Sloan ALN conference
November 1-2, 1996
The University of Illinois has a rich history in advanced technologies. It claims one of the
earliest computers, the ILLIAC, the first built and owned by an educational institution; it
invented Telnet, Eudora, Plato and LotusNotes as a spin-off of Plato, and in the Fall of
1994 was still itself amazed at what it had wrought through the release of the
net-browser Mosaic. Mosaic came from the NCSA, our national supercomputer center,
which seems to have thrived in part from the insight that stressed the "applications" part
of its title as much as the "supercomputer."
The U of I has also been doing interesting work for a long time in bringing computers to the aid of instruction. Perhaps most notably, a member of the Chemistry faculty in Urbana has for twenty years used widely-adopted computer programs for students to do experiments not only repeatedly, but with chemicals and under conditions that no risk-management personnel would permit in a live lab.
More recently, Burks Oakley II, a professor of electrical engineering, used a grant from the Sloan Foundation to solve some of his problems as a teacher. He held office hours during the afternoons, but the students were in other classes or at jobs or just not inspired at that moment to talk to him. His students studied from 10 pm to 2 am, and wanted to ask him questions right then, but he was at home either being a good parent or asleep. His students did homework and took quizzes and as a model teacher he returned them corrected within 2 days but within 2 days students had forgotten just how (and therefore why) they had arrived at a wrong answer. The solution is called ALN and it includes asynchronous group conferencing and instant correcting of tests and use of advanced students as TAs young enough also to study until 2 am.
The peculiar structure of the University of Illinois affects how we're doing things ALN. The U of I has two large campuses, one in Urbana-Champaign which is the original land-grant campus and one in Chicago, about equal in budget though Urbana has more students: ~35,000 compared to ~25,000. We also have recently acquired a very small campus (student FTE a bit over 2000), in Springfield, the state capital. What this all means is that we aren't multi enough to act like a real multi-campus system and we aren't coherent enough--geographically or otherwise--to act like a single-campus university, and so we push and pull in interesting ways and move forward. And that in turn means that when we seem to be describing things that we're doing on a "system-wide" level it is important to realize that as systems go, we aren't all that wide. This structure also means that, in the central administration, there are no faculty. When we need faculty, we have to steal from the campuses. Or beg or borrow.
Professor Oakley belonged to the Urbana campus. In the Fall of 1995 he became the first holder of a position in the office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs called a Faculty Fellow, which is a half-time commitment to helping out that allows a faculty member who can't quite imagine being an administrator to put one toe gingerly into the water. His assignment was to give away $750K in grants across the 3 campuses for projects that advanced the use of high technology in instruction. At the same time the campus convinced the Sloan Foundation to follow up with a very large grant to support ALN efforts in Urbana. These efforts weren't duplicative: they were both needed and sometimes synergistic.
The Sloan project, called SCALE, was conceived to add 15 courses a year for three years--45 courses. There are already 80. And that does not include an undetermined number of courses that have picked up the ideas from other courses but without direct support from the project. And in the VPAA office, something we called Advanced Learning Technologies put out an RFP for $750K and received ~$6.5M in requests, of which the selection committee thought about $3.5M could be funded with the highest level of confidence in the quality. We ended up funding $1.2M, 42 projects. Some of these were collaborations with SCALE (Sloan) projects. We have just passed the deadline for this year's applications (Round 2), with similar demand.
The creativity released by these projects, building on work already done, has been astonishing. Art historians, for example, are mapping the city of Chicago by digitizing its buildings, plans, maps, historic data, paintings, prints, views, catalogs, etc., creating accessibility by undergraduates to materials that hitherto were practical only for advanced scholars and creating ways for the students to use the materials to construct their own learning. Other projects have very different goals. A faculty member in comparative literature taught a graduate course in an area sufficiently specialized that one university can rarely offer a good-sized seminar—to students in Urbana and at two other Big Ten institutions. Curiously, the distance students were more enthusiastic about the results than the professor. These are only two of several dozen examples in fields ranging literally from A to Z.
Where do we go from here? Both the Sloan projects and those funded from the VPAA office have been focused on the enhancement of instruction on the campuses. We have been interested in ALN techniques as a supplement to what happens on campus, and will continue to be, partly because the supplement appears valuable--both student response and formal evaluation have been very positive--and partly because the supplement is becoming in fact not a supplement but something integral that is changing pedagogy--for the better. That is, faculty at the forefront have begun to stop trying to use the technology to imitate the earlier modes and started experimenting with its unique capabilities.
But something else has entered the picture. In the Fall of 1995 we installed a new president (that's the university-wide position--the campuses have chancellors), who made the first major theme of his presidency "reconnecting with the people of Illinois." Our land-grant mission and a deep sense of public service are being vigorously renewed. The president travels up and down the state, meets with editorial boards, city councils, chambers of commerce, high schools, and says "The U of I is here to help Illinois: what can we do for you?" And up and down the state, they say, "Bring the U of I here, to us." We have the Cooperative Extension Service and we have continuing education efforts that have reached out through a number of sites around the state, but that hardly makes a dent. And the state Board of Higher Education has made a major investment in two-way compressed video, installing a couple of hundred video sites around the state, but the system turns out to be difficult, from problems of interoperability to scheduling--so we use that, but it is clumsy and still not wholly practical. And two-way video is after all just a picture, in two dimensions, of the traditional classroom—something very good in its way, but without the potential that lies in hypertext materials, instant correcting of problems, or asynchronous networks.
So we've thought more about it and have come to believe that a major, if not the major, modality for the fulfillment of our land-grant mission in the 21st century will be computer based and relatively indifferent to time and place. We have set about creating what for now is called the UI-OnLine. We have a few conditions that we've set for ourselves.
The conditions include:
(1) This is a project of the university as a whole, rather than leaving each campus to go it alone, because we want focus, coherence, visibility, economies of scale, and above all the creativity of our collective ~4000 faculty to drawn on, as well as the ability to invest in this project from the broader perspective.
(2) The UI-OnLine will not be a separate entity from the campuses, the way a college of continuing education is, for instance, but rather a dimension of the three material campuses. For one thing, in time to come we will likely lose the distinction between continuing education and whatever we call non-continuing education. For another, we believe that the close connection will foster a symbiotic benefit between on-campus and off-campus instruction, and the UI-OnLine will be on-campus as well as off.. And for a third, we believe that the close connection is key to our quality requirements.
(3) We believe that what we have to offer the world is the quality guarantee that is, if you'll pardon the market analogy, the UI label. We don't want any prejorative difference to exist in anyone's perception between the OnLine courses and programs and the campus courses and programs.
The UI-OnLine is an umbrella over activities generated by the campuses and a structure for addressing issues and needs in the development of content and delivery. It will not offer its own programs but the campuses'.
We know a few more things about the UI-OnLine:
(1) Under this umbrella we will include not just courses and programs but information services such as those that already exist online as part of the Cooperative Extension Services, for example (such as StratSoy--access to the latest research on soy beans, a chat room, and ask-the-prof), or the College of Medicine (such as ToxicWeb, the toxicity equivalent of StratSoy).
(2) We know that we will need access sites even as we dream of access on the student's home or office PC, or perhaps NC, and we hope to partner with many of our community colleges to provide those sites, as well as perhaps our Cooperative Extension Services sites, public libraries, and interested corporations.
(3) We know that our audience for programs at least for the start, will be at the post-baccalaureate level, with degree programs in the professional master's fields. We are seeking in that sense to make it easier for ourselves by reaching out to adult, mature, already motivated learners.
(4) We know that more and more of our faculty are getting really interested in how to teach this way, and that two weeks ago about 150 of them gave a day's retreat to brainstorming all the unanswered questions even though our conference site burned to the ground 8 hours before we were scheduled to begin. The faculty could choose workshop sessions on administrative structure, incentives, technology and delivery, and pedagogy and curriculum. Overwhelmingly, they chose the last.
(5) But we know that a lot of faculty are concerned, and rightly so, and the pioneers among them. Last weekend at a conference on one of our campuses on Networking the Humanities, one of our faculty grantees described with utterly charming cynicism the motives behind the grant that had started the project he was about to demonstrate. One of his points was that the state was funding experiments like his in the hope of ultimately saving scads of money by cutting back faculty as one person would come to teach thousands over the Web. These concerns are not entirely groundless. I don't think we can do first-rate education by replacing the faculty with CD-ROMs: a CD-ROM is only a glorious book. But you can teach yourself a lot with a glorious book, and we can do a lot of mediocre stuff that will pass muster in many quarters and that may drive out the good.. Yet we can fulfill our mission at its best only with a lot of work on the part of the faculty. Our potential is not to cut faculty but to reach larger audiences, and I don't for a moment believe that in our lifetimes we will, at the bottom line, save any money in doing that. We'll teach better, not cheaper. Still, the potential is there for brutal cutback—brutish and stupid it would be, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.. ALN techniques always have a teacher somewhere in the mix, and critically there. And even if you decide to forego all human interaction (i.e., take the CD-ROM) content still must be created, updated, and re-created.
What else do we know? Not a lot. We are now setting up the structure within which to make the decisions and move forward with the plans that come from them; to find ways to meet the faculty demand--loud and clear two weeks ago--for help in navigating these exciting but challenging waters; to conduct research and evaluate what we do; to address mean questions such as accreditation, security, ownership of intellectual property, and academic credit; to find the money we need and the administrative channels that are both nimble enough to act in Internet-time and tough enough to meet faculty standards of quality control; to create the external partnerships we want. With all these challenges, we think the most critical is the development of content and all that implies for faculty workload, support and remuneration.
In summary: we have some valuable resources in the ALN experience of faculty, focused on on-campus instruction; we're just beginning to move these techniques to distance learning. I've done one key thing. Professor Oakley has agreed to follow the toe in the water with the rest of himself, and on January 1st will become an associate vice president for academic affairs for instructional technology, distance learning and outreach. If you want a real sense of what the UI has managed in ALN, I commend to you his presentation later in this conference.