The Center for Online Innovation and Learning (COIL) is an organization that leverages Penn State’s extensive research enterprise to improve online learning at Penn State. Via a variety of publications, grants, events, and research and development initiatives, COIL has built a growing community of affiliates who have pushed online learning into some exciting new frontiers at the University.

This includes working with Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) staff on different initiatives. In fact, Dr. Bart Pursel, who is the faculty programs coordinator with TLT, is one of COIL’s co-directors, serving with Drs. Fred Fonseca, from the College of Information Science and Technology, Kyle Peck, from the College of Education, and Lawrence C. Ragan, from Online Learning and Outreach, as co-directors for COIL. Other TLT staff members who work with COIL as research and development affiliates include Kyle Bowen, director of Education Technology Services; Brad Kozlek, manager of software design and development; Chris Millet, assistant director of Education Technology Services; and Chris Stubbs, IT project manager. As research and development affiliates, they work with COIL to directly contribute to the center’s research endeavors.

“COIL is designed to bring people together who share interests in innovations that are likely to improve the teaching and learning process, such as those from TLT,” Peck said. “We are working hard to bring faculty, staff, and students together from across both Penn State and beyond Penn State to create a community of people who will think together and move both Penn State and online learning forward.”

The vision of COIL is to be an all-encompassing organization that goes beyond just faculty research. “The idea that we had with COIL is to integrate into our efforts not just faculty, but also staff, learning designers, and students,” Fonseca said. “So instead of being a traditional research center, we really have this idea that research, the sharing of research, and the doing of research should involve a community of all the practitioners who are creating the courses.”

One of the methods of building this community is via COIL RIGS, which are seed grants designed to stimulate research and development in areas related to online innovation. Eligibility is extended to faculty, staff, and students from any Penn State campus. COIL has two proposal cycles, one in the fall and one in the spring. The spring 2014 proposal deadline is May 15.

COIL staff gave several examples of RIGs that are pushing online education into all sorts of interesting frontiers. Pursel mentioned Ann Clements, associate professor of music education in the School of Music, who received a RIG to develop a quasi-Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that will work with Big Ten institutions that have music education programs. She is creating a music education module that would kind of look like a MOOC and would act as the first five weeks of an introduction to music education course at the partner Big Ten schools.

“With help from COIL, Ann is able to travel to different schools, meet with the faculty that are interested, generate different pieces of content, assignments and videos, and so on,” Pursel said. “And then Ann’s coming back to Penn State and essentially creating a five-week music education module with some help from COIL and other folks.”

Brad Zdenek, education strategy and planning manager for COIL, offered another interesting example of a COIL RIG, one that is being developed to help improve social skills for children with autism. A team led by Suzanne Scherf, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts, is working with Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of the popular game World of Warcraft, on developing various game-like technologies that can help autistic children learn social skills online. “It’s a really interesting and somewhat out-of-the-box approach to addressing a pervasive issue with helping autistic children with social skills,” Zdenek said. “We think the project could be especially helpful for individuals in more rural communities where some of the support services may not be as developed as in other places.”

The examples show the diversity of projects that the RIGs entail. Peck said that there have been proposals sent in by a variety of colleges, campuses, and academic programs. “So one of the things I really like about what we’re doing is that the University understands that innovation of online learning is not the domain of just education or say the College of Information Sciences and Technology, but in fact it’s everyone’s domain,” he said. “Everybody understands that from anthropology to zoology, you know, there’s a big range of people who know they can improve learning. So that’s one of the exciting parts of COIL.”

“And to build off that, we have not just Penn State people involved in these,” Pursel added. “I’ve read proposals that include people from Drexel, Ball State, and the University of Michigan. We also realize that all things online learning don’t revolve around Penn State and there’s some really interesting expertise at some of these other places that we’ve been able to pull in.”

Along with RIGs, COIL reaches out to the Penn State community via events, both those held by COIL and other University events. Recently, COIL co-sponsored the Penn State Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology, including a session track and e-poster sessions at the event. “We also do a lecture series, the COIL Fischer Speaker Series, but there’s also a category we call COIL Conversations,” Peck said. “Where people can just bring up a topic that they’d like to think with other people about. And we’ll create a meeting room, both physical and through Adobe Connect, so people from all the campuses can participate.”

Along with the events Peck mentioned, COIL gets out to the community in other ways as well. “Occasionally COIL may also hold or sponsor different gatherings, travel to a conference, join and participate in a webinar, and hold research discussions,” Ragan said. “It’s all part of building a community of research and development that will take online learning to some very exciting places and we’re thrilled for the future.”

To learn more about COIL and how to submit a COIL Rig proposal by May 15, please go to


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