UMass Flex
UMass Flex



A brief history of selected teaching-and-learning-at-a-distance activities at UMass Amherst

Contributions from Rick Adrion, Iris Chelaru, Dave Hart, Jim Kurose, Chris Misra, Michelle Goncalves, Heather Sharpes-Smith, John Wells

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, UMass faculty and students have had to gain instant familiarity with computer-based online teaching and learning tools.  Although this may have been the first exposure to online teaching and learning for many, UMass Amherst has a long and rather storied history of innovation in distance learning, including research and innovation on the underlying tools and in programmatics.  These experiences, and others too numerous to list here, form the collective foundation on which a Flexible Learning initiative builds.


  • In 1974 – nearly 50 years ago –  the Video Instructional Program (VIP) is established in the School of Engineering, allowing “students across the country and around the world to experience the UMass Engineering program without stepping onto campus … [via] engineering classes in which faculty members were teaching to an actual on-campus student audience.”  Remote VIP students participate synchronously or asynchronously, depending on the technology medium (live satellite, mailed VCR tapes, and later Internet distribution).  A number of current campus faculty taught in the VIP program in the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s.



  • In the early 1980s (possibly earlier)  the PLATO system, one of the earliest programs in computer-aided instruction is introduced for use at UMass.  It will later evolve into an early forerunner of Learning Management Systems like Moodle and Blackboard. A 1988 UMass Ed.D dissertation studies the diffusion of PLATO as an innovation in education. In 1990, PLATO would reach its maximum enrollment with 4,029 course seats and approximately 30 courses. Plato remains in use at UMass until 1994.
  • The VIP program begins beaming live classes – regular on-campus classes with students in traditional face-to-face classrooms via satellite (and later via the Internet) to off-campus students.
  • In the Computer Science Department, AI faculty and students in the Center for Knowledge Communication (CKC) begin early research on intelligent tutoring systems—a research thread that continues today in both the College of Information and Computer Sciences and the College of Education.



  • In the mid-1990s Chemistry Department faculty and staff are pioneering OWL, the Online Web-based Learning tool, which is created as a Web-based replacement for the Plato electronic homework system that “can be used for distance learning courses or for extending curriculum of locally taught courses.”   A collaboration between Chemistry and the CKC lead to OWL being adopted across the campus, and eventually commercialized by a major textbook publisher (over twelve years OWL was provided as a homework supplement for chemistry textbooks to as many as 200,000 students annually).  The CKC would be instrumental in forming the Center for Computer-Based Instructional Technology (CCBIT) in 1995, which will work with UMass faculty to bring high-quality instructional technology into their classes.
  • In the Computer Science Department, in addition to researchers in the CKC, faculty, staff, and students in the MANIC (Multimedia, Asynchronous, Networked Individualized Courseware) and RIPPLES (Research in Presentation Production for Learning Electronically) labs are studying students’ interactive use of online, pre-recorded classroom video as well as asynchronous learning environments in which students can proceed at their own pace and are not assumed to be accessing the same material at the same time.
  • In 1999, the Center for Teaching launches the TEACHnology Fellowship Program, aimed at “help[ing] UMass faculty members gain the technical expertise they need to keep abreast of the latest technological developments and apply them in constructive ways to their teaching.”  The Fellowship provides mid-career and senior faculty members a forum for sharing information, discussing classroom experiences, learning from each other, and participating in workshops presented by both the Center for Teaching and technology providers on campus.
  • In the late 1990s, the campus begins using WebCT (Web Course Tools) as a new LMS.  By 2005, 300 Amherst campus faculty and 15,142 students are using  WebCT in a semester.  WebCT would later be acquired by Blackboard, which is still today one of the two major LMS systems on campus.



  • The Isenberg School of Management begins offering an entirely online, AACSB-accredited MBA degree program in 2001, making it one of the most well-known programs in the country. Today, Isenberg online offerings include an online undergraduate degree completion program, its online MBA program (ranked #3 in the world, and #1 in the US by the Financial Times) and an MS in Accounting.
  • The Physics Department is a campus pioneer in the research, adoption and use of personal response systems (sometimes known as “clickers” - an ancestor of today’s Zoom’s polling feature) and using online web-based learning (OWL).  In early 2000, the Biology Department, with support from the Pew Center for Academic Transformation, undertakes a major redesign of the introductory biology course sequence to engage students as active participants in large classes. Part of that redesign involves early experimentation and adoption of IT technologies including interactive “clickers” and  online web-based quizzes. A series of follow-on grants from the Davis Educational Foundation to the Provost’s Office starting in 2002 funded the systematic integration of PRS clickers and OWL homework into a dozen large enrollment lecture courses across the colleges. 
  • In 2005 the OWL homework paradigm was expanded to incorporate the “textbook” directly into the online homework platform, so that students answered questions and produced small programming fragments for a grade while reading the online text assignments, all in one system. The “OWLBook” was subsequently adopted for courses in Chemistry, Biochemistry, Math and Physics. 
  • In 2007, the School of Public Health and Health Sciences launches the first fully online master of public health (MPH) in nutrition degree program in the nation
  • In 2008, the UWW Department of Interdisciplinary Studies became the first program to confer fully online Bachelor’s Degrees at UMass Amherst. Today, the UWW Department of Interdisciplinary Studies continues to offer a fully online Bachelor’s Degree while also offering hybrid options, combining online and in-person learning, to accommodate adult learners.
  • In 2009, the (then) College of Natural Science and Mathematics, the College of Engineering, and the Center for Teaching initiate a blended learning pilot program, creating a cohort of faculty who are supported to develop and experiment with blended learning courses in a number of STEM disciplines.

In 2009, the campus evaluates options for a new LMS after Blackboard Inc. announcing in  2010 that it would discontinue support for Blackboard Vista, (branded as SPARK on campus). The then-current Provost and CIO choose Moodle because it offers more local control and the best opportunity for future growth and innovation.  Moodle is one of two major LMS in use today on campus, having migrated over the past ten years onto campus-hosted datacenter platforms and (in 2021) to an external cloud-based service platform. [Photo: a 2011 Moodle demonstration].



  • The 2010s would see more widespread adoption and use of distance learning technologies, as well an increased online academic program offerings.
  • The Isenberg School of Management strategically blurs the line between on-campus and off-campus students in 2013 by allowing full-time MBA students to take online MBA electives as part of their full-time tuition. In 2014, the MBA program creates formal pathways for MBA students to seamlessly transition from the full-time MBA to the online MBA and vice versa, establishing the Isenberg MBA as an umbrella degree program with multiple modalities, thereby maximizing student flexibility.
  • In 2010, the Office of Faculty Development and Center for Teaching awards Microsoft IMPACT Grants for Blended Learning to four faculty teams (Communications, Communication Disorders, Geosciences, Music and Dance). The grant supports the design of blended courses that enhance learning through new and innovative uses of technologies. The program would expand to five additional teams (BDIC, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Kinesiology, Mathematics and Statistics and Political Science) the following semester.
  • In 2012 the Provost’s Office, the Library and IT created three technology-infused team-based learning classrooms where students sat at round tables and worked on instructor-facilitated, technology-enriched team-based activities during class time.  This supported the “flipping” of the classroom where students prepared for class by reading and doing homework exercises then spent their time in class working in small groups to synthesize what they had studied outside of class. These classrooms were so successful that the new Integrated Learning Center built in 2014 included many more team-based learning classrooms.  
  • In 2013 the OWL system was enhanced to support online examinations.  The Chemistry Department purchased 200 laptop computers and began to administer proctored exams to as many as 600 General and Organic Chemistry per night in the ISB’s first-floor general chemistry laboratory.  Almost 20,000 midterms and final exams are given annually.  Grading is automatic and feedback provided within hours of completion.  Several other departments have also participated, including Resource Economics and Computer Science.  Biochemistry and ISOM use the system to give exams in other spaces.  
  • In 2014, opens the UMass Springfield Center  with high tech classrooms that enable the use of multimodal delivery to expand access for off-campus, non-traditional students. 
  • In 2015, IT and Nursing receive national recognition when Apple recognizes their online course as the only higher ed resource in their Formative Assessment category
  • In 2017, UMass partners with Shorelight to design and offer the MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) degree program program. This program leverages synchronous instruction via high-tech classrooms that connect students in international locations to the UMass Amherst campus.
  • In December 2018, Chancellor Subbaswamy announces the strategic expansion of University Without Walls, marking a strategic shift in expanding access to the UMass Amherst experience to a broader, off-campus student population. The Instructional Design, Engagement, & Support (IDEAS) group is formed to help faculty and others “create transformative learning experiences and reach new audiences using proven strategies for excellence in online teaching and learning.”
  • In 2019, the Instructional Design, Engagement and Support (IDEAS) group partners with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to launch the UWW Multimodal Learning Pilot and Community of Practice, creating a cohort of faculty who are supported to explore the pedagogy and course design processes behind multimodal and flexible course development with the goal of creating multimodal and accessible content for mixed populations in a single course.
  • By the end of the 2010s, 8 undergraduate and 21 graduate degree programs (and a similar number of graduate-level certificate programs) are offered through the University without Walls program. Isenberg’s Online MBA continues to be ranked #1 nationally and #3 globally by the Financial Times, while U.S. News & World Report ranks the College of Nursing’s online MS program and the joint College of Education and College of Natural Sciences M.Ed. Science Education Online among the best in the nation. CICS establishes an online MS program. Many colleges pilot and/or establish courses for off-campus students.  



  • The COVID-19 pandemic necessitates a nearly overnight move to 100% online teaching and learning.  The size of UMass Amherst online learning community is massive - in the week preceding the Fall 2020 semester and into the first week-and-a-half of classes, there are over 41,000 Zoom sessions, with over 840,000 participants. Moodle usage doubles compared to the same time period in 2019.
  • In 2020, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) Instructional Design, Engagement and Support (IDEAS), Information Technologies (IT) and the Libraries develop universal quality standards for fully online teaching - best practices, resources for tools, and support for faculty and instructors in designing, developing and providing ongoing support for fully online teaching.
  • Chancellor Subbaswamy lays out his vision for a flexible university in a January 2021 white paper and challenges the UMass Amherst community to think critically about the future of our campus and what role flexible instruction and Flexible Learning should play.  In February 2021, the Chancellor creates a Task Force on Flexible Learning, as called for in that white paper, charging it:

    “I charge this committee with drafting a strategic plan that will articulate a vision of future flexible learning for our campus; guiding principles and goals; and analysis of our campus’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats with respect to flexible learning; recommended action/implementation steps and possible timelines; and success indicators. … I anticipate that the Task Force’s work will be limited to this academic semester.”
  • As the campus embarks on a  Flexible Learning initiative, it builds on the nearly 50 years of innovation and excellence in online teaching and learning discussed above.