The expansion of online academia

Term by term, Portland State is steadily introducing more online courses into its curriculum as a greater number of students are expecting the university to shift to an online atmosphere.

Term by term, Portland State is steadily introducing more online courses into its curriculum as a greater number of students are expecting the university to shift to an online atmosphere.

“Our students really appear to want online learning,” said Roy Koch, provost and vice president of academic affairs. “There’s an obvious and growing demand by students for technology-assisted classroom activities and, in many cases, fully online activities.”

PSU’s online courses tend to fill up faster than regular courses because students can more easily work an online course into their schedules, Koch said. By offering a more flexible and convenient option for students who, for example, have trouble coming to campus, online courses allow students to move smoothly through their chosen program—a state of affairs known as “curricular effectiveness,” Koch said.

“We want to make sure that classes are offered and available at the time when students need to take them so that they can make progress at the rate they’re hoping to,” he said.

According to Melody Rose, PSU’s vice provost for academic programs and instruction, the university is currently taking stock of its online resources and is figuring out how best to reorganize these resources so as to meet student demand for them in a focused, high-quality manner.

For example, Rose will oversee the unification of PSU’s two primary service stations that specialize in online learning modalities: the Center for Academic Excellence, which trains PSU faculty in hybrid courses, and the Online Learning Service, which trains faculty in fully online courses, in addition to developing courses for the university’s online extension service.

The two stations—which have cultivated different areas of expertise over the years—are currently housed in Cramer Hall and the School of Extended Studies, respectively. When they are finally combined, they will together be known as the Center for Online Learning.

“There’s a lot of talent in both teams,” Rose said. “Physically bringing them together under one roof allows them to collaborate and to learn from each other’s expertise.”

She explained that this marriage of convenience between the two stations will streamline PSU’s online experience, as faculty and students alike won’t have to “venue shop” for services. Instead, everyone will enjoy the full complement of online services in one location, a single access point for PSU’s instructional design team.  PSU is currently advertising for a director for the forthcoming online center.

“We are hopeful that the reorganization will result in better support for faculty who teach hybrid classes and a better quality learning environment for students in these courses,” said Michael Chamberlain, coordinator of the Instructional Design Team in the Center for Academic Excellence.

The growth of online courses improves PSU’s infrastructure problems, according to Koch.

“As we have grown, we’ve had to grow our capacity to serve more students in classrooms, which is an expensive proposition,” Koch said. “And the state is not in a good position these days to provide additional funding for classroom buildings.”

Koch added that from the institutional perspective, increasing the number of online classes enables PSU to deal with its growing number of students without growing its physical footprint.

Although online classes serve as a space-saving measure, they do not serve as a cost-saving measure, for to provide an array of user-friendly online services requires a sizable infrastructural investment of its own.

“It turns out that it’s really no less expensive from our side to go online except for the space,” Koch said.

For this reason, PSU’s online courses currently come with a fee attached. According to Koch, the fee goes directly to support the instructional designers, the online library facilities, the hardware, the software packages and the additional servers needed to keep PSU’s online presence up and running.

What’s more, PSU’s latest learning management system, Desire2Learn (D2L)—which is scheduled to usurp Blackboard by the end of this academic year—is more expensive than its problematic predecessor. Adopting D2L, therefore, adds yet another incremental cost to PSU’s online pedagogical repertoire.

The university’s next step, Koch said, is to develop more wholly online programs. PSU already boasts a number of online licensing and certification programs, an e-MBA program in business administration and a criminal justice program that is online from beginning to end—though the last one is, in fact, a national program and is not restricted to PSU students.

According to Koch, PSU is not fated to become a fully online university, and its online offerings will never constitute more than a small, if not negligible, fraction of PSU’s services. He estimates that the university’s online courses presently amount to roughly 4 to 5 percent of its total services.

Since online classes are open to just about anyone, PSU will probably endeavor to quality-control its online enrollment, such that existing PSU students will get first dibs, and then non-admitted students from Washington or California, for example, can enroll if there is still room available.

“We’re not moving into online learning in order to expand the reach of Portland State across the United States or across the world,” Koch said. “We’re doing it to provide…better access for the students we already have and the students we’re likely to have.”?