Welcome back to the second half of the semester, to the season of spring and its promise of rebirth and new growth. As I look outside my window and see what little remains of last week’s snowstorm, I’m reminded of the poet Shelley’s words: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
In this message I want to share with you a dialogue held very recently with members of the Academic Affairs committee of Loyola’s Board of Trustees. The conversation concerned distance education and its current and future role in the delivery of a rigorous, transformative Jesuit education to undergraduate, graduate and professional students at Loyola. This conversation was facilitated by an excellent presentation made by Dr. JoBeth D’Agostino, Associate Provost for Curriculum Development and Associate Professor of Environmental Science. Dr. D’Agostino is responsible for the academic oversight of online education at Loyola.
For over ten years Loyola has offered online instruction, beginning in 2002 with an online masters degree and certificate in Bioethics. Throughout the intervening decade our degree and certificate offerings have increased incrementally, led by innovative developments in the professional schools, especially in Nursing, Law and Pastoral Studies. More recently, both our planning and our offerings have accelerated as we have responded to the demands of current and prospective students for new course scheduling options and flexible delivery formats. Online learning courses are now offered throughout the academic year, including during January-Term and the Summer Sessions, in most of our professional schools, and undergraduate degree programs are now offered to adult learners through the School of Continuing and Professional Studies and the Niehoff School of Nursing. In total, we currently offer 21 degree programs and 6 certificate programs, either fully online or in a blended format, which you can read more about at http://luc.edu/online/. But what are the added implications for Loyola of these twin demands for increased technology and flexibility? What can we expect regarding developments in undergraduate education and what will be the expectations for faculty? These were some of the questions posed to me by our Trustees, questions that many of you may also have.
To begin with, we will continue to expand online course offerings for undergraduate students where there is demand, while at the same time enhancing faculty support in this area. Careful monitoring of current online course enrollments and trends enables us to assess student demand. For example, we’ve known for some time now that undergraduate students are most interested in flexible formats that allow them to make progress in completing the Core Curriculum, and to complete degree requirements in a timely way, keeping them on track to graduate in four years. And we want to offer our undergraduates opportunities to experience learning in an online environment if they so choose. However, it is unlikely that we will allocate resources toward the development of a fully online, four-year undergraduate degree targeted to traditional age full-time undergraduate students. Certainly online education is a strategic element of Loyola’s future planning for certain populations of students, but we plan to continue investing most of our available resources in providing a premier ‘on-the-ground’ undergraduate experience for our students.
We also know that faculty are open to teaching online courses and that departments and schools are open to developing online programs, provided there is adequate administrative support and coordination. This is true for both curriculum development and instructional development. My office continues to be committed to providing professional development and support to faculty interested in learning new online technologies and pedagogies. In fact, faculty interested in the online teaching course offered through the Faculty Center for Ignatian Pedagogy has become so popular that we have increased capacity to meet faculty demand. Additional university resources such as Academic Technology Services, the Digital Media Lab, and the University Libraries provide a network of support for faculty open to skill development in online pedagogy.
And you may be wondering, is Loyola ready and interested in offering MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)? I’ll admit that I am still learning as much as I can about the specifics of this learning platform, and whether an investment in this direction makes sense for us. I don’t have an answer to this particular question just yet, but I can tell you that Loyola is blessed with faculty talent, disciplinary distinctiveness and, like TED Talks, ‘ideas worth spreading.’ Let’s keep the dialogue open on this initiative: send me your thoughts and I’ll report on your feedback and my thinking on this topic as it evolves.
In the meantime, I wish you well as you bring the academic year to what I trust will be a successful close.
John P. Pelissero, PhD