A SAGE approach to online learning


After a wonderful yet quiet summer on campus, the heightened energy on campus this week is palpable.  The VCU students moved into dorms this weekend, and Fall 2013 semester classes begin on Thursday. I have never taught undergraduate courses at VCU, and most of my teaching has occurred off-campus or online. So, other than the occasional guest lecture, my direct, academic interaction with students on-campus has been limited.

Now, though, as the Interim Director of Online Academic Programs, my relationship to on-campus students is changing. Some might struggle to reconcile that lead sentence. If your focus is online learning, what do you have to do with on-campus students? Well, the truth is that in any given semester, of the thousands of enrollments in online courses through VCU, many of those are “traditional,” residential students. That is, increasingly, online learning is augmenting the face-to-face, bricks-and-mortar experience for VCU students. We are moving towards what Mike Caulfield calls “Residential Online.”  This is where  “…residential colleges aggressively pursue building online capacity and integrate online seamlessly into the residential experience.”

Mike poses “Residential Online” as a counter to letting “online evolve outside the residential college experience.” I don’t think those are mutually exclusive; it’s not a zero-sum game. There are not one or two or any small number of possibilities for online learning and higher education. In fact, I believe that one of my main functions in my new position will be to help people see these possibilities; to bust the myth that online learning is something monolithic.

In the Spring 2013 semester, before taking on my new role, I was a member of  the VCU Online Strategic Plan Task Force. We worked very hard, under the steady direction of Jeff Nugent, to craft a report that we submitted to the Provost of the University. That report is framed around four major goals:

  • SUPPORT: Providing new learning opportunities for students to complement and enrich their residential education.
  • ACCESS: Increasing access to high quality courses and programs and expanding VCU’s reach.
  • GROWTH: Seeking to grow innovative programs that take advantage of the unique affordances of the online environment.
  • EXPLORATION: Encouraging and supporting faculty to explore new pedagogical approaches, and to participate in furthering the conversation about what constitutes excellence in teaching and learning.

Only after we submitted the report did I note that we had created the acronym: S.A.G.E.; not a bad acronym for higher education purposes.

There is no question in my mind that online learning can play a significant, multi-pronged role in the university’s overarching goal of student success.  Thus, under the support goal, one example of our approach is to figure out how online learning might alleviate the problem of “bottleneck” courses (courses that students struggle to get through for academic reasons or for lack of open sections).

Access and Growth are both, in my opinion, guided by “what makes sense.” That is, from a pedagogical perspective as well as a market perspective, what courses and programs make sense as online offerings? So, I think of the access goal as taking existing, face-to-face courses and programs that are high-demand and adding online offerings of them. And, the growth goal is about adding new programs that don’t yet exist at VCU. But, again, in my mind, that will only happen where it “makes sense.” Is this the type of course and/or program that lends itself to online learning? Is there a market for this program beyond the local community? I often think of a hypothetical student in, say, Idaho. Why would said student want to take THAT course/program online and why FROM VCU? If we can’t answer those questions, we need to think about whether it makes sense to increase access to or grow the courses/programs.

Finally, there is the exploration piece. I truly look forward to doing all of the work that this new job entails. However, I most look forward to the work we do around exploring new and innovative possibilities. This is where we can REALLY break out of the “online learning as a monolith” box and really ponder new and exciting possibilities. It’s no accident that the Office of Online Education exists within the Office of the Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success. And, it so happens that the new Vice Provost leading that office is Dr. Gardner Campbell. Under Gardner’s leadership, we have the opportunity (and support!) to be really innovative in how we bring online learning to bear on student success. In the coming days, we’ll be adding to the team and exploring and developing amazing online learning experiences.

We will be innovative, and we’ll also be SAGE in our approach. Stay tuned!

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