In 2010, the University of Kentucky tried an experiment: professors in the College of Arts and Sciences took 20 summer school classes out of the lecture hall and into cyberspace, trying out the school's first large-scale attempt at online education.
This summer, there will be 70 classes with more than 3,000 students already signed up.
For Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Kornbluh, online summer school classes are less about entering some brave new world of online education and more about getting more students to graduate in four years.
"The main reason to do this is to help students make progress toward degrees," he said. "The whole nation has challenges with continuing in school and graduating on time. This way they can go home, live with families, do a job and take key courses that will help them move along.
"They're paying less for their degree, and it clears up space to admit more freshmen with less five- and six-year students."
If faculty and students become more comfortable with online teaching and learning, that's an added benefit, Kornbluh said. "We want to use it as an intelligent way to enhance the regular college experience."
Online or distance learning has been around for decades, but has been embraced less by UK than other Kentucky schools that have more far-flung sites. According to the Council on Postsecondary Education, for example, UK students get 3 percent of their credits online compared to Morehead State University students who get nearly 25 percent. UK's goal is to get to 6 percent by 2014.
Kornbluh has been pushing the online summer program as a way to get more students into bottleneck classes, the hard-to-get-into courses required for majors that can block students from getting degrees on time. And he acknowledges online education also allows more people to take classes, part of an even braver, newer world in which cuts in state funding mean every unit at the university has to figure out ways to generate more revenue. Students pay the regular fee per credit hour, and faculty are paid the regular summer school rate.
Kornbluh hopes online teaching can enhance what happens in the regular classrooms. Last summer, history professor Kathi Kern and some of her colleagues designed a U.S. history survey for summer school that would be taught entirely online via the Blackboard operating system that UK uses. They used online archives and digitized media, combined with short, videotaped lectures by Kern that outlined the major segments.
She called it a design process "much more collaborative and creative than usual."
The student evaluations mentioned that her taped mini-lectures helped them learn the most. "So, that's got me to thinking about my face-to-face classes, that I need perhaps more of those short, framing episodes to help students identify significant issues," she wrote in an e-mail.
Kern and several other professors said the biggest challenge has been getting students to understand that even with flexible scheduling, it's very difficult to get all the work of a 15-week semester into a six-week course.
"You have to spend two-and-a-half times as much time per day in order to do the same work, and the class goes over twice as fast," said Matthew Giancarlo, an English professor who taught a survey literature class online and is offering the same one this summer. "We deliver university-quality instruction, so it can be a real challenge, especially if they're trying to work a full-time job or travel."
Political science professor Clayton Thyne said while he still believes in-class discussion is valuable, he's seen some interesting e-mail threads about his class online.
"In a class of 150 students, you have to have a lot of guts to say something," he said. "Sometimes on e-mail, it can be easier."
Student Callaway McCann took a class on career planning last summer and said she actually found it easier and faster to communicate online.
"I actually got my questions answered quicker," she said. "I loved the class because I like doing things in my own time."
Still new systems always provoke new questions, and there have been plenty from faculty about being replaced by online classes or issues of intellectual property.
Kornbluh said the project was developed with faculty governance, and faculty own the courses they present. They can be taught for only three years then canceled or redesigned.
"That's a real important piece," Kornbluh said. "Why these types of experiments have failed in the past is that they have been administratively driven."
But he does not think on-line classes can replace the experience of being a student on a campus where there is plenty of real interaction between faculty and students.
Instead, he predicts more hybrid classes that use both direct teaching and some on-line component.