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Halls of ivy meet reality, challenges page 3
Rick Hurley and Steve Greenlaw's op-ed column on the future of college education in America.

 UMW is well regarded for its stellar educational offerings and its beautiful campus.
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Date published: 10/14/2012


Add to this the legitimate public concern about the value of higher education, and the heightened interest in professional programs (e.g., engineering, business, and nursing). Academia increasingly is confronted with important existential questions: What is the value of liberal (over professional) education, and, especially, what is the value of place-based higher education? Is education merely the acquisition of content and skills, or is it something bigger (e.g., the ability to think broadly about problems in a variety of domains)? Is higher education transitioning to a model through which only the most affluent students can afford traditional, high touch, face-to-face education while the rest are relegated to impersonal online learning on a massive scale?


The University of Mary Washington has two responses. For a couple of years, we have been engaged in a plan to create and teach Web-based courses that are designed to replicate the liberal arts experience. We launched this Online Learning Initiative because we believe UMW can make a unique contribution to Gov. McDonnell's call to develop technology-enhanced instruction as part of the "Top Jobs 21" Initiative. TJ21 speaks of "promoting innovative redesign that enhances instructional quality by incorporating new technologies into courses," and of "enhancing the availability, quality, and affordability of online course offerings." That is what our initiative seeks to do.

We have developed--or are developing--online courses in American literature, art history, classics, computer science, economics, education, environmental science, geography, German, management, mathematics, and psychology. This is just the beginning. Evidence suggests that it is difficult, if not impossible, to reduce costs online while maintaining quality, so our online courses are not massive; indeed, most are the same size as our face-to-face courses. We have no interest in watering down the quality of the Mary Washington experience. The courses include a high degree of interactivity between student and instructor, and between student and other students. They emphasize fundamental characteristics of the liberal arts and sciences experience: intellectual community, active and self-directed learning, and reflection on what one learns. In short, these are not correspondence courses.


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Richard V. Hurley is president of the University of Mary Washington. Steven A. Greenlaw is professor of economics at the University of Mary Washington.