Office for Digital Learning aims to enhance online engineering education

Tom Litzinger, left, and Cathy Holsing discuss how the Leonhard Center and the Office for Digital Learning can work together to enhance online engineering education.  Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As online learning continues to increase in popularity and importance, a new office in the College of Engineering is reimagining the way engineering courses are designed and delivered.

The Office for Digital Learning (ODL), formerly the Continuing and Distance Education Office (C&DE), works with 11 departments in the college to offer 46 undergraduate and 18 graduate online courses. From summer 2016 to spring 2017, the C&DE office served 687 undergraduate and 380 graduate students.

“The new Office for Digital Learning will lead the college in delivering online offerings for programs and courses and be the place for innovations in digital technologies for engineering education,” said Peter Butler, associate dean for education in the College of Engineering. “With Cathy Holsing’s leadership and expertise from the Leonhard Center, led by Tom Litzinger, the office will increase the value of a Penn State engineering education and make it accessible well beyond the college’s physical borders.”

“We envision the Office of Digital Learning as the unit that will help to move the college to the forefront of quality in online engineering education,” said Litzinger, assistant dean for educational innovation and accreditation and director of the Leonhard Center for Enhancement of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering.

As the ODL strives to achieve this goal, collaboration among faculty and staff in the college will be critical. For example, the ODL will work with faculty across the college to develop online programs that include multimedia-rich course designs, and to enhance existing online programs. It also will partner with the Leonhard Center to integrate digital learning elements into resident courses.

“The partnership between ODL and the Leonhard Center will provide a strong link between online and resident learning,” said Litzinger. “The Leonhard Center will work with faculty to find ways to leverage the online materials in resident courses, and figure out how to restructure a class once the online resources are added to a resident course.”

One key goal, for both online and resident courses, is to increase student engagement and interaction.

“Research shows that when you can get the learner engaged and excited about the material, on average, that learner will work harder,” said Litzinger. “And there’s a clear correlation between the amount of effort the student puts in and the amount of learning that occurs.”

A primary focus for the ODL is exploring the best technology for delivering these engaged learning experiences. Currently, many courses are set up in lecture-capture format, meaning resident classes were recorded live by CD&E staff and then formatted for online students who were taking the same course.

“We want to look into other technologies that will promote an engaged learning environment,” said Litzinger.

Holsing, who joined the College of Engineering on July 5 as the first director of the ODL, said as various options are assessed, it will be important to remember that students learn new material best when they encounter it multiple times and through multiple modalities.

“We have to consider how we might implement different methods — in online and resident courses — to help students reach the end goal of mastering the material,” she said.

For now, Holsing said she is excited about the vision that College of Engineering leaders have for the ODL.

“I am really intrigued with the idea of refocusing and reimagining where this office will go,” she said. “I look forward to working with faculty and staff in the college to make the vision a reality.”

Questions or suggestions for the new ODL can be directed to Holsing at

Last Updated July 20, 2017