Policy Recommendations V

Virginia Tech Cyberschool

"Building Cyber Hostel Courses"

Len Hatfield and Timothy W. Luke
Coordinators, Cyberschool
August 6, 1997

During the last meeting of the Spring 1997 semester, the Cyberschool faculty met with two representatives of the VT Alumni Association, Tom Tillar and Phil Spessard. At that time, Tom Tillar and Phil Spessard expressed considerable interest in offering computer-mediated short courses in many areas over the Internet to nearly 6,000 VT alumni who have signed up on the Alumni Association's on-line service, AlumNet; Laura Wedin, of the Alumni Relations Office, now regularly attends Cyberschool Two meetings. To meet the needs of VT alumni, we want to purpose that the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the University gradually develop a series of on-line course offerings in a "Cyber Hostel" program.

At this time, the University does not have a well-defined life-long learning program for its alumni. Such programs at other universities, however, have proven to be extremely effective means of building alumni loyalty to the University, maintaining alumni interest in their former home departments and colleges, and sustaining alumni interest in academic pursuits. In the new knowledge-based economy, life-long learning is becoming more of a vital necessity rather than remaining an rare expectation from college graduates. Nonetheless, the pressing demands of work, family or community often make it impossible for any individual to break away from their daily routines and return to his or her alma mater for new instruction.

Here the unusually flexible, on-demand learning systems pioneered at VPI&SU by Virginia Tech Cyberschool faculty could prove useful for life-long learning candidates. The existing suite of Cyberschool courses could be offered for credit to alumni as life-long learning opportunities; but, more importantly, smaller, more manageable pieces of these courses, or indeed any other class in the College of Arts and Sciences, also could be repackaged as Cyber Hostel courses for the Alumni Association, perhaps under the rubric of Alumni mini-courses. Here topics of interest to alumni, professors with considerable reputation in the nation, or issues of vital concern for all Virginians could be presented as one to four week or two to three weekend units over the Internet or NET.WORK.VIRGINIA to interested alumni. As a kind of network-based version of the highly successful Choices and Challenges forums, such a Cyber Hostel program may have offer the College of Arts and Sciences a significant means of outreach. In partnership with Continuing Education and the Alumni Association the College should explore the economics and logistics of such an arrangement as part of their Cyber Hostel construction program.

Implementing these recommendation as soon as possible necessitates that a definite decision be made quickly to endorse the Cyber Hostel idea. Once made, however, a Cyber Hostel program should have several important benefits for the College and the University. These might include:

1) Alumni Enrollments and Support: By offering on-line mini-courses, as well as on-line versions of existing ones, Cyber Hostel should not only increase College enrollments, perhaps marginally at first, but should also garner additional public awareness and support of our College mission.

2) Alumni Loyalty and Networking: Providing such services to our alumni will encourage their ongoing interest in the College, and should promote College-focused networking among alumni, faculty and administration, and students. Such networking can, of course, be an invaluable aid to students seeking post-graduate employment, internships, and the like.

3) Faculty Involvement in Outreach and Continuing Education: Cyber Hostel will help the College of Arts and Sciences make an important and concrete contribution to the university's larger mission of outreach. It could help bring faculty into more consistent and prolonged contact with our alumni, helping to break down the barriers of ignorance and uncertainty about higher education that sometimes reduces public confidence in our work. Such continuing education work must, of course, be properly counted in faculty rewards and salaries; but this additional way of making a difference should be very attractive to some faculty.

4) New Revenue Sources: The Cyber Hostel could, as it develops, generate new revenues for the College, Alumni Association, and Continuing Education, while it provides additional work for faculty and graduate students. Again, a quick review of the annual budgets of successful Elder Hostel programs around the country (e.g., at Indiana University) will show the possibilities here in detail.

5) Innovative On-Line Community-Building: In order to seriously develop the cultural practice of life-long learning, we in the university community need to reach out to diverse constituencies in order to build new kinds of learning communities. Such learning communities will define and establish the practices of continued learning in the networked environment, and it is important that the College take a leadership role in this endeavor. Cyber Hostel would allow us to develop and learn from such a lasting learning community.

These benefits are only some of the expected advantages from such a program. To our knowledge, no other universities in the nation have expanded their Elder Hostel or Continuing Education courses by using computer-mediated communications. Consequently, the University might, once again, generate its leading position in these areas to enhance the visibility and reputation of the institution nationally and internationally. The issues involved in building a Cyber Hostel program are complex. Therefore, we urge the Alumni Association, the Division of Continuing Education, and the College of Arts and Sciences to begin discussions immediately to find the best mix of Cyber Hostel courses, faculty, and schedules, while addressing the faculty compensation, program support, and course certification questions, for a preliminary opening date in 1998.