IU online program getting big overhaul

Indiana University is embarking on a groundbreaking program it says will tear down the walls of traditional classroom learning.

As part of a new online initiative announced in September by IU President Michael McRobbie, the university will spend $8 million during the next three years to experiment with so-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

The state’s largest college, with a student body of nearly 87,000 spread over eight campuses, for years has offered certain courses online through its School of Continuing Studies. But based on a university committee’s recommendation, McRobbie announced the decision in May 2011 to close the school.

Its replacement is a much more aggressive model, allowing students from all over the world to participate via the Web. Perhaps the most interesting facet to the approach is that a new form of credential—educational badges—could be awarded to students who complete the courses and show mastery in a certain skill but do not enroll in a degree program.

Some think badges could come to be accepted by employers as a new type of formal education gained from institutions far more efficiently.

“IU Online, then, is how IU intends to ‘project’ itself beyond the walls of the campuses, and equally importantly, the walls of the classroom of the 21st century,” McRobbie said in his latest State of the University speech.

“It recognizes that the distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ students is increasingly blurred and that it no longer makes sense to use different strategies to reach them.”

The initial $8 million investment will go toward hiring additional online instructional designers, expanding the hardware and software systems for managing large-scale online programs, and funding IU’s new Office of Online Education.

McRobbie has appointed Barbara Bichelmeyer, associate vice president of university academic planning and policy and professor of instructional systems technology, to serve as the office’s founding director.

Neither IU nor Bichelmeyer returned telephone calls from IBJ seeking further comment on the initiative.

IU Online also will create Web-based undergraduate and graduate degree programs and provide online options for high-enrollment undergraduate courses to reduce the time it takes students to complete degrees.

By fall 2013, IU expects to increase its online undergraduate degree and certificate programs in such areas as business, technology, and the liberal arts and sciences. At the graduate level, every IU professional school will develop at least one online degree or certificate by next fall, the university said in a press release.

But the MOOCs, or badge concept, seem to be the most unusual aspect of the initiative.

A September report by Moody’s Investors Service described their emergence as a pivotal development. The credit rating agency said it expects revenue to increase within the higher-education sector as “elite” universities offer more classes for an unlimited number of students worldwide.

As of September, Duke, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford universities were among 21 colleges offering MOOCs. Within the Midwest, the University of Illinois and University of Michigan also were offering programs.

But for-profit education companies and some smaller not-for-profit colleges likely will have little to smile about, the report said, as they might be left out of the trend.

“At a minimum, such offerings would encroach on the online, professional and career-oriented offerings that top-tier universities have until now ceded to other players,” Moody’s said.

Indeed, online education is hardly new, having fueled the explosive growth of for-profit education companies such as Carmel-based ITT Educational Services Inc.

The growth of the for-profits has stalled dramatically amid scrutiny over student qualifications, job placement and rising student loan defaults. The increased attention thus has forced for-profit institutions to focus more on student selection and job placement for graduates, Moody’s said.

“The entry of elite universities into this space in a meaningful way will help legitimize this form of delivery and reduce the stigma that has historically been associated with distance education,” Moody’s said.

Indiana Higher Education Commissioner Teresa Lubbers said MOOCs will clearly be “at the front and center” of higher education discussions as states look for more ways to educate students.

Still, questions abound about their effectiveness, leading Lubbers to say it’s simply too early to gauge their success.

“It’s hard to argue with some of the schools who are getting involved in this,” she said. “But this has all happened, at this point, pretty quick. Are we interested? Absolutely.”

According to the Babson Survey Research Group in Babson Park, Mass., 31 percent of students took at least one online course in fall 2010, up sharply from 10 percent in 2003.•

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