GCU online education innovators led 25-year push

This is what computers with a monochrome screen looked like when GCU executives joined the online education movement.

Editor’s Note: This story has been reprinted since February 2022 by GCU Journal. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.

Rick Vacek
GCU Magazine

It all started with faxes and 25 switching modems that were routed through a server in San Francisco called ALEC.

Faxes like this were used to transmit assignments as soon as online education began.

University of Phoenix online students in the late 1990s faxed their work to faculty members who evaluated it and sent it back. Before they could study the course material, students first had to learn to navigate in newsgroups that could be accessed through these modems. Teachers could attach a hyperlink to what they shared, but images and videos were not yet in the picture of online education.

“You look back on it and think, ‘Well, that’s primitive,'” he said Mark Alexander, Senior Vice President of Curriculum and Publishing at Grand Canyon Education. “Well, yes, it was – primitive. These were the first days. But it worked very well. It was very simple. They made it very simple and tried to minimize technological problems as much as they could. “

Alexander is one of the many pioneers of higher education who followed Brian Mueller from the University of Phoenix when he became president of Grand Canyon University in 2008, deciding to raise online education to even greater heights. To understand how they turned the GCU into a leader in the field, one needs to go back to the beginning of 25 years ago.

The terminal scale below contains key markers, but the best story is told by key catalysts, including Alexander. And obviously, what to start with is the man who managed all these innovations.

Big picture:

Against unbelievers

Mueller blinks in his eyes as he talks about any achievements of the GCU since his arrival in 2008. But online education is one of the biggest highlights:

“There were some interesting things in it. One of them was how much we believed in it. We thought we could reach people around the world with innovative ways of providing education to help them advance in their careers.

“And another, how much we have been criticized by the traditional academic community for giving education in an online modality. As much as we believed in what we were doing and where it was going, it was equally badly perceived on the other hand.

GCU President Brian Mueller and his team continued to promote online education despite criticism from the traditional academic community.

“But we kept going forward. I remember the level of collaboration that existed between our technology, the faculty, our program staff, our service people, and how we just kept working together.

“It wasn’t just about training. We realized that we needed to create a learning management platform so that teachers and students could come together around a good curriculum, but we needed to surround it with technologies that could provide an equal amount of services.

“We weren’t going to treat these students any differently than a student coming to campus. Thus, there were written and mathematical laboratories, textbooks were created and a large electronic library was created.

But these innovations would not be so effective without what Mueller calls “the only best decision we’ve made” – maintaining small, intimate classrooms. GCU online instructors do not have hundreds of students who simply take exams with a choice. The interaction in their managed groups is much more thought-provoking.

“The irony is that the Internet is just a communication tool,” Mueller said. “It’s probably the best communication tool ever created. Education is largely about communication, and we have fostered communication in this environment to such an extent that teachers get to know students very well, students get to know each other very well, and we will have vibrant discussions.

“As a teacher, when I enter a class, I can do what I can do in an hour or two in terms of discussion. But if this discussion lasts from Monday to Sunday night, the depth you can create in this discussion, the great ideas you can create, are far greater than you can even make in a physical classroom.


A new way of hiring in higher education

More discussion means the need for a much larger number of faculty, both full-time and part-time workers, known as adjuncts. He led the hiring revolution Kelly PaleseSenior Vice President of GCE Operation Faculty:

Kelly Palese watched the drafts of online education teachers change dramatically.

“Online teaching has become a standard, acceptable way to get involved in higher education, be able to keep a full-time job and save your life the way it is. Additional training online has become a sought-after profession for part-time people.

“At the time, you heard the term‘ professional adjunct online ’and they worked in 10 different schools and tried to make a living from it. But what you are really seeing now is an almost part-time profession or a part-time career for people who are not interested in teaching full-time. They have to keep their full time, but they are incredibly enthusiastic about the extra training they do online.

“It has brought a lot of people into this new additional profession and we no longer need to use this extensive network for hiring because people are coming to us. They want to give back, they want to share their passion for their discipline, and they choose GCU because they want to do it from Christ’s perspective. ”

According to Polesie, the creation of an online part-time faculty that brings them together in one building is one of two major developments in GCU’s online education. The second is cooperation between academic affairs and student services.

“Now the teachers and their consultant have hugged them,” she said.


From Angel to LoudCloud to Halo

All of this would be impossible, of course, without constant innovation in technology, and that’s where Joe MildenhallIn 1998, he was given 90 days to expand the University of Phoenix’s bulletin board system to over 3,000 users, “and I’ve been on a trip ever since.” In two years it exceeded 50,000:

Joe Mildenhall had to deal with problems to make the technology work effectively.

“They had forums of news groups that were multiple, debatable. Many of the first bulletin board forums used this for their conversation model. Our first challenge was to move this class implementation to a better platform that could handle far more students. But we still relied on this newsgroup platform.

“You had different folders with newsgroups. They would have a folder for general class discussion. One for teacher questions. One for submitting assignments. Students had rights to this folder – they couldn’t watch each other’s assignments.

“We’ve been using this for a few years. It worked well because it was functional. Another point was that we changed the connection, so instead of having 25 modems connected to the phone, we actually communicated with the class via the Internet.

“Our students were initially on a dial-up connection. Then you didn’t have an internet connection through your cable company. You had dial-up access with all modem connections. It was a fun time. “

Mildenhall has been a key driver in GCU’s release in learning management systems, from Angel to LoudCloud to the latest iteration of Halo, which was launched this school year. The university’s online expertise became even more valuable when the pandemic began in 2019 – the LMS was already a common tool for traditional students.

“It really laid the groundwork for how quickly we were able to respond to COVID,” he said. “If we were disorganized, we would be in the same boat as most institutions, trying to build something.

“As it was, all the students already had an online class. Teachers incorporated this into their classroom teaching. And they just had to say, “Okay, everything will be there.” You already know where “there” is.


Sophistication is part of the equation

Alexander started teaching online at the University of Phoenix in 2001. Ironically, his family often moved when he was a child, as his father Don taught while receiving his master’s degrees. Now Mark was allowed to stay in one place and teach, but first he needed to learn a lot – and so did the students:

Mark Alexander’s online education began as a teacher.

“When you first go online, it seems,‘ Wait, where’s everything? How do I do that? ‘ It was such a critical aspect – those counselors who helped students for the first time, let them into the classroom, took them to class, showed. Technical support was very important to these people because the system was not as holistic and restrained as it is now.

“It was very relevant in the workplace. This attracted people who may have started college earlier and had some credit and for some reason had to come back and graduate.

“The biggest part of the model was that it was a faculty-practitioner. The person who taught was just like you. In the marketing lesson we will talk not only about the strategic marketing plan. We will actually force you to write it and create it based on your experience in your company ”.

Since joining GCU, Alexander has played a key role in the transition to e-textbooks and in developing curricula suitable for terrestrial and online schoolchildren. He has seen everything about online education. What one word covers it all?

“Exquisite comes to mind. Today we are much more advanced in how technology is structured, how we use technology and how we use it. We are certainly more scalable. More people are learning online than they ever thought possible. ”

Polesie came up with the same word for the faculty part of the equation:

“Everything around the faculty process and the experience of faculty in the online classroom has just become much more complex. Recruitment is much more than a discipline. The methods, techniques and strategies used by teachers are much better. ”

And yet, Mueller sounds so simple, the idea is to bring working adults back to school to create the means to solve problems:

“We took a learning model that worked in a physical, regular classroom, and we just replicated it online. Instead of bringing faculty and students to a great curriculum in a physical, brick building, we brought them to an online learning environment. ”

And then they just kept innovating … for 25 years, which changed higher education forever.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].



University of Phoenix

The late 1990s

ALEC is accessed via 25 modems by phone. Limit: 3,000 students.

Beginning of 1999

An online learning system (OLS) is launched. Code name: marmot. Target capacity: 20,000 students.


Launch of OLS 2001. Target capacity: 100,000 students.


Launches rResource for online delivery of course materials and e-textbooks


OLS 3 increases the number of students supported to more than 250,000. Eliminates the need to use Outlook Express.



An angel training management system (LMS) is used.


LoudCloud is starting to support online students


Traditional students have been added to LoudCloud


Deployment of Halo production


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