BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

As one of the world's most experienced and largest online universities, University of Phoenix Online (UOP Online) has now been successfully using interactive learning platforms developed by various technological industries for over a decade. More than 16,000 students are today enrolled in our undergraduate and graduate courses that typically last 5 to 6 weeks, depending on the program. All of our degree programs include online components. In fact, the only time we ever meet our students is when they fly to Phoenix to attend their graduation ceremony.

We currently use a computer conferencing system to promote online interactions between faculty and students around the world. Students read, research, and complete their projects offline before sending in assignments. Even so, we are in constant communication with our students. For example, I often receive more than a hundred messages a day, a phenomenon that requires me to log on 7 days a week to manage the messages more efficiently. I could, otherwise, easily amass up to 600 or so messages and notes if I don't log on during the weekend. While it sounds tough, I don't consider this a downside because if you manage your online class time well, logging on every day is still better than driving to class in traffic, fighting for parking, or paying the high gas prices. I work totally from home, so I have no commuting troubles at all.

Currently, our classes are limited to 13 students. This enrollment size is not because of technological constraints; it is that such a class size allows for optimum teaching pedagogy and learning outcomes. A class of a dozen or so students is ideal for distance education because the focus on content is more in-depth and meaningful. Relatively small classes also provide much more time to reflect and comment on course content.

Nonetheless, a viable class size is only part of what makes for the success of an online class. The software ("learning platform") chosen also plays an important role in providing a positive learning experience in distance education. For example, the learning platform today is very different from the software used when UOP Online got off the ground in 1989. Eleven years ago, the best way to implement a learning platform was to install heavy client-base software on the user's computer. As a result, setting up and maintaining applications required a great deal of hand-holding from a technical support group.

Our first online platform was a DOS-operated basic bulletin board system that used a 2400-baud modem, which was the fastest back then, but tremendously slow by today's comparisons. While such bulletin boards were easy to use, they were very basic in their functionality. We couldn't spell check and there was no formatting of text. We were not able to track communications or online interactions either. In addition, the technical hardware and software were not capable of handling enrollments as the numbers climbed into the thousands--it was a logistical nightmare. Yet those bulletin boards represented the primary form of conferencing systems.

To improve that functionality, we implemented a DOS-based groupware called "Bizlink" (later called "Convene"), which featured an "offline reader." Before the Internet, students were paying long-distance phone rates to be online (and were billed by the minute!), so Bizlink's special "offline" features proved an important part of that groupware. Offline utilities enable students and faculty to work without being connected to the Internet. You can download the entire classroom to your laptop and work offline. This is especially convenient for students who travel.

As an example, I spend roughly 10 hours a week commuting on the subway. With offline capabilities I can now make good use of that time, because I can continue to work on class-related activities while commuting to and from home. It's a feature that can add one full day to your workweek. When students arrive home or to their end destination, they can simply plug back into the Internet, upload their materials, and share their information with colleagues in the virtual classroom.

But as our enrollments grew (to over 6000 students), Bizlink began crashing. Thus we eventually decided to develop our own learning platform that would run on a Microsoft Exchange Server to better handle enrollment sizes in the tens of thousands. Our Web-based classrooms today provide key benefits, such as easy setup, less need for technical support, and access from any location. The development of features does not stop here. In fact, the current trend in online education is to incorporate sophisticated features such as live chat, teaching tools, video streaming, whiteboard capabilities, and video conferencing.

Despite these advances, we still have challenges to overcome: The quality of these features, for example, is still severely hindered by even today's standard modem speeds. Most online students currently utilize a 28K or 56K modem, which do not support highly interactive learning models. Further, a major issue concerning Web-based educational systems is that a server crash or Internet connection loss can completely shut down access to a course, an occurrence that can sometimes result in permanent loss of data.

In the meantime, to address these limitations, many online courses often complement and supplement Web-based learning with software products like offline readers and CD-ROMs. While the technology is evolving too quickly to say exactly what the future holds, it is expected that a broadband technology infrastructure will be in place to support even more powerful and sophisticated applications. The research investments and initiatives of cable, fiber-optics, and phone companies will largely determine the pace of broadband technologies. We can also predict that students will continue to demand education that is more convenient, efficient, and economical so that educational programs better fit with their busy career and personal lives.

What Is the Future?

With the development of smaller, more powerful computing tools, students could be holding class in the palm of their hands while traveling on a plane, or reading materials they download from our various course platforms. Thus the ultimate challenge for distance education--and for UOP Online--will be to stay on top of the emerging technology and recognize its potential to bring greater value to the education process.