By Ursula Thomas Miller
When it comes to teaching with technology, Stephen Yandell is torn.
On one hand, the professor of medieval English literature embraces the traditional classroom with its face-to-face instruction and eschews recent advances in web-based curriculum. On the other, he’s intrigued by the wide variety of user-friendly technologies transforming the form, feel and delivery of higher education in today’s globally focused, Internet-dependent world.
“I have a conflicted relationship with online learning,” says Yandell. “I am both skeptical and excited about the possibilities.”
Skeptical, he says, because online classes have a tarnished reputation for being too easy. Excited because today’s technology allows for innovative and creative ways to study almost any topic.
Even medieval literature.
“There is technology that allows you to explore medieval manuscripts,” Yandell says. “It can turn the pages for you. It’s great and that’s just the beginning. I was at a conference on medieval studies, and one presenter told us how she took her students to a Second Life space where she had designed a way for them to deal with various portions of the text while forced, as an avatar character, to confront the same issues of greed that the Pardoner addresses in Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale.”
In many ways, Yandell’s love-hate relationship exemplifies the fear and fascination sweeping campus as Xavier begins to chart its path into a realm now dominated by for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix.
Exactly where or how Xavier positions itself is uncertain because the University hasn’t outlined a clear strategy—yet. But it’s coming. Yandell is co-leading a group studying the issue. (See sidebar.)
“It will be a serious concern for Scott Chadwick, the new provost, to put structures in place to address Xavier’s proper place in online course delivery,” says Steve Herbert, a physics professor who co-chaired the University’s search for a new provost and chief academic officer to replace Roger Fortin, who’s retiring and returning to teaching this summer. “Everyone knows this is something we have to do and that’s been reflected in the provost search, but no one has stepped up or is capable of stepping up because no one really has the power.”
To this point, Xavier’s foray into online classes has been a random, grassroots effort. It started seven or eight years ago, with a handful of pioneering professors who experimented with online tools such as podcasts and discussion boards to reach graduate students in business and education.
Now online classes, mostly graduate level, are offered through all three colleges. Xavier also is on the cusp of a watershed event. The University is expected to unveil its first online degree—a master’s degree in Montessori education—as early as Fall 2012.
“Our direct competitors offer online degrees, so we need to get busy,” says Gina Lofquist, director for Xavier’s Montessori Education program. “It fulfills the mission and broadens Xavier’s opportunities.”
The availability of online classes at Xavier varies greatly, however, depending on demand in a particular program and the ability and willingness of faculty to make the digital leap from in-class to online.
“Every university is in a huge state of flux,” Yandell says of online curriculum nationwide. “The field of online courses has been the Wild West for many years now.”
The result will no doubt define a revolutionary change in higher education but the process is evolutionary, a phenomenon akin to other major technological advances throughout history.
“Every new technology that has come along has made educators nervous and the public, in general, starting with the printing press,” Yandell says, “and later AV technology, email and the Internet.”
As a result, Xavier and most traditional universities also offer hybrid classes that incorporate traditional classroom instruction with online components.
“Hybrid courses concede the benefit of meeting face to face with an instructor to guide students along the way,” Yandell says. “No one seems to have clear answers about what kinds of courses have proven to be best suited for online components or what steps are being taken to ensure that the same level of rigor is maintained for online and traditional classes.”
Yet the direction is unmistakable, Yandell says. “More online offerings are clearly a key direction that higher education is moving in, and it absolutely behooves us as a faculty at Xavier to address these questions right now. Putting our heads in the sand won’t do anything.”
Touch Points (continued)