COIL works with TLT and other ed tech groups to advance online learning

Jamie Oberdick
May 07, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- There’s no denying that online learning is sweeping across higher education. To keep Penn State up to date with the latest technologies, the Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) is leveraging the University’s extensive research efforts with publications, grants, events and research and development initiatives. The growing community has been working hard to push online learning into exciting new frontiers at Penn State.

“COIL is designed to bring together people — like those from Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) — who are interested in innovating the teaching and learning process,” said Kyle Peck, co-director of COIL. “We work hard to connect faculty, staff and students from across Penn State and beyond to create a community that will move the University and online learning forward.”

COIL’s vision is to be an all-encompassing organization that goes beyond faculty research.

“The idea is to integrate not just faculty but also staff, learning designers and students into our efforts,” said Fred Fonseca, COIL co-director. “Instead of being a traditional research center, we think the process and sharing of research should also involve a community of practitioners who are creating the courses.”

One method of building this community is COIL research initiation grants (RIGs), which are designed to stimulate research and development in areas related to online innovation. Faculty, students and staff from any Penn State campus are eligible. COIL has two proposal cycles — one in the fall and one in the spring. The spring 2014 proposal deadline is May 15.

One RIG was granted to Ann Clements, associate professor of music education in the School of Music, who is developing a music education module that will be available to Big Ten institutions with music education programs. The module will function much like a massive open online course (MOOC) and will act as the first five weeks of an introduction to music education course at the partner schools.

“With help from COIL, Ann is traveling to different schools, meeting with the faculty who are interested and generating different pieces of content, assignments and videos,” said Bart Pursel, faculty services coordinator with TLT and COIL co-director. “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.”

Another RIG is being developed to help improve social skills for children with autism.

The team — led by Suzanne Scherf, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts — is working with Blizzard Entertainment (makers of the popular game "World of Warcraft") on developing game-like technologies that can help autistic children learn social skills online.

“It’s a really interesting and out-of-the-box approach to addressing a pervasive issue,” said Brad Zdenek, education strategy and planning manager for COIL. “We think the project could be especially helpful for individuals in rural communities where some of the support services may not be as developed as in other places.”

These examples show the diversity of projects that RIGs support, and Peck said there have been proposals sent in by a variety of colleges, campuses and academic programs.

“It’s great because the University understands that online learning innovation is not just the domain of the College of Education or the IT community — that in fact it's everyone’s domain,” Peck said. “Everybody understands that from the departments of anthropology to zoology, there's a big range of people who can improve learning. That's one of the most exciting parts of COIL.”

Pursel added that COIL has received proposals from other institutions like Drexel University, Ball State University and the University of Michigan.

“We realized that online learning doesn’t just revolve around Penn State,” said Pursel. “There's some really interesting expertise at these other universities that we've been able to pull in. It’s a great opportunity for collaboration.”

COIL also reaches out to the Penn State community with events, both those held by COIL and other groups. Recently, COIL co-sponsored the Penn State Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology, including a session track and e-poster sessions.

“We do a lecture series, the COIL Fischer Speaker Series and also what we call COIL Conversations,” Peck said. “Anyone can suggest a topic they'd like to explore with other faculty and staff. Then we arrange a meeting room, both in person and through Adobe Connect, so people from all the campuses can participate.”

COIL also reaches out in other ways.

“Occasionally COIL may also hold or sponsor different gatherings, travel to a conference, join and participate in a webinar or hold research discussions,” said Lawrence C. Ragan, co-director of COIL. “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, go to For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at

COIL often collaborates with staff from TLT, including 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 graphic
    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 14, 2014