Policy Recommendations IX

Virginia Tech Cyberschools

"Rethinking Residency Requirements"

Len Hatfield and Timothy W. Luke
Coordinators, Cyberschool
November 24, 1997

The Cyberschool faculty discussed several issues during its first meeting of the Fall 1997 semester, including the large number of institutional barriers standing in the way of attempts to offer more courses on-line (see Administrative Barriers). Once more courses are given in an entirely on-line format, the University must think about providing entire degree programs on-line from start to finish. This move, however, raises the central issue of residency requirements.

Residency requirements currently dictate that undergraduate students must have 27 hours of the last 45 hours of credit in residence for the B.A. or B.S. degree, and graduate students in Ph.D. programs must have 24 hours of credit with no less than 15 hours of course work in residence at Virginia Tech. These rules are in place to guarantee the quality of Virginia Tech degrees by requiring that students reside in Blacksburg and attend classes at Virginia Tech to take a significant percent of their hours of instruction with University instructors.

In the on-line environment, however, some of the assumptions underpinning these practices no longer hold true. On-line courses, like those provided by the Virginia Tech Cyberschool, are now available anytime and anywhere that prospective students can access these classes from NET.WORK.VIRGINIA sites or via the Internet. In these cases, the physical plant of the University is either supplemented or supplanted by the informational plant of on-line University resources. Consequently, the University can establish its contacts remotely on-line through information structures rather than directly through physical co-location in physical structures. In turn, the residency requirement needs to be rethought as hours of contact in various University instructional sites--virtual and physical--rather than hours in residence at one specific geographical location.

Plainly, residence worked when the physical plant of a university provided the only means of providing credit-for-contact through actual co-location, and physical residence may also be important for certain aspects of some degree programs. But in many cases, virtual interactions through on-line courses over the Internet, video courses on NET.WORK.VIRGINIA, or any other means of delivering instruction at a distance now can make residency requirements a problematic barrier against adapting to the digital environment.

Modifying the current residency requirements, then, would have some beneficial effects on future University efforts. These would include:

1) Recruiting Benefits: Residency requirements constrict the pool of prospective Virginia Tech students to those who can devote two, four, six or eight years of their lives to living in Blacksburg and taking a degree. Putting in place an hours of contact requirement instead of a residency requirement would lift this barrier against finding larger recruitment pools in those programs where it would be appropriate.

2) Student Retention/Success: Residency requirements often prevent the University from keeping current students who must leave school for personal or work reasons. An hours of contact requirement would allow these students, potentially a growing segment of our student population, to complete their Virginia Tech degrees without penalty through on-line instruction. In addition, by establishing continuing on-line relationships with such students, we may be able to foster life-long learning connections when they become alumni (see "Providing Internet Services to Alumni" and "Building Cyber Hostel Courses" for further consideration of these themes).

3) Instructional Flexibility: Residency requirements force everyone who wishes to take a Virginia Tech degree to reside in Blacksburg and complete a very conventional course of study. Moving to an hours of contact model would permit departments and colleges to experiment more boldly with new and different paths for students to achieve their degrees, potentially opening further markets while also retaining our existing base student population.

4) Teaching Innovations: Residency requirements often are enforced to insure the quality of instruction. On-line education, while not appropriate in all cases, can have very high levels of quality. Moreover, especially for graduate programs, the integration of on-line teaching requirements for graduate students could advance many different kinds of teaching innovations by training graduate students in the use of these methods of instruction. Some intense on-campus experience could supplement on-line courses, but current residency rules might be too restrictive.

These are only some of the anticipated benefits of our recommendation. The Cyberschool faculty recognize that many students will continue to complete their studies in a traditional fashion. Yet, the institution of these minor modifications in residency could do much for making the University more competitive in the current student recruitment pools as well as more innovative in the on-going improvement of its own programs.