From wheat field to innovator: how BYU-Idaho is changing the landscape of higher education

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16 2011 11:58 p.m. MDT

Clark and his team had now tackled two problems: they had saved costs by turning BYU-I into a year round school, and they had raised the quality of instruction by introducing a research-proven method of teaching. He now turned his focus to what was in some ways was the most important objective of BYU-Idaho — reaching more students.

The school had used online instruction in some manner for nearly a decade, but it had been ad hoc, operating as an auxiliary to the university, with pockets of innovation scattered throughout campus. Few students on campus actually took classes online and those who did used them when a class they needed was full, or when work conflicted with schedules.

For several years, faculty had been looking at how to make online education more cost-effective and of better quality. Clark and a few other administrators met regularly about it after he came to the university, but in 2008, a novel idea surfaced that would change their approach to online learning. What if the faculty on campus didn't teach the online courses? What if qualified instructors, those with master's or doctorate degrees in relevant disciplines who were out in the workforce taught the classes remotely?

Every class would be offered online, and every student would take an online course. This, more than anything else, would allow the university to expand its enrollment and reach.

"When I first heard about it, I knew it was right," Clark said. "If you looked at the number of courses we wanted and the number of faculty, it just made sense. Our campus faculty were already swamped, and we hired them for their skill and excellence in [classroom] teaching and in developing courses."

But Clark also wanted to maintain quality. Traditionally, colleges that offered online courses had individual professors create the classes themselves. Sometimes, the results were brilliant. And sometimes, the magic of in-person teaching didn't translate to the computer.

BYU-I tried something different. They teamed up faculty who were experts on a subject (say, molecular biology) with experts on building online courses. They then tested the classes with remote adjunct faculty who were asked to teach the course online.

What they came up with was highly collaborative. Rather than self-paced online courses, the BYU-Idaho courses would need to be build in a Learning Model format that required collaborative learning and cohort-based progress. Professors developed online courses with online instructional design experts in ways that allowed students interact, with each other and with the instructor, through online study sessions, Skype, message boards and instant messaging. Not all classes naturally translated from the classroom to the computer screen. The art department, for example, wasn't sure how to teach painting online. But they were asked to try so they did.

They decided to start with an introduction to drawing class, which was one of the most popular offerings on campus, and thus a class that typically filled up fast. And they found there were actually some advantages to teaching the course online.

Traditionally, the class had been taught in a studio, and there were only so many studios in Rexburg, which reduced how many sections of the course the school could offer. And the truth was, teaching a large group how to draw in a studio, with one teacher and one easel, wasn't exactly ideal. Students in the back of the class, or those positioned at an odd angle in relation to the easel, had to crane their necks to see what the instructor was drawing, and once a certain part of the drawing was complete, he or she moved on.

But online, the experience was different. Every student had a front row seat, and could pause and rewind the video until they completely understood the concepts. They could also provide peer review and feedback by sharing their other with others.

Today, nearly everyone at BYU-Idaho takes an online course in addition to traditional classes, and nearly every course is offered online. The school is even experimenting with a live broadcast from the cadaver lab for its anatomy and physiology online course.

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