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Halls of ivy meet reality, challenges

October 14, 2012 12:10 am


UMW is well regarded for its stellar educational offerings and its beautiful campus. edhurl14.jpg

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Traditional four-year colleges have featured such niceties as symphony orchestras.

Many people wonder what will happen to traditional place-based institutions like the University of Mary Washington, given the growing interest in technology-delivered courses. On the surface, courses delivered electronically anywhere in the world seem like the answer to concerns about efficiency and cost. While certain benefits will be gained, costs associated with the development and delivery of electronic courses will be a continual issue. Of course, other challenges arise that accompany distance learning, such as student authentication (e.g., is Mary Jane really taking the test?).

Generations of students have attended place-based colleges, and, while we realize the need to keep costs down for college to remain affordable, I can't imagine any significant change in the demand for the type of experience UMW provides its students for along time to come. Small colleges such as UMW will be at an advantage over time because students will continue to seek the close interaction found at our type of institution. Having said this, however, UMW cannot sit on the sidelines. Our university already is hard at work addressing these issues--in ways unique to UMW. Professor Steve Greenlaw is one of several faculty and staff working on these initiatives.

--UMW President Richard V. Hurley

THE DIGITAL technology revolution has affected nearly every aspect of life. Think of cellphones, automobiles, airline reservations, movie streaming, and more. Despite these revolutionary advancements, higher education has remained virtually unscathed. At most universities, classes are taught and students learn much the same way they did 50 years ago. This age-old practice is changing.

Traditional colleges and universities face tremendous pressure due to rising costs, diminished state support, and increasing competition from for-profit schools, especially those that operate online with lower traditional infrastructure and facility costs. In recent years, state support for UMW has dropped from 50 percent to the low 20s, and for flagship universities like the University of Virginia into single digits.

For-profit universities typically charge more than public universities. Often, their programs are online so that the location of the school and the timing of the courses are irrelevant. These online courses focus on a limited number of professional programs, such as computer science, business, and nursing. For people who need a college degree for career advancement, the for-profit schools can be an attractive option.


What used to be a local market (for commuter students) or regional market (for residential students) is now a national or global one. We've witnessed the MOOC phenomenon: Massive Open Online Courses, taught by faculty at Stanford, MIT, and other well-known universities including U.Va. The courses are open to any interested student on the Internet and enroll tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of students. Unlike other online courses, MOOCs are offered free of charge. How can traditional universities compete with that? Who would pay to take a course at a small regional university, when they can be taught by star faculty from Stanford?

For now, MOOCs come with a catch--when you successfully complete a MOOC taught by a Stanford faculty member, you do not get academic credit from Stanford. The sponsoring universities have been careful to state that a MOOC course is not the same as a regular course taught at the university, even if that course is taught online. Why then would people participate in a MOOC? They may simply want to learn the subject. They may have limited access to higher education in their community-- a large proportion of the MOOC participants have been from other countries, especially in the developing world where access to higher education is limited. Or, they may believe MOOC credits will eventually count toward a college degree.

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.


If UMW is not doing this to save money, why then is the institution moving in this direction? First, online courses add flexibility to students' schedules. Many of our students are employed; some full-time. Online courses don't "conflict" with the times or places of employment or other courses students are taking. This, and the fact that many of these courses are offered during the summer, should allow students to shorten the time to graduation. In addition, we have commuter students who live as far as two hours from Fredericksburg. Online courses are a significant convenience to those students, saving substantial time and money.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have found ways in which online learning can enhance the learning experience. In contrast to a traditional face-to-face classroom setting, an online version of a regional geography course features an instructor who travels to different regions in the world. In each location, he will interview political and cultural figures, as well as people "on the street," and the interviews are streamed to UMW where they are viewed by students.


UMW is not concerned with Web-based learning merely as a programmatic initiative that moves courses into online domains. Rather, we aim to teach students what they need to learn for life and careers in a digital world. By re-framing the conversation, we move beyond thinking of technology simply as a delivery mechanism for course content and experiences. Instead technology becomes a language in which students must become fluent, not just to solve the problems presented in the classroom today but to adaptively address problems they will face in the future.

UMW is uniquely poised to make this move. We have a dedicated cadre of faculty who have experimented for more than a decade with using technology in innovative ways within the curriculum. Students have become accustomed to thinking of technology as a transformative power within the disciplines they are studying. Our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies has gained national and international recognition for its creative implementation of technologies in support of curriculum. Our library services eagerly support the development of technologically fluent students. Our new Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation is committed to promoting and sustaining excellence in teaching, advancing student learning, and exploring and developing innovative pedagogy and curriculum. Our Department of Information Technologies is dedicated to supporting technology as more than just a tool for administrative purposes.

All of these individuals and groups have dedicated themselves in a variety of ways to understanding the power and potential of technology in higher education. This potential will set UMW apart from its peers in the 21st century.


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

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