Other innovators develop a technology and find uses for it. At the School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS), we have always worked the other way, starting with our commitment to provide high-quality educational opportunities to nontraditional learners and adapting emerging technologies as appropriate to help meet our goal.
From Rails to RadioToday, the School is known for the breadth and quality of its online offerings, but the first network used was mechanical, not electronic. Instead of sending packets of information on the Internet, SCPS sent information by train. Professors were put in coach and entire package libraries were shipped by freight to communities without local libraries—and SCPS did this until 1957.
In the 1920s, the School began its practice of evaluating the potential of newly introduced technologies to determine if they could be used to support its mission. The first commercial radio station was licensed in the United States in 1920, and by 1928, there were three national networks. The School seized on this emerging technology and began to reach out to distant communities over the airwaves.
That year, SCPS began broadcasting weekly book reviews on Richmond’s WRVA, highlighting the books, bulletins, and pamphlets available through the package library program. With its 5,000-watt transmitter, the “Voice of Virginia” was the most powerful station between Washington and Atlanta. It soon upped its signal strength to 50,000 watts. In cooperation with the Virginia Congress of Parents and Teachers, the School also began broadcasting lectures on WDBJ in Roanoke in 1931
From Television to TeleconferencingWith televisions appearing in more and more households, the School began broadcasting its own courses. In cooperation with the Greater Washington Educational Television Association, it produced: “Mathematics for Teachers” and “Theory of Probability and Statistics”. In the late 1960s, the School created its own television studio, the first video facilities at the University, and in 1992, its educational broadcast station, W10CE.
“This School has a history of trying new technologies and adopting them if they worked,” says John Payne, senior director for strategic technologies and new initiatives. A good example is the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program (CGEP), which the School helped develop and deliver in partnership with the engineering schools at UVa and Virginia Tech. The courses were initially broadcast using microwave towers before we made the transition to C-band satellite. In 1998, the School adopted Internet-based digital videoconferencing technology and was soon delivering UVa’s first international for credit distance learning course to Istanbul Technical University.
Going OnlineIn 1999, the School began delivering online courses, starting with its certificate programs. Sixteen years later in 2015 it launched the Bachelor of Professional Studies in Health Sciences Management (BPHM), its first online degree. To help faculty members deliver their courses with the immediacy of the face-to-face classroom, the School adopted a series of online learning platforms, selecting its first one a decade before the University introduced UVaCollab. “It’s our responsibility to be ahead of the curve,” Payne says. “Because our focus is to reach beyond the Grounds of the University, we’re always looking for new and more powerful means of dissemination.”
Faculty members also have access to instructional designers like Kevin Lucey to help them make the most of the technology. Lucey helps instructors build online courses and works with them as they explore incorporating short videos, blogs and wikis in their class sites. “If you’re a good teacher in the classroom, you can be a good teacher online,” Lucey says. “The ultimate goal of these innovations is to make the technology as transparent as possible.”
An Online VirtuosoLaura Frey Horn tries to integrate as many different online tools in her classes as possible, because each one represents an opportunity to engage a different group of students. “My goal, whether I’m teaching online or in person, is to make sure that no matter what a student’s learning style is, he/she will be able to meet the course objectives,” she says. “That means you need to build in tools that allows students to learn through their own strengths.”
Horn teaches graduate courses in leadership and human resources management. Thanks to the growing sophistication of online learning environments like UVaCollab, Horn has a variety of online tools at her disposal, which allow her not only to build variety into the curriculum, but also create a feeling of momentum as the semester progresses.
The mainstay and distinguishing feature of her classes is the weekly forum, a give and take discussion that students participate in when their schedule allows. Each week, Horn posts a new question that she has chosen specifically to encourage students to engage in the material. Over the course of the week, the discussion builds as students weigh in, posting their thoughts and responding to others’.
“Because we’re reaching students in the midst of their daily lives, their posts are rarely hypothetical, but grounded in their experience,” Horn says. At the same time, she complements this question by uploading material in a variety of formats—links to YouTube videos, TED Talks, and websites, as well as newspaper accounts and scholarly articles—that encourage students to view the topic in a larger context. “Textbooks change slowly,” she says. “I can constantly update this content to capture the latest developments.”
At mid-week, Horn brings her students together for an online class, an opportunity to recap and summarize the themes raised in the forum and link that discussion to the next topic on the curriculum. “When working online, it is particularly easy to make connections between ideas over the course of the semester,” she says.
Advances in technology also allow Horn to punctuate these weekly sessions with guest lectures that benefit from her extensive network of global contacts. Horn sends lecturers a high-quality headset and reviews the technology with them before class. The lecturers can use PowerPoint presentations and field live questions. “We couldn’t afford to bring these people to a traditional classroom—and neither could they afford the time away from their work and responsibilities,” Horn says. “ These online appearances play to the strengths of distance learning.”
Horn also capitalizes on the meeting space in UVaCollab to assign group projects. “The ability to collaborate productively is increasingly seen as a key skill in the work place,” she says. Students set up meeting times, share resources, have live discussions, and work together on PowerPoint presentations. “The biggest challenge for students is not the technology,” Horn says. “It’s the group dynamics, just as in face-to-face collaboration. That’s a real indication of how far online learning has come.”
Kessler’s background as a technologist and philosopher is reflected in his mastery of online learning as well as in the content of the courses he teaches for the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (BIS) program. He delivers “Why Do We Believe the Things We Do” as well as “Minds, Machines, and Human Nature” with a richness and power that he now believes is only possible in the online environment. He blends asynchronous elements during the week—online chats among students, group projects, writing assignments, and the occasional quiz—with a weekly synchronous web meeting.
“It’s very much like a live face-to-face class, but better,” he says. “I always believed technology could help improve the impact of my classes, but I thought as many faculty members do that the virtual classroom could never be better, more engaging, and more energizing than a real one. I’m convinced I was absolutely wrong about that.”
He cites a few examples. In his view, the lack of visual cues that characterize the online environment are an advantage, forcing everyone in the classroom to be more precise in expressing their thoughts and to focus on what their colleagues are actually saying. He also finds the comments students post in the chat box during the live weekly meetings help him determine whether they are grasping the material. In addition, the chat box promotes a multi-threading of ideas that would be impossible in the physical classroom, where the conversation is linear.
“What I always loved about teaching was the interaction with students, seeing them develop their ability to think and see the world in different ways,” he says. “I think I’ve found tools online that enable me to do this even better than I can in the classroom.”