Big Ten School in Cyberspace


A Brief History of Penn State's World Campus

A Brief History of Penn State's World Campus

In his 1996 State of the University Address, Penn State's President Graham Spanier first outlined his ambitious goals for a new, "virtual" Penn State campus - the World Campus. "I believe the World Campus will change the shape of the land-grant university in the 21st century," said Spanier. "We are creating a university without walls that can provide anytime, anywhere access to learning. This will have a powerful impact on the education and training needs of the people of Pennsylvania and learners worldwide."

By January 1998, Spanier's vision began to be realized as the World Campus launched its pilot semester, offering three programs and enrolling 41 students. By the following semester the virtual campus had gone international, with the enrollment of a student from Chile. Since that time, the World Campus has grown steadily - not only in terms of its size and scope, but also in the level of respect accorded it. Students from all 50 states and 27 nations - from as far and wide as Barbados and China - have logged on to take Penn State courses. Current enrollment figures top 1,300 per semester across a steadily growing portfolio of programs.

Active Learning

In the process of bringing the World Campus to life, Penn State found it necessary to address six critical factors:

1. Vision: a clear mission statement incorporating the program's goals.

2. Resources: financial support and a skilled staff.

3. Commitment: an administration and faculty body willing to put forth the considerable effort necessary to develop techniques for a new way of teaching.

4. Full technical support: skilled staff and an infrastructure designed to troubleshoot stu-dents' and instructors' technical problems.

5. Relevant program development: presenting course material driven by focused research of real-world demand.

6. Measurement of results: monitoring student and faculty feedback to implement continual improvements to programs.

To fund the launch and initial development of the virtual World Campus, Penn State was awarded $3.3 million by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. During the last five years the foundation has provided 130 grants, totaling $30 million to more than 60 institutions for Asynchronous Learning Network projects, including two at Penn State, according to Dr. Frank Mayadas, Sloan program manager. The foundation believes that a revolutionary movement toward the virtual university is under way and is urging higher education to make the leap to distance learning on a large scale. "The Asynchronous Learning Network is aimed at providing access to learners who can't attend traditional classes because of their locations, family and job commitments," says Mayadas. "Our goal is to make learning available anytime, anywhere."

Most World Campus students are working adults. "Growing numbers of professionals who cannot take a hiatus or commute to a campus want education, and educators have a responsibility to provide for their needs," says Dr. James H. Ryan,vice president for Penn State's Outreach and Cooperative Extension, the home of the World Campus.

Recent reports about the estimated 6.3 million adults expected to enroll in online courses in the next year have led to a rash of new for-profit initiatives and huge virtual classes. By contrast, Penn State's approach has been to use the Internet to create online learning communities in courses that emphasize active learning. Rather than simply posting printed materials from traditional classes on the Web, the faculty of the World Campus works with a team of instructional designers to create a more interactive student experience.

Through the use of e-mail and online bulletin boards, World Campus students are able to participate in discussions with instructors and fellow students, and in many cases work together on group projects with fellow learners who may live in completely different time zones. Given current technology, the World Campus has adopted a multimedia approach that includes traditional distance learning technologies and print materials, as well as the newer digital media. Members of the faculty claim that this strategy has been instrumental to student and program success.

The first Penn State World Campus course, "Introduction to Turfgrass Management," went online in January 1998, drawing students from Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Washington and Puerto Rico. The unique advantages of this new kind of learning environment immediately became apparent. Al Turgeon, professor of that first class of online students says that monitoring is key in an instructor-student relationship. Before offering the course through the World Campus, he tested it with students at Penn State's University Park and Berks campuses, simultaneously gathering feedback from students about their online learning needs. This allowed him to identify and solve problems before offering the course to a worldwide audience.

Faculty Development 101

Online learning, as a new means of delivering education to audiences around the world, poses a multitude of questions. Making sure that students will have a successful learning experience is a priority. Faculty are challenged to find ways to deliver mind-engaging course content to students scattered across the globe. Helping World Campus teachers with this challenge is the Instructional Design and Development unit, a team of skilled instructional designers and technology experts available to assist faculty in developing courses. Together, faculty and team members collaborate to match their teaching objectives with the students' learning needs.

As the process of developing World Campus courses crystallized, a new course for creating online courses was developed. Faculty Development 101 is an online course that provides faculty at higher education institutions worldwide access to a new tool for expanding their ability to integrate technology into their instruction. While stud-ents in the course, Penn State teachers participate in the same online environment that is used to deliver World Campus courses. "Through Faculty Development 101, faculty gain firsthand experience of their students' educational environment," says Dr. Larry Ragan, director of instructional design and development for the World Campus.

Ragan says that to develop a World Campus course, the faculty member and design team must work through a series of questions to create a dynamic online learning environment. Examples of questions they need to address include:

  • How will you deliver course content?
  • What interactions are necessary? Is this a student-to-student interaction? A student-to-teacher interaction? Or a student-to-learning- resources interaction?
  • How and when will you evaluate the students' progress?

Once these questions have been addressed, and the course has been developed, it's up to the instructor to ensure that the students receive the attention that is required for a successful e-learning experience.

In addition to adapting some of Penn State's most respected courses to an online environment, the World Campus provides a full complement of services to its distance learners. As a result, students use an online catalog, register through e-commerce, find answers to FAQs, get technical support online, and have access to the university's library services. Support staff are available by phone and e-mail to address administrative, advising and technical issues. Future plans to enhance the online environment include increased advising and making financial aid accessible worldwide.

Partnering for Success

In order to develop and institute World Campus programs that are both relevant to the needs of today's distance learners and presented in the most effective way, Penn State has committed to the research and development of online distance education through partnerships with other learning institutions and corporations. In 1995 a group of Penn State faculty members, in partnership with faculty from Cheyney and Lincoln universities, began to work on the AT&T-funded Innovations in Distance Education (IDE) project. Three years of research for the project yielded a document titled "An Emerging Set of Guiding Principles and Practices for the Design and Development of Distance Education," which outlines specific procedures for developing online curricula. This information is available online at

In the years since the launch of the World Campus, Penn State has continued its exploration of online education. The university, with the help of the Committee on Insti-tutional Cooperation - an academic consortium of Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago - convened an online learning institute to plan the first program for sharing best practices for online learning environments. This institute resulted in the development of an online tutorial of the best strategies for online teaching and learning.

The most recent partnership Penn State has forged with other learning institutions is the Distance Education Alliance. In January 2001, the World Campus partnered with the University of California, Berkeley, University Extension; the University of California, Irvine; the University of Washington; and the University of Wisconsin's Learning Innovations program to share knowledge and create benchmarks for online education.

Outside the realm of academia, the World Campus faculty and administration have worked closely with leaders from many professional backgrounds, facilitating the development of a curriculum based on the real needs of working people in specific industries. Fourteen senior executives from professional associations, research organizations and corporations around the country sit on the World Campus Advising Board, including experts in learning systems, publishing, computer science, software, communications, education and business management. The diverse and vast knowledge pool represented by this group provides the World Campus with a clear vision of where its courses can do the most good and how they can be delivered most effectively to the adult students who enroll.

In many cases, the World Campus works directly with government agencies and corporations to deliver specific online courses to employees without taking them away from their jobs. Clients as diverse as the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Marine Corps have enrolled personnel in World Campus programs. The program instructors have, in turn, benefited from the students' feedback, improving their course design and content to match the needs of working learners.

"Online learning is still a very young field. The technology is changing rapidly, and with these changes, new opportunities are opening for us to be more effective and more efficient in the ways we serve our students at a distance."
- Dr. Gary Miller

Growing Into the Future

In the words of Dr. Gary Miller: "Online learning is still a very young field. The technology is changing rapidly, and with these changes, new opportunities are opening for us to be more effective and more efficient in the ways we serve our students at a distance." Some of these future student support services will include increasing automation of the processes, skills workshops, career counseling and job-search databases. World Campus students currently benefit from connections to the Career Services Web site and eligibility for participation in thePenn State Alumni Association's mentor program, LionLink. The administration plans to build on the existing relationships with these units.

The future of the World Campus will also see the development of my.campus, an efficient database-driven environment for the design, development and delivery of online content. The my.campus project is funded by the federal Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education through its Learning Anywhere Anytime Partnerships program. Project partners include Penn State's World Campus, Apple Computer, ReportMill Software and Sun Microsystems. This year the World Campus will introduce several long-awaited new programs, including the iMBA, an online master of business administration degree. By the end of its fifth year, the World Campus plans to offer 25 to 30 programs, comprising more than 300 courses.

A Five-Faceted Approach to Online Instructor-Student Interactions

1. Monitor student progress. WebCT, a Web-based educational delivery system used by the World Campus, enables instructors to document each student's learning process, including when they logon to a lesson and how much time they spend on it.

2. Motivate students. If students are falling behind in their work, send them an e-mail or call them to help get them back on track.

3. Intervene. If students are having problems, offer specific suggestions targeted to what will help them through a particular lesson.

4. Critique written exercises. Analyze how students draw conclusions, the appropriateness of their explanations and proposed courses of action.

5. Respond to questions. Answer all student questions, even those that go beyond the scope of the course.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.