of elite universities into the online learning arena have garnered the attention of publications such as The New York Times and columnist David Brooks. Given the soaring cost of traditional college, these new--and free--course offerings are seen as the vanguard of a rapid revolution that will soon engulf higher education. The truth, however, is that online higher education is not undergoing a revolution--it's undergoing an evolution that has been well under way for a number of years.

The evolution we are seeing today has been--and continues to be--led by smaller, less well-known institutions, for-profit universities, and community colleges. At these institutions in particular, online learning has been on a hyper-accelerated pace of change and improvement. Those who have been involved in these changes know it. Students in quality online degree programs know it. Technology departments know it. And while faculty and administrators at elite universities sense it, they have not had much to do with it. To best understand these changes, we need to pay less attention to the elite institutions that are bringing up the rear of the movement and pay more attention to what the leaders in online education are doing.

Without a doubt, online education is transforming our system in a fundamental way. It is forcing us to look at what quality education means, how we assess it, which learning strategies are actually effective, and the role of technology in transforming our society through lifelong learning opportunities. For institutions to benefit from these changes, however, they must set aside the notion that face-to-face instruction is always more effective. Among many educators, it's a bedrock assumption, but it's questionable at best, and may turn out to be demonstrably false.

Brain scientists, psychologists, and education researchers are doing great work uncovering how we learn and what strategies work best to educate learners. The conversation needs to change from which is better--online, hybrid, or in-person learning--to how people learn best in each of these contexts. This is the most vital and exciting question confronting higher education, and our value as institutions will likely be determined by how we answer it.

A Strategy for Future Learning
To ensure future success, it is critical that higher education institutions develop a strategy that refocuses resources and institutional ambitions around today's teaching and learning realities. At Post University (CT), we are taking the following approach:

1) Create an institutional strategic plan that focuses on why and how we educate students, and what roles people play in this endeavor. First, it is essential to recognize that student success in learning is not only impacted by faculty. It is impacted by students' well-being, their finances, their social setting, as well as all the departments that support their learning. That's why we developed a 360-degree approach that places the student at the center of our institution. Faculty and staff are connected with the services and technology needed to support students on every step of their educational journeys. This not only removes many of the barriers to higher education, especially among the growing population of working adult students, but it ensures that we have a holistic view of each of our students, enabling us to address their needs in a more comprehensive, personalized, and immediate way.

2) Create an institutional learning and teaching model that emphasizes the student. When we began looking at our student outcomes and how we as a university affect them, it became evident that the whole institution had to move in the same direction together. Our new model is flexible enough to allow faculty to deploy various learning and teaching strategies while ensuring academic rigor by requiring them to provide evidence of their strategy's success. It also has to be broad enough to allow online, hybrid, and in-person learning modes to be successful. Our model is best described as an active learning model, where deep student engagement in materials, ideas, problems, and challenges is required in all courses.

3) Create authentic assessments to measure student learning. It's important to us to implement differential measurements that show the impact and retention of knowledge, skills, and attitudes developed in our learning environments. We use this evidence--and work done at other institutions--to improve our teaching and learning models accordingly. And, as we collect data and results, our goal is to be transparent about what we are doing and our plans for improvement.

4) Design the learning environments. To achieve better outcomes, we need to develop better curricula, map learning to outcomes, and redesign the learning environment itself to engage students. With students at the center of the teaching and learning model, it also means changing the role of faculty. We believe in a new role for faculty as scholar-practitioners who create, administer, and measure practice-based, student-focused, and outcomes-driven learning environments.

5) Provide significant resources to support faculty development. Many of the strategies and assessments used in these new learning environments require continuing faculty development. For some faculty, these changes will be natural and may reflect what they are already doing, albeit frequently in a silo. Others will need our institutional support and guidance. To that end, we are building our learning and instructional design department, adding full-time instructional coaches to mentor and coach faculty, and providing faculty with the tech support needed to develop tools that have a positive impact on student learning. In addition, we are creating processes and hiring the staff needed to provide data and analysis about our learning initiatives, which we will use to inform and improve what we do.

At Post, we have made a commitment to the next generation of learning: learning that is evidence-based; learning that is focused on engaging lifelong learners in a world where information is commoditized and authority democratized; learning that incorporates the best research coming from fields such as neuroscience, art and graphic design, and psychology. Simply put, our vision is to create and deliver the highest quality learning environments.

We believe it is critical that we improve education through an active learning model, enhance student and faculty engagement, provide continuous assessment, and use data to evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing. We also want these learning environments, experiences, and contexts to be flexible, accessible, and beautiful.

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