Boosting Innovation in an Italian Online University

Boosting Innovation in an Italian Online University

Francesca Pozzi (Institute for Educational Technology, National Research Council of Italy, Genova, Italy), Manuela Delfino (Institute for Educational Technology, National Research Council of Italy, Genova, Italy), Stefania Manca (Institute for Educational Technology, National Research Council of Italy, Genova, Italy), Donatella Persico (Institute for Educational Technology, National Research Council of Italy, Genova, Italy) and Immacolata Scancarello (Interuniversity Consortium for Automatic Computation (CINECA), Segrate, Italy)
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/ijopcd.2013100103
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Abstract

This paper describes the process of boosting an innovative e-learning system in an online university in Italy. The system relies on a satellite-terrestrial telecommunication infrastructure and allows for different interaction types, including synchronous, asynchronous, textual, audio and video communication modes. The adoption of this infrastructure was preceded by a training initiative proposed to the university staff to favor its intake. The paper analyses the effects of both the training initiative and the technological innovation based on qualitative data derived from the observed differences between the pre-existing courses and their re-design and quantitative data tracked by the system during a pilot test that lasted eleven months. These data show a trend reversal in the e-learning approach, from a prevalence of transmissive mode to a more interactive one, although there is still a long way to go before more radical changes can take place.
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Introduction

A Ministerial Decree of April 17th, 2003 (DM. Decreto del 17 aprile 2003, 2003) established virtual universities in Italy. Currently there are a dozen of these, all of which rather recent. Despite bitter controversy and doubts as to the ways in which they have developed and the actual purposes pursued by their management (Ferri, 2008; Rizzo & Stella, 2006), virtual universities are growing along with expectations as to the quality of their educational offer, which is strictly related to organizational capacity, staff competence, effectiveness of content delivery, efficacy of actors’ interactions and tracking capacity of teaching/learning activities (Manganello & D’Alessio, 2007; CUN, 2010; Valentini, 2010).

This resonates well with what is happening abroad, where online education has grown exponentially over the past decade. Data collected by the Sloan Consortium, for example, reveals that in the USA “between 2002 and 2009 students enrolled in at least one online course increased from 1.6 million to 5.6 million. It is projected that by 2020 up to 60% of college students will take their courses entirely online” (Betts, Kramer, & Gaines, 2011: 20). This is in line with the larger picture, according to which “it is expected that online enrollment will further increase in all sectors of higher education” (Patterson, Mallett, & McFadden, 2012: 54).

However, looking at the existing experiences in the field of virtual higher education, one may observe that often, despite the use of ICT, the processes of teaching, the pedagogical approaches, as well as the underlying assumptions about learning and knowledge sharing remain largely unchanged with respect to those underlying traditional settings (Salmon, 2005).

This is true of Italy as well, where, due to scarce experience in these fields, the most common method used by online universities often consists of making learning materials available to students on some Learning Management Systems (LMS). Typically, these materials consist of lecture notes, lesson slides, video or audio lessons. This transmissive approach differs from the traditional classroom lessons only for the medium used and does not take full advantage of the potential offered by technology to improve and enhance the formative offer to students.

The literature concerning technological innovation in higher education (Mayes, Morrison, Mellar, & Oliver, 2009; Smith, 2012; Ehlers & Schneckenberg, 2010; Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Curran, 2001; Karamouzis, 2004), however, shows how a better understanding of social needs, pedagogical theories and technological developments can contribute and inform substantial educational innovation. Some research studies show that methods, approaches and tools can be transformed and many compare face-to-face and online teaching (Klesius, Homan, & Thompson, 1997; Allen, Bourhis, Burrell, & Mabry, 2002; Rovai, Ponton, Wighting, & Baker, 2007; Jones & Everard, 2008), investigating their respective peculiarities, methods and assets (Keegan, 1986; Garrison, 1989; Bates, 2005). Research has also looked into how best to interweave face-to-face and distance experiences in a single learning/teaching approach (Kaye, 2003; Bonk & Graham, 2006).

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