Oklahoma U. Brings Order To Digital Disarray

OU's "One University" digital learning program includes the development of iBooks and "MOOC-like" courses as well as the university's own iTunes channel. One of seven profiles of IW 500 Business Innovation Award winners.
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Faculty members at universities are often criticized for being reluctant to embrace new digital tools and instruction models. The University of Oklahoma, with its One University digital initiative, is taking the approach that it's "up to the institution to step up and say we're going to give you the resources you need," says CIO Loretta Early.

When OU started One University last year, there already were "lots of pockets" of digital exploration among faculty members, Early says, but the university recognized that it needed a coherent strategy. It couldn't be just an IT-led initiative, nor was it a matter of deploying more technology, she says. Partnering with academic and research leaders, the university's IT organization worked to organize and build on the investments already being made.

A new Center for Teaching Excellence began helping faculty members adopt technology -- in particular, open educational resources that could take the place of expensive textbooks. For example, the center can assign a grad student to help, says Mark Morvant, a chemistry professor who serves as the center's executive director.

Most faculty members don't love their textbooks anyway, Morvant says, and open resources can provide the flexibility to make changes. OU has partnered with OpenStax College, which develops complete textbooks released under a community license, in a modular format that allows for remixes.

Meanwhile, 35 OU faculty members are creating their own iBooks for their courses so that students don't have to buy costly textbooks at all.

OU is responding to the rise of massive open online courses by developing eight "MOOC-like" courses, on topics including law and justice, general chemistry, social statistics and severe weather. Instead of affiliating with MOOC vendors such as Coursera and edX, OU plans to partner with a local startup, NextThought.

One university builds on existing digital learning investments
One university builds on existing digital learning investments

People in more than 120 countries have accessed OU's iTunes U, which includes lecture videos and other materials on subjects such as "The Story Of Freedom In America" and "The Origins Of Christianity." Its OU iTunes channel averages more than 10,000 downloads and 5,000 new subscribers each week.

One University entailed creating a model digital classroom of the future and providing iPads to more than 450 future teachers in the university's College of Education as well as students in the College of Journalism.

Designers of the university's core network had done a good job of anticipating the demands of today's digital learning, Early says, but the wireless network required upgrades because "what used to be considered a convenience for the students is now essential for the learning experience."

For Early's IT organization, the biggest challenge has been freeing up staff to work on new initiatives, she says. The organization's credibility is based on reliable operational systems, which can't be sacrificed, but a year ago she created a shared services organization to stretch resources across three campuses.

Still, she struggles to staff up in skills such as data science for learning analytics. "We're competing for talent with the private sector, which is challenging for us," Early says. One tactic: She's placing interns with education technology vendors to "build out the talent pipeline in-house."

Overall, Early says she's happy with the pace of progress. "We've been able to move very quickly, with a sense of urgency, and that's because of our campus partnerships and leadership from the very top," Early says. When she speaks with peers at other institutions, she says, many are still working to get past that "pockets of exploration" phase.

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