August 2008: 15 Library Schools Share Quality Online Courses via WISE Consortium

WISE students are enriched by new online course opportunities. Photo by Susan Kahn.

Syracuse University

WISE students are enriched by new online course opportunities. Photo by Susan Kahn.

Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program

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Kathleen Schisa
WISE Director

At a 2002 conference on distance education, a university educator boasted about having 1100 students in an online engineering class, extolling the technology’s moneymaking potential.

"I told Linda (Smith), ‘I wouldn’t want to drive across a bridge built by an engineer who was one of a thousand students in a distance ed class,’" said Bruce Kingma, Associate Provost for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Syracuse University. After the conference, Kingma and Linda Smith, Associate Dean and Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science (LIS), began a long conversation that led to the development of WISE, the Web-based Information Science Education Consortium. The goal of this cost-effective, collaborative distance education program is to increase the quality, access, and diversity of online courses available to LIS students.

For the next two years, Kingma and Smith worked together to define quality measures and to make it easy for students to take online courses at Syracuse and Illinois. The concept took root, and the two institutions were soon cross-enrolling students in elective online courses.

"We recognized that for quality distance education, there needed to be a course cap of no more than 25 students," Kingma said. "This encourages interaction between the teachers and students, which is very important." Another early epiphany had to do with collaboration with other schools, Kingma said. "If I run an online course and only 15 students signed up, I have 10 empty slots. Why not open the course to students in other schools?" he mused. This is particularly helpful in a highly specialized course, which might not be economically viable if it was only offered to students from a single program, he said.

WISE was officially born in 2004, when Syracuse University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received a Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program (LB21) grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). WISE used the LB21 grant to provide faculty with online training in distance education pedagogy and to recruit partner schools.

At an early planning meeting in Chicago, Kingma and Smith assembled representatives from 12 Library and Information Science schools. "I said, ‘Let’s do this for the right reasons – not to make money, but to collaborate and dramatically expand the selection of high-quality online courses we can offer students,’" Kingma said. WISE established three guiding pillars: quality, pedagogy, and collaboration.

In the ensuing months, educator instruction received substantial attention. WISE launched a series of face to face pedagogical instruction opportunities where educators learned to use their traditional classroom expertise in the online environment. Workshops took place at the 2005 American Library Association (ALA) annual conference and the 2006 Association of Library and Information Science Educators (ALISE) annual meeting, supplemented by online teaching modules. In summer 2007, WISE began offering pedagogy workshops online each semester. WISE also instituted the Excellence in Online Teaching Award in fall of 2006 to recognize exemplary WISE instructors for their dedication to high-quality online instruction.

"In the old days, a university had a teaching center for teachers who needed help with traditional classroom instruction. With online education, instructional designers help instructors navigate the new challenges inherent to distance education," Kingma said. Ideally, instructors set up an online course from start to finish before a single student logs in. Technical bugs are worked out prior to the start of class and students experience a media-rich environment that might include video, wikis, podcasts, Skype, and PowerPoint lectures with voice-over narration.

Another goal of WISE is to minimize administrative and technological barriers that arise when working with different programs. Students at WISE member schools register and pay for selected WISE courses at their home schools even though the courses are hosted at other institutions. This eliminates the need to transfer credits and navigate unfamiliar registration and payment systems.

Some challenges do exist, however. WISE schools use a variety of online Learning Management Systems (LMS), so students must be able to adapt to technological differences. Host schools provide WISE students with technology support and LMS tutorials to help address this issue. WISE schools also use a variety of grading scales. Early on, WISE created a grading matrix that allows administrators to quickly translate grades among the schools.
The distribution of students in WISE courses is based on a "balance of trade." Preferably, the number of WISE students hosted by a school will be equal to the number of students they send to other WISE schools. Schools receive $100 for each incoming WISE student and are charged $100 for each outgoing student. In addition to these fees, each member school pays annual dues of $3,000 as well as a one-time, new-member fee of $2,000.While the student fees go to the schools of the consortium, the annual dues and new member fees are used to cover WISE’s administrative costs.

One of the benefits of the WISE design is that the member schools contribute to the administrative efforts by working with students interested in WISE courses at their own schools. This system minimizes the administrative overhead needed for the consortium to succeed.

"So many distance education programs get started and they build in an expensive administration. We want a program that is still sustainable 10 years after the grant runs out," Kingma notes.

In 2006, Syracuse University, in partnership with the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh, received a second Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program grant from IMLS to fund WISE+. This initiative provides funding which allows WISE schools to partner with library and information science organizations to develop courses, which are suitable both for graduate and continuing education. In addition, WISE+ funds online and face-to-face pedagogy training for faculty and doctoral students, and the establishment of a digital repository of learning objects from WISE schools.

All of the hard work on WISE is paying off, both in student satisfaction and professional recognition. In 2006, WISE received the Effective Practices Award from the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), an organization comprised of more than 1000 institutions dedicated to excellence in online learning. The award recognizes the WISE Consortium’s leadership role in the advancement of quality, scale, and breadth of online courses. In 2008, WISE also received the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC) National Award for Excellence in Distance Education for its dedication to innovation, collaboration, and professional development, as well as demonstrated positive impact in the field of higher education.

Today, WISE has 15 active member schools and has received support from more than 20 professional library and information science organizations. Each semester, schools choose from more than 30 elective courses available through the consortium to increase the academic opportunities available to their students. Over the last four years, more than 330 courses have been offered through WISE, and more than 550 students have been enrolled through the consortium.

"There’s been an enormous amount of interest in WISE and, while we’re not marketing it, we are putting it out there at conferences and seeing where synergies can happen on both sides," Kingma said. "This is a very strong model for programs that want to do distance education right. We’re keeping our eye on quality and the schools and students are reaping the benefits of collaboration."