Policy Recommendations X

Virginia Tech Cyberschool

"Creating a Virtual College out of Cyberschool"

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

After nearly four years of experimental experience, the Virginia Tech Cyberschool has proven the remarkable potential of computer-mediated communications for teaching undergraduate and graduate level courses "virtually" both on-campus and at a distance. As an initiative launched during Spring 1994 by the University's largest college, Arts and Sciences, the Virginia Tech Cyberschool has mobilized faculty in many departments to rethink and restructure how they teach. Moreover, the Faculty Development Initiative has provided the technical training and technological tools needed to make these restructured classes part of the University's standard operating procedures.

Many things, however, have changed in the University's overall environment as we enter Spring 1998. In Australasia, North America and western Europe, the World Wide Web is an integral part of most informed citizens' everyday life. Computer ownership, Internet access, and software functionality are much greater than they were in 1994. The University's basic policy plans and the latest self-study both are centered upon turning technological excellence into Virginia Tech's special niche in the international marketplace. And, finally, scores, if not hundreds, of the University faculty are ready to teach with technological enhancements in ways that could transform significantly what an educated person, a university degree holder, or a literate citizen can become in today's informational world economy.

This state of affairs has arisen largely through the grass-roots efforts of Cyberschool faculty in concert with small support from the Center for Undergraduate Teaching and with the major changes evolving from the Faculty Development Institute. But such excellent efforts from the 'bottom-up' have the inherent disadvantage of being somewhat piecemeal and fragmentary. The time has come, the Cyberschool faculty all feel, for a clear University-wide administrative structure to manage these many changes, a 'top-down' response, as it were, to meet the growing number of grass-roots initiatives in this domain. There already is considerable name recognition attached to the Virginia Tech Cyberschool, and this new administrative structure could simply assume this name. Alternately, the Division of Continuing Education at Virginia Tech also could be given the authority to offer for-credit classes. Whether it is called the Virginia Tech Cyberschool, Virtual Tech, or the School of On-Line Studies is less important than providing organizational predictability, base budget support, and managerial coordination to this series of exciting new developments.

Virginia Tech's present policies of largely using one-time, special initiative monies, disparate programmatic experiments, and existing academic structures all are reaching the limits of their effectiveness. The innovations being created by many faculty and departments are now being hobbled because there are no organizational policies to deal with purely on-demand education at a distance, no predictable base budgets to pay faculty who are willing to teach in this fashion, little focused marketing of the courses now available on-line (aside from the outstanding efforts of Lisa Warren for summer school), no common managerial coordination of new initiatives in this area, and no certainty of departmental support for making long-term commitments to move in this direction.

The Virginia Tech Cyberschool could provide the foundation for a virtual college or school to organize these changes to deliver more effective instruction both on and off campus. The existing model of Virginia Tech's Graduate School, which ranges across the University's other colleges and provides a common set of services to all of them could be used to build an effective and focused agency for on-line education. The Virginia Tech Online Project already provides some of the necessary informational structure to anchor such a virtual college, but it is a limited, shoestring operation that requires an infusion of on-going personnel and financial support to become more effective. Its oversight body, the Center for Innovation in Learning, also could provide an organizational foundation for such a virtual college with its diverse coordinating board, which links together initiatives in many colleges. Educational technology clearly would provide much of the technical training and support to make such an enterprise succeed. Finally, the bottom-up, grassroots precedent of the Virginia Tech Cyberschool in Arts and Sciences offers one effective model for mobilizing faculty and administrators that could be used in the University's other colleges.

We in Cyberschool are concerned that a great deal of faculty good will and vital pedagogical innovation will fail to bear their full fruit unless such a larger administrative and managerial structure is put in place. We are already seeing signs of faculty exhaustion in the face of uncertain or insufficient rewards, the imminent failure of otherwise exciting and potentially fruitful initiatives due to a lack of coordination and steady support, and the failure to reach markets around the Commonwealth due to mixed signals as to how far Virginia Tech is really willing to go with its distance learning initiatives. The time to begin building such a university-wide administrative framework is now; and some models for this kind of thinking already exist in the two position papers from 1994 and 1996 that proposed the Virginia Tech Cyberschool (see "Going Beyond the Conventions of Credit-for-Contact: A Preliminary Proposal to Design a 'Cyberschool' for VPI&SU" and "Two Years Out -- A Progress Report: The Virginia Tech Cyberschool").

As 1998 approaches, the University has a tremendous opportunity to take an important administrative action that would have many benefits, including:

1) Budgeting Priorities: Creating a virtual college with its own base budget to fund on-line teaching, research and development, and service would assist any department that wants launch into these activities by providing secure, on-term, sustainable funding flows. When there is stable funding from one responsible office or agency, one can find instructors, support staff, and students to answer these strategic changes.

2) Infrastructure Planning: Developing a virtual college would provide the central guidance needed to plan the construction of new physical facilities (computer-intensive classrooms, Math(-like)Emporia, NET.WORK.VIRGINIA access classrooms, etc.) and new informational ones (VTO upgrades, digital library planning, the Digital Discourse Center, etc.) Right now, there often is an unnecessary duplication of effort in different colleges, and this university-wide agency could reduce it.

3) Curricular Planning: Organizing a virtual college would provide a single common access point to regularize curricular offerings on-line that would assist the University in bringing entire programs on-line rapidly to meet new needs anywhere it could find students. At this time, there is no overarching vision of what the university is doing in this regard, and this agency could provide such leadership.

4) Recruitment/Marketing: Building a virtual college would enhance student recruitment, retention, and university marketing by creating a single point of contact. New student markets among Virginia Tech alumni, life-long learning (over age 25) groups, or focused cohort learners in business and government all could be cultivated more effectively by this agency.

5) Faculty Flexibility: Establishing a virtual college with its own budget would provide a stream of money to recruit faculty to teach on-line as buy-outs to Virginia Tech departments, overloads for individual faculty members, or outsourced talent from beyond the current faculty elsewhere in the world. This agency could be responsible to tending this task, because it cannot be dealt with effectively now by the University's already overburdened deans, directors, and department heads.

6) Institutional Innovations: Setting up a virtual college would provide a single point of contact for organizing new innovations in the future with on-line teaching, research and development, and service. There are many important initiatives developing on several levels all across the University, and this agency could afford a common vision to foster even more thorough-going changes to improve Virginia Tech as a model land-grant university.

Plainly, these are only a few of the benefits that could come from creating a virtual college to support new initiatives, like the Virginia Tech Cyberschool. We admit that this decision must not be taken lightly, and we also see that it would involve a redirection of some funds in order to become entirely successful. Nonetheless, it is the kind of decisive action that must be taken in order for the University to adapt successfully to the current new environment of higher education, and we recommend that the Center for Innovation in Learning begin a rapid assessment of the feasibilities for creating such a virtual college.