UVa Board of Visitors Discusses Online Learning

Five years after the future of online learning played an important role in the drama over University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan resignation and reinstatement, the UVa Board of Trustees is making cautious moves to increase the university’s commitment to e-learning.

During a two-day board retreat, Kristen Palmer, director of online learning programs, provided an overview of how other colleges and universities are utilizing online learning — from enhancing the education of residential students to delivering education to off-campus students, reports The Daily Progress.

Still in the brainstorming phase, UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan said at Saturday’s meeting that the first step would be to research the market and determine what would and would not work for UVa. She said online curriculum support for students will be very important, as will options for nontraditional students.

“We’re willing to think outside the box,” Sullivan said. “The sweet spot is that there is so much new knowledge and people beyond college age want it.”

UVa offers more than 50 online courses, 20 certificates and five degrees, and it supports Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — giving the university a significantly larger online presence than it had in 2012 when the Board of Visitors demanded Sullivan’s resignation. Although then-Rector Helen Dragas cited several reasons for seeking Sullivan’s departure, the issue that resonated most with the public was the absence at UVa of a coherent strategy for adapting to the online revolution. MOOCs were generating considerable publicity at the time, and the higher-ed community was divided on whether online learning would fundamentally transform learning or was a passing craze that could never effectively translate into higher education.

After Sullivan mobilized faculty and student support to win reappointment as president, online learning took a back seat compared to other UVa priorities. While individual schools did adopt the technology — the School of Continuing and Professional Studies most notably (see the video above) — UVA as an institution never made a major commitment. Now, as Sullivan prepares to retire, the Board of Visitors is delving deeper.

Many universities — Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Penn State, Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan and Purdue, among others — have ramped up their investing in online learning. Here in Virginia, Liberty University has ridden the online-learning wave to become the largest university in the state by enrollment). Liberty’s online learning programs have been so profitable that the institution has been able to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into its endowment.

In September 2016, UVa’s Online Education Advisory Committee advanced several recommendations for bolstering online learning. According to Palmer’s presentation PowerPoint, they included:

  1. Identify leader to drive strategic digital learning efforts across
  2. Fund small scale projects focused on measuring effectiveness and
    disseminating findings related to emergent learning technologies
    and digital environments.
  3. Remove barriers for those schools interested in digital learning
    with seed funding with plans for sustainability within 2-5 years
    (possible collaborative Strategic Investment Fund proposal).
  4. Create a Fellows Program by funding, hiring, and supporting
    thought leaders, subject matter experts and practitioners.
  5. Make all digital materials for the university fully accessible for all

A year later, many questions remain to be answered. Among those raised by Palmer: Who do we want UVa to be? Are there markets UVa could enter at scale? Will moving content online affect the cost of curriculum delivery? Could UVa use online courses as part of the admissions process? Could the university partner with other Virginia colleges or programs?

With discussions still in the early stages, said the Daily Progress, the board will continue to examine pros and cons of online learning. To better support students, said board member Jeffrey C. Walker, it would be advisable to talk to other schools that utilize online learning to find out what works and what doesn’t. Which classes are more proficiently taught online and which are more suited to traditional classrooms?

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10 responses to “UVa Board of Visitors Discusses Online Learning”

  1. The planners need to think a bit less about the school and more about the students. Most on-line courses that I have examined charged as much as on-campus courses, whereas the price charged to on-line students should not cover facilities, sports, administration associated with housing, etc. Kahn Academy would be a good model to follow. Kahn is free and has excellent teaching techniques (at least in math, which is what I have used).

    1. Excellent point. Online students shouldn’t have to subsidize the campus life of resident students.

  2. Handy feature of your website format is the linking of “RELATED” blog posts. I just reread your June 2012 post asking “UVa: Where’s the Vision?” For UVa to be focusing now on online learning, wanting to take notes from the experience of other schools confirms the point mentioned by Dragas once, seized by the media as a nugget: UVa lags in its strategic thinking about online learning and how it might benefit the school and the students of the Commonwealth (or anywhere, that’s the very point). I think that the BOV of 2012 was craving a president who would step out in front on this and other higher ed issues–a leader rather than a follower–something Sullivan has not done. Liberty U proves that there was money left on the table that could have gone to other institutions.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think the mistake Dragas made was in NOT leading to where she thought UVA should be going and urging it.. as opposed to trying to lay all of it on one person and purge that person – without a real vision herself of where to go.

    And I think the mistake is in looking at this as if it is either/or .. a zero-sum game as opposed to what a modern 21st century Higher Ed – ecosystem should be.

    Online can be a starting point for many and especially those still in K-12 or further away geographically and thinking community college for 2 then 2 more for a 4-year, etc.

    You don’t want “online” walled off as if it were a separate product.. you want it integrated as part of a comprehensive approach to 21st century higher ed.

    And I don’t really have a problem with the cost as long as the academic standards remain tough so that a degree from UVA means something – even if it is online… you don’t “buy” a diploma from UVA.. you earn it. That is what should differentiate UVA form every tom, dick and harry “U” offering “online” degrees..

    At the end of the day – you want folks to know an online degree from UVA is not like an online degree from Phoenix or even Liberty…

    1. Not the role of BOV nor its Rector to compete for power with the President. They are overseers of that position and accountable for the performance of the president. What we know now is that the BOV suffered from lack of reporting to the BOV.

      No one ever proposed that UVA would morph into Phoenix, but in order to Grow by Degrees (mandate from Governor) and to keep costs down, every school must adapt to technology, must make it go to work for themselves. A 5-year wait for the next public discussion seems slow, even for the proverbial ship of higher ed.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    well neither Govs, nor BOV, “mandate” anything if they are half smart.

    I think it is safe to say that UVA “slow-go” with regard to MOOC has proven to have been wise… I’d be hard put to name the top 3 or top 5 traditional higher ED that have made a complete transition to MOOC… it’s still in the conundrum stage… in my mind , precisely because it’s NOT a black/white, all or nothing proposition… it has to “fit’ … it can’t be a bull in the higher ed china shop…

    The “stealth” thing people are not seeing is the tremendous strides that online is making in k-12… it nothing short of a revolution that is impacting everything from homeschooling to public schools to private schools….

    I’ve always asked – what is the role of a teacher. What can a teacher do – that online cannot…

  5. Seems to me, LG and Lift are in agreement. Dragas didn’t show persuasive leadership on this but simply fell back on BOV allies to make the “on-line” case, then made their indictment personal with Sullivan. But the BOV is not management; indeed it is not their role to compete with the President, but to replace her if not satisfied. Lack of communication was where it all fell apart: Sullivan didn’t tell the BOV how she was dealing with “on-line” and the BOV didn’t make the case to the faculty and the public for why that wasn’t what they wanted.

    I’m intrigued by one thing JB said: “Liberty’s online learning programs have been so profitable that the institution has been able to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into its endowment.” This is exactly what Fred warned against: milking the on-line cow to subsidize regular operations, thereby depriving students of the very savings that on-line teaching ought to provide. “All the traffic will bear”?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Maybe I don’t understand the concept of “endowments”… I thought they did not come from operating revenues…but from benefactors ….individual and corporate… Isn’t that the concern about the UVA Strategic fund.. that it NOT come from operating revenues but instead other sources?

    but at any rate.. Liberty and many for-profit outfits have proven “online” to be HIGHLY lucrative .. and not all of them are “good” in terms of giving value for the money – some are scams.. faux ED. But , it’s also not true that online can’t accomplish it’s intended role as many folks ALSO cite sources such as Khan Academy and other “free” stuff.. and now days… how many folks have NOT gone to a youtube video to learn how to do something? Many products now come with “online how-to manuals”.

    It’s a natural complement to other methods of education… and to not integrate it is abdicating the core responsibility of education. Sure it has to be done right – but that’s no reason to not do it – right.

    Indeed – online is making significant in-roads to K-12… kids have a natural affinity these days to their phone… … BYOD – Bring your own device”.. etc…
    It’s empowering home schooling and non-public schooling that is much less expensive than public school and can and is able to target individual kids needs rather than the “everyone in one classroom with one teacher regardless of individual needs” approach.

    On Dragas and BOVs, I do NOT think it is the purview of ANY BOV to remove personnel from an institution unless it is “for cause”. crimes, malfeasance, sexual harrassment, etc . Disagreements about the strategic direction of the institution are – ongoing discussions of which there are different views and no one “truth”… Dragas misunderstood or was just incompetent as to what her role and the BOV role was – she was convinced she had the “truth” and intended to force change. She had no real substance to the direction she wanted UVA to go other than some simplistic idea about MOOC.. there was no real “plan”.. no deeper more comprehensive idea … a roadmap … etc.. She basically wanted her way .. convinced some others inclined towards palace coups… rather than managing a course change… and basically shot her wad… and … failed … she did not achieve anything … and hopefully it was a learning thing…

    Those who supported her .. also seem more inclined towards destructive rather than constructive change… i.e. tear it down and rebuild.. which seems to be in vogue these days … among the more frustrated.. Dragas was their hero… but in the end – it was her own incompetence and inability to be effective – that doomed whatever she was after.. the number one mission of change agents – is successful change.. and a resulting organization that is better for it.

    Take VDOT – desperately needed change.and reform . over the years.. change agents were successful in modernizing the agency, reducing the number of employees.. making it more accountable and finally the advent of Smart Scale… not without some setbacks like PPTA and Pocahontas Parkway, etc. Still has challenges but as an institution – respected even if not universally agreed with .. people depend on it’s expertise and operations.

    1. Actually, in Virginia, the BOVs are expressly charged with personnel decisions relating to the president position. These boards were created as the liaison to the General Assembly for the budget of each institution. They are not commissioned to construct nor implement anything, but they dosupervise the presidents. It was Sullivan’s responsibility to develop a strategic plan, a road map, a vision, something her “bosses” had repeatedly requested, and it was precisely her failure to produce which led the BOV to request her resignation. Far from incompetent, Dragas and that BOV held up their oaths to the Commonwealth. It got strange only when the true palace coup got underway, the deliberate undermining of the current BOV by members of past BOV. Just because Sullivan hadn’t done something more atrocious doesn’t mean that UVA had to remain stuck with her. The bar for leadership was higher in 2012 .

      And interesting that you bring up VDOT and its agents of change: a Philip Shucet-style leader might have been just what Dragas et al were seeking in lieu of Sullivan.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: “… a Philip Shucet-style leader might have been just what Dragas et al were seeking ”

    If Shucet had proceeded the way that Dragas did – he would have failed…

    I agree the BOV has the authority and responsibility to deal with the employment of the President but short of removal for malfeasance… it is rare indeed for any BOV to remove any President because they disagreed with strategic vision… that’s usually a collaborative effort among many and having one person stipulate that it has to be done a specific way or else – is not how you do business.. it’s not how you succeed at change.. Any way you cut it – Shucet was competent and Dragas was not… if her goal was to get the University to change course – firing the President and essentially threatening others who supported the President’s vision is not constructive… it’s destructive… and it typifies too many folks today who think that is how change should happen.. No thanks.. we need folks that actually want change to occur not blowing things up ..

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