Policy Recommendations VIII

Virginia Tech Cyberschool

"Administrative Barriers to Distance Learning at Virginia Tech"

Len Hatfield and Timothy W. Luke
Coordinators, Cyberschool
October 9, 1997

Framing observations

As Virginia Tech adapts its administrative structures to support online "distance learning," it is worth noting that before we attend to technical or process-rooted barriers to distance learning at Virginia Tech, another set of constraints frames this entire discussion. These road-blocks arise in our fundamental decisions about who should be attending the university and to whom we may offer our courses.

Admission Requirements Tech constrains admission by aiming its entrance requirements largely at students with strong science and math preparation. This constraint often denies admission to interested older students around the Commonwealth whose secondary training did not include such preparation. While this fact creates opportunities for other schools, it tends to reduce our applicant and admissions pools. Such constraints may make sense if Tech is considered to be primarily an engineering or technical school; but as the state's largest land-grant college, it would seem that our mission ought to include outreach to non-traditional students, adult learners, and the like. Such outreach is even more important in distance learning, where a large percentage of the potential market may be such learners.

Distance Learning for Tech Students Only Tech has also avoided reaching out fully to the new markets made possible by distance learning technology by restricting access to such courses to already admitted Virginia Tech students. This stance seems designed to avoid difficult or unseemly political squabbling for students among the various higher education providers in the region. In fact, of course, such restraint is only reducing our market share as other more aggressive schools offer their courses in our neighborhoods. Moreover, as we reach out to new students in Malaysia, India, and elsewhere, it hardly seems appropriate to restrict our DL offerings to Tech students in the US.

With those framing issues in mind, then, here are several somewhat more detailed matters for consideration:

Paperless, On-line Admissions

It should be possible to move all our admissions applications onto web-forms, so that the prospective student can provide the required information from his or her web-browser. This change should, ideally, be accompanied by improvements in applications' processing here at Tech, so that overall response times are reduced, financial aid requests automatically routed to their appropriate offices, and admissions decisions delivered electronically. Virginia Tech will improve its visibility as a leader in adapting IT to daily university work in consequence, and our distance learning students will not be delayed access.

On-line registration & fee payment

Matching the above admissions system, we need a comprehensive, web-based, user-friendly registration system with automated and rapid reply or confirmation. In order for this to work effectively for students not on campus, the university must work out a system of digital payment, again with the emphasis on simplicity, security, and efficiency (if not accepting credit/debit card payments, then perhaps through one of the emerging cybercash or cyber-check systems now available).

Reconstruction of fee schedules for online courses

Cyberschool faculty generally agree that Tech needs to reconsider and adjust its fee structure for on-line courses and students. Distance learners do not use the physical plant of the university, so their fees should be reduced to reflect that lowered use (while providing support for the cyber-facilities such students do use). Some faculty also feel that on-campus courses, which may use a variety of digital enhancements as well as face-to-face meetings, should be considered the norm for fee considerations, and that as a consequence online courses which lack the face-to-face component should be offered for a correspondingly reduced fee.

Reconfiguring the calendar

Clearly, one of the most important ways we can break out of the "credit for contact" paradigm is to build administrative systems that will allow a cohort of distance learners to take a course when they need to do so, rather than according to the present agrarian calendar. Moreover, as we get better at developing those courses which can be completed either entirely or in part using self-paced modules, we may not even have the relative luxury of dealing with a student cohort. This suggestion has long-reaching consequences, obviously, for everything from assessing the student's progress toward degree to faculty time equivalents and weighted credit hours. Our current system, however, militates against students and courses that don't fit the traditional, residential calendar.

On line timetable

The Virginia Tech Online Project already offers some of this functionality, but the online information must be extended to the entire timetable so that all courses can be quickly surveyed for their DL potential. Such a change would carry with it the added benefits of allowing us to eliminate the paper timetable, saving considerable money, but also reducing the almost impossibly advanced deadlines now in force for timetable copy: an online system could much more accurately reflect courses offered, faculty involved, and even availability in a single venue.

On-line student record access, grading,
& course/faculty assessment systems

Cyberschool faculty also have long felt the need for digital access to student records for advising purposes, for a flexible and adaptive system to record our assessment of student work, and for students to record their opinions about faculty and courses. All these functions need to be made available for/to our distance learners as well.

Better coordination between CC support and faculty

No doubt this is a by-product of our current transitional state, but we frequently hear from faculty that they are hamstrung in teaching online courses by simple things like turn-around time for adding pre-registered students into a class email list. Tech has made real strides in this area, but this and similar processes can be improved. Such information-including email address and telephone number-is vital for contacting students whom one may never see face-to-face: we can't wait a week or two into the course to learn that some students have yet to visit the class web site or learn about assignments.

Better support for course development and maintenance

Again, Tech has made excellent progress in this arena with the FDI and grants programs from CEUT and the CIL. But such support will have to continue, and it must be expanded to provide on-going faculty development and support both before the distance learning course and during it. This may mean, for example, providing 24/7 technical support to distance learners through an 800 line; or giving faculty additional support at their homes to allow for evening and weekend distance learning online class meetings. In short, to extend our distance learning outreach, we must be willing to provide both equipment and people to help faculty and students achieve their educational goals.

Better support for innovative teaching, collaborations, etc.

Some progress has been made in this area, but (as noted above under Reconfigure the calendar) the current administrative systems for assessing faculty work, FTEs, WCHs, and the like are oriented toward the residential learner. When faculty develop innovative or collaborative teaching projects in distance learning venues, how will they be paid? How will their work be assessed? And how will the considerable research, development, and innovation be rewarded?