What is needed for an online university to become a world leader? (part 1)

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

I was asked this question yesterday. I may be paraphrasing, but this was the essence of it.

It was a good question.

I was among a group of peers, but I was also in a position where I didn’t want to offend anyone – at least partly because these were people I had just met. I have been attacked in the past (both verbally and physically) by so-called colleagues for expressing my opinions about what a university should be and do, so I am, not surprisingly, a little head-shy.

I have fairly old-style and idealistic views about what an institution of higher learning should be and how it should serve the society in which it operates. These include honesty, integrity, and sharing knowledge. They also include asking hard and sometimes embarrassing questions so that we may examine them and become better (see also dangerous ideas). Universities are supposed to advance knowledge, and teaching universities are supposed to help prepare the next generation.

I did of course have a lot of ideas flood into my wee brain when the question was first asked, but ended up struggling for an answer as I tried to gauge how forthright I could be without sounding overly critical. I hate it when people who haven’t really been there and done that come in and try to tell me what I’m doing wrong. I did not want to come across as one of those.

Also, people who ask such questions often claim to want suggestions for improvement, but secretly want to be told about what a wonderful job they are doing. I didn’t know if the people I was talking to wanted my opinions or flattery. One of my strengths — or weaknesses, depending on how you look at it, is that I refuse to say something I don’t believe to be true. I equate this with honesty (don’t ever let anyone tell you life is easier if you are committed to being honest – it is in fact WAY harder, but I happen to believe it is how we should live.) I’ve had to give up more than one job because I won’t lie. I’ve also gotten into a lot of trouble for refusing to lie, but I have finally begun to learn a little about tact in my old age and I am better at keeping my mouth shut than I used to be.

Obviously, given the existence of this post, I still have trouble with it. The list below is an attempt to post my ideas in a neutral way – I really don’t want to poke at any particular institution, but I DO think online institutions have tremendous potential, if they are willing to meet the challenges. On the other hand, if they do not embrace new technologies with enthusiasm and a sincere willingness to experiment and discover whether and how a new technology can be used to advantage in distance education, they will get left behind in the same way that parochial-minded conventional institutions are being left behind.

I have, of course, been considering this question all day (since it was posed to me). So, here are some answers (in no particular order)….

How does an online institution become an online leader?

  • If you are an online institution, stop asking whether or not you can teach this or that online. You’ve already decided this is the way you are going to do things. Asking whether or not is is a good way to do things is kind of moot, no? Your challenge is to figure out how to make it work, NOT trying to decide if you are making a mistake. Whether or not online is better than face-to-face (f2f) is irrelevant in this case.
  • Stop making excuses for your modes of delivery. Instead, make your offerings something you’d be proud to show your mom. If you feel the need to apologize or make excuses for something you have available online, use that as a sign that it needs attention.
  • All aspects of the university’s online interface must work well. Take lessons from other online communities (facebook is one that comes to mind) about making it easy to find things. Access to information should be effortless. People come to your institution to learn, NOT to struggle with your interfaces.
  • The “public” face of an online university is its website – it should be clean, professional and ABSOLUTELY up to date. That means every page and every day. If you have faculty listings, make sure they are current. This is where students typically go to get more information. At one university’s site, I spent considerable time going through the faculty listings of one department, and found almost NO links to faculty webpages. When I commented on it, I got rather surprised looks. “Of course we all have webpages.” I was told. “All you have to do is Google us.” OK. Maybe. (For a more detailed look at what I found, check this). But the message I get from that response is that the university is not involved in what they are doing. The individuals may be friends, but the institution is not a community.
  • When I look someone up, I want to see what they are doing (now, today, not last year); I want to know what they find important tidbits (professionally and, to some extent socially and personally), AND I want some way of getting to know who they are. A clinical-style faculty listing that tells me about their education and past employment history might be fine if I’m looking to hire someone, but is largely uninteresting from the perspective of a student. It may even be repellent. The same holds true for the research projects. (Imagine I am a bright, talented potential grad student. Does your research listing look interesting? Would it attract anyone?)
  • Faculty and staff MUST be prepared to use any and all available and appropriate technology, and to accept training or invest the time to learn if they don’t know how to use something. Help those faculty who are uncomfortable with these new-fangled ways. Get rid of those who’d rather live in the good old days. They can do that elsewhere.
  • Faculty MUST have broad ranging experience with the use of technology. Take Second Life, for example. Whether they plan to use it in their teaching or not, all faculty should have at least experienced it – they should all have accounts, avatars, and all should have attended at least one event inside SL. THEN they have earned the right to an opinion. Not before. (See Harlan Ellison’s comments on offering opinions on things you have not experienced.)
  • Faculty and staff should all be required to actually TAKE a distance course from time to time (for marks – not just as an auditor). One gets a different perspective as a student.
  • Top level administrators must be highly knowledgeable when it comes to tech, or at the very least be willing to hire advisers who are. I have come across far too many upper level administrators and research group leaders who speak (at keynotes & conferences) as though they are far too wowed by the technology, yet really don’t understand its potential or limitations. Their experience is limited to a small subset of what’s available, and although they may have played around with some of it, they’ve clearly never used it to do real work. In other words, they’ve played at it, but when it comes to getting serious work done, they seem to fall back on old technology. Practice what you preach. Be an example for your students.
  • This one may be heresy, and I REALLY wish I could claim it wasn’t true, but educational technologists REALLY need to learn more about technology. And that does NOT mean they need to learn how to use yet another tool. I have come across FAR FAR too many educational technologists who do NOT keep up with technology and who conduct most of their work using traditional approaches and technologies. Having essentially grown up with the technology (as a computer scientist, I always felt I had an obligation to remain current), and having just completed my PhD essentially by distance (the vast majority of the subject-matter expertise I needed to access was done online as there wasn’t any in my home Faculty) I have worked with quite a lot of people online who do use the technology skillfully and effectively (some of them are even educational technologists). By contrast, the number of people I have come across at ed tech conferences who still don’t even use email effectively is disturbing.
  • Hire people who look FORWARD to the future, who are ready to embrace the challenges it may bring and who are keen to learn new things.
  • Hire people who are not afraid of change.
  • Encourage (demand, if you can get away with it) your faculty to post their research and publications online ( and I mean links to the text and actual details, examples, and artifacts, not just citations and synopses). You are an online institution. Be a leader in putting scholarship online.
  • Embrace open source and community contributions. Let people know what you are doing as you are doing it. Allow (and even encourage) students to contribute to the university’s site: let them add helpful advice, how to find things, how to get help, even content. Make sure you give them credit (unless, of course, they want to remain anonymous – they should be allowed to do that when contributing to the university site.)

— to be continued….

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