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A 20-Year Legacy of Innovation

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education

In 1962, the American inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, in a talk delivered at the University of Southern Illinois, presented academe with a prescient recommendation. “Get the most comprehensive generalized computer setup with network connections,” Fuller said, “and what will emerge is a new, global educational process truly facilitated by technology.”

A little more than a quarter-century later that vision would come to full fruition with the creation of the University of Phoenix Online – the first private institution of higher education in the world to offer degree-granting programs exclusively online.

This revolutionary concept sprang from the active mind of John Sperling, the Cambridge-educated economic historian and professor who founded the University of Phoenix in 1976. Bill Pepicello, president of the University of Phoenix, explains, “Field research in the early 1970s revealed to Sperling that working adults were being underserved and oftentimes ignored by traditional higher education institutions.” At that time, colleges and universities arranged classes and services around young, straight-from-high-school, full-time students whose only concerns were studying by day and socializing by night. For older working adults looking to attain a degree to boost their careers, change jobs, or retool for the newly emerging knowledge-based economy, the doors to higher education were locked tight, closed to those struggling to juggle job responsibilities and family obligations with the pursuit of knowledge.

Sperling began to formulate an innovative idea for putting higher education within reach of eager adult learners. He envisioned building an institution more accommodating to their particular life situations and, Pepicello says, “one that would pioneer new approaches to curricular and program design, teaching methods, student services, and academic and administrative structure, all with a single-minded commitment to the educational needs of working learners.” The school Sperling first established on a small campus in Arizona embodied that commitment, and the open-door policy of education for all impelled the university as it grew from hundreds to thousands of students on a spreading network of branch campuses, giving testament to the resonance of Sperling’s idea.

Ever the innovator, the university continually searched for ways to provide even greater access to education for its growing student population. However, whatever new pedagogical method it developed needed to preserve the university’s highly collaborative and interactive learning model, which embraced small class sizes of 13 to 15 students and the extensive use of even smaller study groups. Says Adam Honea, university provost, “Sperling was keenly interested in the emergence of personal computing and internet working and, predicting that people would soon be spending significant time with the two technologies, starting looking for ways to incorporate them into teaching.”

In the early 1980s, the university began experimenting with a Wide Area Network to facilitate student-teacher interaction. Then, in 1987, Sperling read of the work in online computer-mediated communication being conducted by Linda Harasim at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He dispatched Terri Bishop, the new vice president for curriculum and product development, to investigate. “The university had already rejected a series of technologies available at the time, like satellite, video, and CD-ROM, either because they were not cost-effective or because they were supportive of primarily didactic teaching methods,” recalls Bishop, today the school’s executive vice president of external affairs. Intrigued with Harasim’s experiments in the online delivery of education, in 1988 Bishop headed a committee whose goals were to further explore the concept, develop a prototype based on asynchronous online technology, design a digital curriculum, and select software that could support the model.

Finally, in 1989, after much experimentation and testing, the University of Phoenix Online was fully launched -- the first private university venture to deliver complete academic degree programs and services to a mass audience.* The first 12 students enrolled in the online program operated in a culture not yet imbued with computer technology. In 1989, public access to the Internet was still in its infancy, and the World Wide Web was only an idea. Few homes possessed a computer, and few students had ever even used one in school before. Networking and email connectivity were still rudimentary, as were the applications available for online communications and conferencing. Nevertheless, that inaugural group of students persevered and, in 1991 – the year the world’s first website appeared –the university held commencement ceremonies for its new breed of graduates.

Within two years, more than 700 students were participating in the program, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration and management, guided by 85 teaching faculty. Working students were gradually discovering that the extreme flexibility of the online programs, with courses they could pursue on their own schedules, made higher education an easier fit into an already crowded life. And each year, as Internet access expanded and the concept of online learning gained wider acceptance, the program grew exponentially. 10 years later it consisted of 5,300 students, 500 faculty, and eight degree programs.

In those programs of the 90s, structured online classes began monthly and were organized into 5- or 6-week long blocks. Students were expected to check into the classroom at least five days out of seven. They received instruction and lesson plans online, completed assignments and submitted them online, and engaged in ongoing group discussions with other class members and instructors and collaborated in small study groups. The online format meshed well with the University’s overarching focus on classroom discussion as opposed to lectures.

“By the mid 1990s, we already had six or seven years of experience with online learning,” Honea says, “and as the Internet and the World Wide Web penetrated farther into society, we began to think about other ways those technologies could be harnessed for adult learning.” In 1995, the university debuted its online library, one of the first efforts to make a comprehensive collection of digitized library resources, journal articles, and reference works directly available to students over the Internet 24 hours a day. Then, in 2001, the university launched rEsource, a Web portal providing students with access to class-specific resources, including hundreds of textbooks offered in an eBook Collection. “Within a year, 90 percent of the course materials were electronic,” says Honea.

That same year saw the appearance of WritePointSM, a sophisticated automated grammar, style, and composition evaluation tool available through the school’s web-based Center for Writing Excellence. WritePointSM allowed students to upload papers and receive immediate feedback. Since the system’s creation, more than two million papers have been processed.

Other groundbreaking digital resources followed. Virtual organizations, complete with everything from company records to employee intranet sites, were created to replicate real life workplace problems. And electronic simulations enabled students to explore and manipulate information to test hypotheses and assess results in a controlled environment. The school’s leading-edge work in online education was honored with numerous awards, including the Global Achievement Award for Innovation from The Economist magazine. The Council on Higher Education Accreditation likewise recognized the University of Phoenix as an exemplary institution for “ensuring quality in distance education.”

Less than a decade after its launch, the University of Phoenix Online, buoyed by its initial success, began to look for areas of expansion. Mike Vandermark, a University of Phoenix instructor for nearly 20 years, notes that the school broke new ground in 1998 when it introduced the world’s first online doctoral program. “Designing such a course was a complex process,” says Vandermark. “We had the technologies in place, but transitioning to an online environment demanded that we maintain the highest level of instruction in research and writing demanded of such an advanced program.” Vandermark admits that there were bumps along the way, but in good time the online doctoral program was fully launched, and started receiving accreditation. “Because of the university’s model of a centralized, responsive organization,” Vandermark says, “we could ensure quality across the program, monitoring its performance and refining where needed.”

It has been a phenomenal journey for University of Phoenix over the years. A program that began with 12 U.S. students in 1989 now has grown to serve a global audience: The online graduating class of 2009 represented all 50 U.S. states, as well as an international community of 44 countries. And Pepicello sees the number only increasing in the years ahead. “We’re getting a whole generation of students that grew up with the technology, and they have very different expectation about what defines education,” he remarks. “With the University of Phoenix Online we’re delivering that education in a modality that working learners want and require.”

A significant portion of those working learners are members of the U.S. armed forces, whose rigorous lifestyle makes going back to school a challenge. The university’s online learning approach, however, helps them overcome many of the obstacles, such as frequent deployments, temporary duty, and constant relocation that they face while pursuing their education. “We’re particularly sensitive to the needs of the military,” says Mike Bibbee, vice president of military online programs, “and we deliver to those men and women the same levels of student support and services throughout their schooling as we do for non-military students.” A longtime member of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC), the university has designed online coursework and programs to fit even the most demanding schedule of a service member deployed overseas. Students not only have access to a wealth of resources, including 24/7 access to online libraries and technical support, but also a variety of degree programs to choose from -- allowing service members to complete a program from almost anywhere in the world. Because of its high standards and military-friendly policies, the university was recently named one of the country’s top 20 schools favorable to military personnel by Military Advanced Education.

The 2008 Sloan Consortium study, Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, revealed that, indeed, online enrollments across the nation have continued to grow at rates well beyond the total higher education student population -- and show no signs of slowing. During the fall 2007 term, more than 3.9 million students, or 20 percent of all students in higher education, were taking at least one online course -- a 12.9 percent increase over the number reported the previous year. Growth in the online student population far exceeded the growth of the higher education student population as a whole. And the quality of that online education has been validated in numerous studies. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2009 Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning, for instance, concluded that students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.

Today, University of Phoenix has become the nation’s largest private university, offering more than 100 degree programs online as well as at more than 100 campus locations nationwide. Since its founding, the university has helped transform the landscape of higher education, with many of the conveniences students enjoy today, such as evening classes, flexible scheduling, online classes, digital libraries, and computer simulations, springing from its culture of innovation. And yet, says Sperling, who today serves as executive director of the university’s board of directors, “while the higher education climate has shifted significantly over the last few decades, University of Phoenix’s mission has remained constant, and that is to meet the education needs of our working learners. And we’ll continue to develop new technologies and learning models to make sure we deliver on that promise with every student.”

Says Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president for strategic relations, “As consumers, our students are adopters of trends such as Web 2.0 and shared multimedia, and as workers are savvy about corporate technologies such as collaboration tools and emerging mobility platforms.” The constantly changing digital environment requires the university to remain vigilant in staying atop the latest trends in both higher education and in the work force so that its students are properly served. “Our goal is to help ensure that our students are relevant in society and with employers,” says Wilen-Daugenti.

Driving such changes rapidly throughout the institution is the university’s centralized curriculum model, which allows it to distribute effective technologies with consistency across the student population, regardless of geographic location. That consistency is working as well to break down the differences between in the classroom and online learning. Notes Wilen-Daugenti, “As we look into the future we see a continued blurring of classroom and online learning, and this trend will continue as technologies become easier to use and more pervasive in individuals daily lives.”

*That same year, Lancaster University in the UK introduced a government-supported Masters of Science program using virtual learning methods, but rather than being wholly online the offering was a blended program requiring an on-campus learning component.