Speakers challenged more than 200 campus leaders Oct. 31 to approach online learning the way the UI approaches almost everything else it touches - they should revolutionize it.
The message was delivered through the UI's "Summit on Online Education: The Present and Future" at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center to the group of administrators, faculty and staff members, and graduate students. The meeting was sponsored by the Office of the Provost and Online and Continuing Education and co-organized by the College of Education, the Ubiquitous Learning Institute, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
"It's a way to think about allowing students more access," said Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise in introductory remarks to participants. "There is a limit to how many students you can teach in a classroom. It allows them to learn in ways they could never, never access before."
She said the Urbana campus has been "far in advance" of other institutions in offering myriad online opportunities to students.
"Virtually all of the colleges have embraced this as the new way of learning," she said, adding they've achieved success without having to "dumb down" content or "cheapen" the educational mission. She said the university will continue to succeed if its intentions continue to be that of academic excellence and not fiduciary fears.
But Wise said in the future the university will have to better incorporate those educational practices as a central mission goal - even amid an unprecedented rate of technological change.
She said those undiscovered technologies would continue to change the academic online landscape, and the UI must continue to be a pre-eminent problem-solver to successfully navigate those changes.
"The University of Illinois has to be a leader," she said. "We should be a leading edge. I want us to be known for that."
Deanna Raineri, associate dean for instructional technologies and information services in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the Urbana campus was one of the first institutions to embrace Internet technology's academic potential.
"(The UI's adoption) was years before online education became the buzzword it is today," said Raineri, who served as moderator of the meeting.
And now is not the time to back away from the commitment, but to move forward on it, she said.
"Practically every college can boast an online offering," she said. "So now, it's time for the next steps. We are guessing that many of you are feeling the same way."
But coping with a world of ever-evolving high-tech instruction is not without its challenges and pitfalls.
Joanne Dehoney, of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association promoting higher education's intelligent use of information technology, said it's a matter of instructors rethinking teaching approaches, administrators providing centralized infrastructure and everyone listening more to students.
"When you take the time to think strategically on how you're going to teach," she said, "the result is more-engaging instruction."
She said students also are still adapting to technological changes, but they also seek some physicality in their education experience.
"Students prefer some technology in their learning experience, but what you don't see are (preferences for) the more exotic technologies," she said, referring to various student-centered studies. "Students also value face-to-face interaction. They want us to nail the basics very, very well."
She said studies show that even students aren't sure how much technology in the classroom is a good thing. One study, for example, showed student respondents split almost in thirds - appropriate, not appropriate and neutral - when asked whether it was appropriate for an instructor to "friend" them on Facebook.
She said the key is an engaged faculty that is actively plotting the use of technology, "not just throwing technology at it. They need to rethink the course and make sure there is a value added."
She said the university administration should "ensure the scaffolding is there" for instructors seeking to expand their use of technology and even supply a basic "entry model" for classroom innovators. She called it "blended learning in a box."
"There will be an explosion of tools to help us fine-tune decisions," she said. "The need for collaboration is extreme, but there are already rich partnerships to tap into."
Sylvia Manning, former UIC chancellor and president of the Higher Learning Commission, a member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, said the UI will have to turn to branding power to rise above the crowded commercial online education field.
There is still a perception that there is a difference between an online education and an on-ground one, but that line has been blurred, Manning said.
"People are being barraged and they don't know where to turn," she said.
She said the difficulty for public universities is they're competing with for-profit companies and that individual units sometimes have to turn to outside vendors to help develop online tools.
It also makes accreditation more difficult as regulators attempt to find which online educators are in fact offering a legitimate education experience, she said, adding there also are worries that laws aimed at separating the good online providers from the bad will stifle innovation.
She said the university must make the commitment to make the online learning experience equal to that found in the classroom.
"It doesn't have to be the same as on-ground (instruction), but it has to be the same quality," she said. "It's whether you believe it's of equal importance."
She said the university can't compete with for-profit online providers because it has a different mission not motivated by profit. She said it will take a certain amount of "unbundling" by the university as units figure out what methods should stay and what new ones should be considered.
"The for-profits are way ahead of you (in levels of online support-services funding)," she said. "You need to look for a different market - a market of quality. The future for online is enormous ... but you've got to keep that academic edge. That is the future of online education for the University of Illinois."
The meeting concluded with a two-hour roundtable session, where participants were asked to share localized problems and solutions for online learning.