There’s no doubt that the face of education is changing before our eyes. Technology has enabled a new wave of learning and collaboration, and Penn State has been ahead of the curve in embracing changes to the old educational format.
With the advent of the Internet, there are now new tools available to teach, distribute, and learn college-level course material. With online resources like Khan Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare, almost anyone can get a college education from home. But what sets Penn State apart?
You may have heard of Penn State’s World Campus, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. If not, you can assume that it’s exactly what it sounds like. The World Campus aims to bring the classroom experience to the home, office, library, gym, or anywhere you feel like learning.
I sat down with World Campus executive director Dr. Wayne Smutz to discuss the future of the World Campus, academic outreach, and education in general. He emphasized the importance of utilizing technology to improve education.
“The goal is to use technology to do three things in education,” Smutz said. “One is to figure out how to use it to help improve learning. The second is to improve processes to make education more efficient, and make learning more efficient because the costs are so high now. And the third is to use technology to reach audiences internationally and globally — audiences that don’t have much access to education otherwise.”
Research shows that online courses are catching on. According to a recent Faculty Senate report, World Campus enrollment has been steadily increasing, from about 5,000 in 2006 to nearly 11,000 in 2012. In 2011, 36% of all Penn State graduate students were enrolled in the World Campus.
Although some University Park and branch campus enrolled students take World Campus classes, the online program is geared toward adults with full-time jobs and families. While online coursework has the benefit of being flexible, nothing can completely replicate the on-campus classroom. Historically, one of the big challenges in online education is course structure.
“When institutions like MIT first started putting course material online, the thought was that as you got more educational resources out there in the open — that anyone could grab and use for free, essentially — that that would provide a lot more access to structured education,” Smutz said. “But that has not worked out exactly. It’s hard to take a collection of stuff and make something out of it. You can learn pieces here and there, but it’s not an inherent course structure.”
This is where Penn State’s World Campus excels. Unlike most universities offering online programs, most of the World Campus instructors are Penn State faculty, rather than independent contractors. The World Campus employs a Learning Design team to develop an engaging virtual classroom, incorporating multimedia, contextual activities, and assessment strategies. They also employ a Faculty Development team to prepare faculty to provide the best online learning experience.
It’s almost impossible to predict what education will be like in even a few years. Technology is moving so fast that there are constantly new revolutions in learning. I have even seen this firsthand in just the last few years. For example, I got a tablet PC over winter break and it’s totally changed the way I take notes in class and interact with course material. While online education may be on the rise, it will never completely replace the traditional campus structure. It is meant to be an alternative resource, and be more accessible for the non-traditional student.
“I think, going forward, that online education will continue to grow. There’s no doubt about that. I also think that there’s no doubt that will be all there is,” Smutz said. “People will want to get together, and need to get together face-to-face. So this is not about replacing traditional education, but finding another way to provide a quality education.”