Fans and Foes Debate the Merits of Virtual Higher Ed

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In the not-too-distant future, the classroom could be replaced by a series of tubes. With rising enrollments and tightening budgets — Texas colleges and universities, along with the Higher Education Coordinating Board, just slashed a combined total of half a billion dollars from their budgets for the current biennium — institutions of higher education are looking for innovative ways to provide access to more students without investing in bricks and mortar.

Is the solution virtual? Increasing numbers of students are going to school and even completing some degree programs online, taking courses that typically involve no face-to-face interaction with a professor (unless you count the occasional video conference). Rather, materials are distributed electronically, with questions answered and test graded via the internet. According to a report released earlier this year by the Babson College Research Group and The Sloan Consortium, more than 4.6 million students nationwide were enrolled in online postsecondary courses in the fall of 2008 — a 17 percent increase from the previous year. In the same period, the overall student population in higher ed grew by just 1.2 percent.

Regardless of the stats, the question is how aggressively the state should be in encouraging universities to jump on the digital bandwagon, which some think will never compare to the quality of a traditional classroom setting.

“At some point, the model may be that your prestige and your expansion is more like Nike,” says state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chair of the House Higher Education Committee, who has been encouraging institutions to invest in virtual courses in order to get more productivity out of their limited human capital. “You have a really high-quality product, and everyone wants access to it.”

“Who is controlling the content? Who is controlling access? Who is controlling the integrity?” asks Branch's Senate counterpart, Higher Education Committee Chair Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who says she disagrees “when people say that distance learning and virtual learning will replace traditional learning.” Still, Zaffirini believes that every available mode of delivery should be used to reach students. “They will each impact each other, and each can and should be improved based on the other,” she says. “But the interpersonal Aristotle style is still preferred by many.”

 

Unlike their predecessors, from the pupils of Aristotle to late-20th-century graduates, today's college students are basically web-native — and tomorrow's certainly will be. But the best method of providing an affordable online educational experience that is both satisfying for students and workable for professors, who may be less technologically inclined, remains a work in progress. While some institutions are pioneering different approaches with varying results, others are waiting and watching. Meanwhile, leaders from both parties at the Capitol are closely monitoring the evolving state of higher education and evaluating the options as they prepare for the next session.

Public vs. private

In 2007, Lamar University in Beaumont, struggling with decreased enrollments in the wake of Hurricane Rita, made waves in the higher education world by partnering up with Higher Ed Holdings. The private, Dallas-based company, which was founded by entrepreneur and Lamar alum Randy Best, promised to broaden the university’s reach by marketing and facilitating virtual degree programs for master's candidates in education — an ever-growing market.

For the last three years, students at Lamar have received and submitted coursework from a curriculum developed by the university and translated to an internet-friendly, interactive format with the help of HEH. Students primarily interact with "academic coaches" hired and trained by HEH, though the company says the individuals are no different than teaching assistants. According to a job posting for such a position, coaches "monitor student engagement, facilitate course content, provide online support and regualrly collaborate with university faculty. Academic Coaches serve as facilitators and graders; University faculty are the teachers of record."

An immediate benefit of such virtual learning is that it provides students — especially employed students — an added degree of flexibility in their schedule. "Teachers, more than any other master's students I'm aware of, are almost 100 percent employed," says Paula Nichols, the executive director of the Division of Distance Learning at Lamar.  The three master's programs offered by the public-private partnerships allow them to further their education without commuting long distances after work — and it allows Lamar to reach a population of degree-seekers beyond their usual pool. 

This flexilibility extends to those on campus as well. Of the 2,000 students taking Lamar's traditional undergraduate online courses (programs that preceded and are separate from those administered through the HEH relationship), only about 500 are learning exclusively online. The others, many of whom have jobs, are combining virtual courses with traditional ones, often allowing them to take a full load with less rigid time constraints.

After a smooth launch at Lamar — which, according to Nichols, currently has a number of students the "upper 2000s" enrolled in their online master's programs — HEH has expanded to University of Texas at Arlington, where it provides degrees in nursing, among other disciplines.

But some expansion efforts have been more turbulent.

 

Negotiations at the University of Toledo, in Ohio, fell through when its faculty, concerned that the administration was emphasizing quantity over quality, refused to get on board with HEH. A deal was successfully struck with Arkansas State University, but not before one professor quit his post on the Graduate Council out of protest, saying he refused to take part in the “HEH scam.”

“I don’t know what happened in Toledo,” Nichols says. “If it’s seen as something that’s not going to be connected to the academic fabric of the university, faculty get upset.” But she saysthe courses provided through their public-private partnership (available at StateU.com) are not at all separate from Lamar's academic fabric. “It’s still our course, our faculty, our content.”

Some other Texas schools are no more eager than their Ohio counterparts to get involved with private companies. 

“We don’t do any canned classes,” says Nancy Herron, assistant director of distance education of the University of Houston, summing up one impression of the effects of overcommercialization. Herron says they do everything in-house at UH. “It gives our faculty more control,” she says, “and the faculty like control over their own classes.”

One thing it does not do is give faculty more time. “We find that online classes take the faculty much longer,” Herron says, “because they are always having to go in and check their website and their e-mail more.”

That's one aspect that the HEH-hired and trained academic coaches help alleviate. “One of the things that’s very demanding in an online course is interaction and answering questions,” Nichols says. “Many of the questions have nothing to do with the content — they’re more structural. The coaches help with those.”

In the end, there may be no universal answer. “What I hope to see in Texas,” Branch says, “is people looking for what works in their situation — [for people] to try and press the envelope, whether they do it in-house or partner with some other group.”

Real life vs. Second Life

With contracts to provide virtual learning to much of the military, Central Texas College, a community college in Killeen, has the widest geographical cyberreach of any Texas school. “Online education is the perfect option for military folks, because they don't know when they might get called away,” says Barbara Melo, the director of community relations and marketing at CTC.

However, there are some things they simply cannot do. “It’s very difficult to do a lab-based course. We don’t have any science courses online right now,” Melo says. “We have a difficult time doing is any kind of coordinated meeting, because our students are spread out all over the world.”

That dilemma speaks to a concern held by one self-described proponent of distance learning, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “If too much emphasis is put on these types of programs, many students miss out on the social experience of going to college,” Patrick says. “One of the great benefits of going to a campus is being exposed to diversity. I don’t want the next generation of college students to be lacking in social skills.”

Like other schools looking for a more interactive online experience, CTC is expanding into what Branch calls “an even edgier” method of online learning: Second Life, the three-dimensional virtual world in which people interact in real time through personalized avatars. 

Some educational benefits thought to be lost with the switch to distance learning can be revived through such a program. "We have field trips in Second Life," says Chris Gibson, an instructor at Texas State Technical College. "For instance, I took my class to IBM's business center last fall." Also revived are some of the burdens of a physical campus. Security is one such concern — many schools have had to take steps to steel their virtual campus against cyber vandals.

Almost every major Texas public university system has some sort of presence in Second Life, but actual involvement varies significantly. At Texas State University, in San Marcos, and at the University of Texas, the virtual world is primarily used for research. At TSTC, in Abilene, the first Texas public college to become heavily involved in Second Life, associate’s degrees in digital media and digital signage technologies are offered exclusively through the virtual campus.

Janyth Ussery was the first student to earn an associate’s degree through TSTC’s Second Life program. “I had previously received my master's degree in an online format,” Ussery says. “While I was able to learn the material, I wasn’t able to bond with my fellow students, and it just wasn’t as engaging an experience.”

Now a teacher on TSTC’s Second Life team, Ussery praises the platform, saying, “This is the only environment that I’ve taught in where once the proverbial bell rings, students don’t want to leave. I’ve had students stay as late as 45 minutes after class.”

But they’d better be staying for the learning. “What I want to be sure is that we’re not dressing up distance learning with a lot of bells and whistles just to be fun,” says Patrick says.

"Not a big money saver"

Second Life acquired a heightened degree of legitimacy after the University of Texas System issued a $250,000 grant to Leslie Jarmon, a faculty development specialist in the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment, to buy cyber “islands” for each of its 16 campuses. Even in a virtual world, property acquisition and development costs real money — in this case, 49 "islands" went $700 apiece plus $147.50 in monthly maintenance costs.

The more pedestrian, avatar-less virtual courses aren't cheap, either. It's true that they put some costs off for a while. Bond issues aren’t real popular now, or ever,” Melo says. “Distance-learning classes are a way to postpone or alleviate some of the space issues that you have.” But much of what was spent on gathering in a building goes to things like online curriculum development and bandwidth. “In the beginning, a lot of universities saw distance learning as a way to save money,” Nichols says. “I think it does provide more access for more students, but it’s not a big money saver.”

And if the schools aren't saving, students aren't likely to pay less. “What we are looking at is how this lowers the cost for the individual,” says Zaffirini, who plans September hearings on online degree programs. “It doesn’t necessarily lower the total cost.”

Branch’s committee has also been charged in the interim with examining potential cost-savings associated with web-based resources. "I'm hoping there's an education dividend," he says. "Instead of higher ed costing 6 percent more every year, which it's done for many, many years — that at some point we turn a corner." His hunch, he says, is that “there’s a way to make education more interactive and more relevant and more based in technology, like the rest of the world is, and still have it work.”

He acknowleges that it can be daunting. “You’ve got less money, you’ve got these new tools, you’ve got these high standards we’ve got to meet, and we’ve got students interested in these new methodologies,” he says. “To me, whoever can figure out the winning combination of a high-quality, low-cost, relevant, engaging higher ed curriculum — they’re going to be the winners.”

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