I got my first exposure to online learning in the early 1990s at the University of Maryland University College. In those pre-web days, UMUC developed its first online baccalaureate degree program. A few years later, I was back at Penn State, where, in 1996, we began to plan the World Campus, which went online in 1998. Today, online learning is entering its third decade as a change agent in our colleges and universities. It is moving into the mainstream of many early adopter institutions. In others, it is still proving itself as an innovation. As more institutions move toward mainstreaming their online learning innovations, it is a good time to look ahead to some of the policy issues that institutions may want to consider.
This is not to say simply that online learning needs to match up with the pre-existing policies. Looking ahead, it is good to keep in mind that, when an innovation enters the mainstream, it changes the mainstream and that this, in turn, paves the way for future innovations.
Program Approval and Academic Authority
At many institutions, the startup period for an online learning program often involves responding to entrepreneurial opportunities—a faculty member who is interested in experimenting, a client organization that has a pre-existing relationship with an academic unit, etc. However, as online learning becomes an ongoing part of the institution’s services, it is essential that decisions to offer a program online are vetted in the same way as a program being proposed for on-campus delivery. After all, online programs represent a long-term commitment by an academic unit and its faculty. They become part of the faculty workload and, ideally, part of the reward structure within the academic unit and the institution as a whole. Programs also represent a collaboration between the sponsoring academic department and the online learning unit. Once online learning is mainstreamed, approval and central support for online programs should be managed within the shared governance environment that guides on-campus programs.
Copyright: Enabling OERs
Online learning is, at one level, a publishing activity. Institutions need to ensure that the material included in courses is properly copyright protected. Most institutions will already have copyright policies that may need to be adjusted to include copyright of faculty-developed online course materials.
One facet of copyright that has emerged in recent years is the idea of repurposing some online course content as “open educational resources” (OERs). OERs could be used to provide K-12 schools with new content that allows teachers to enhance their classroom instruction. They can also provide noncredit training opportunities to employees in client organizations. Colleges and universities can also make them available to partner international institutions to ensure that students can effectively transfer to complete a degree.
The uses of OERs are still emerging. However, several organizations have emerged to support the sharing of online resources. One is the OER Commons, which notes that, “Open Educational Resources (OER) offer opportunities for systemic change in teaching and learning content through engaging educators in new participatory processes and effective technologies for engaging with learning.” Another is the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, a consortium of more than 250 institutions in Canada and the United States that “promotes the awareness and adoption of open educational policies, practices, and resources.”
The emerging policy issue is for colleges and universities that produce online courses to ensure that online course content can be restructured as OERs. Developing policy now will facilitate future innovation in this arena.
Certifications: Defining Badges
Badges have emerged as a new kind of certification for online learning programs. However, for them to work in the long run, they must become integrated with institutional policy. Two policy issues are emerging in this area.
First, as institutions offer badges for professional education, it is essential that they record them on a student transcript so that, in the coming years, if a student includes a badge on her resume or job application, the employer can verify the student’s accomplishment.
Second, institutions must develop standards for defining badges. Ideally, inter-institutional standards for badges will emerge to allow them to have more value in student career advancement.
A model for this was developed by the Continuing Education community back in the 1960s. A recent article by Deb Peterson notes that the CEU concept emerged from a task force commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education in 1968. Peterson notes that a CEU is defined as “unit of credit equal to ten hours of participation in an accredited program designed for professionals with certificates or licenses to practice various professions.” The International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) takes responsibility for maintaining the standard and working with institutions and professional associations on CEU assessments.
The time is rapidly approaching where institutions—and professional associations—will want to standardize badges in a similar way. Meanwhile, colleges and universities can advance this area by creating their own criteria and working with peer institutions, higher education associations, and client professional associations to create standards that can be applied across institutions.
These are three areas where colleges and universities that are innovating with online learning can develop policies that will allow them to fully realize the potential of online learning to fulfill their educational mission in the new global information society.