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 Web Courses ‘Explode Traditions,’ ATE Conferees Told 

By James M. Coram
Community College Times
November 2, 1999

ALEXANDRIA, VA.—The use of electronic classrooms has led to an “orbital shift” that puts students at the center of the postsecondary universe, a leading online educator says.

Policies long held sacrosanct by postsecondary institutions—selectivity as to the acceptance of transfer credits, local control of curricula design, and higher tuition for out of state students—will have to change if those institutions are going to survive in the 21st century, said Mary Beth Susman, chief executive officer of Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University.

“Putting curricula online is the easiest thing in the world,” Susman told researchers attending the Oct. 23 closing session of the sixth national Advanced Technology Education Principal Investigators Conference here. “What’s hard is student services. We are in the middle of an orbital shift. Institutions revolve around the students exactly when the students want. The student is [now a] customer. The customer names the time and place.”

A traditional classroom is “aggregated,” said Susman. But on the Internet, “everything is disaggregated, everything is random access,” which can lead to a bureaucratic nightmare.

Variety in culture is “exciting,” she said, but variety in bureaucracy is chaos. If online students have myriad choices, the only way institutions can cope is to agree about things like tuition, transfers, and curricula. At Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University, for example, “we have only one application for 57 institutions, ” she said.

Her virtual university does not grant degrees. Those are granted by the school in which the student is enrolled. The virtual university acts as a clearinghouse, or in Susman’s words, “a utility,” providing thousands of courses online that can be shared by all.  And while doing that, it is of necessity,  “exploding traditions,” she said.  “If we don’t transfer things, the college that accepts transfers is going to get all the students.

“Today, only 20 percent of college students are between the ages of 18 and 22. Eighty percent are older than 22. There are another 75 million people untapped” who are potential students in the electronic classroom. “If you don’t start thinking about students like this, other people will.”

Distance learning—a phrase Susman rejects because it focuses on the institution’s perspective rather than the student’s—“has simplified border crossings,” she said, enabling students to “integrate studies, work, and family in a way that they can afford life-long learning.”

Having standardized policies regarding fees and tuition could bring costs down, she said.  Colleges and universities “need to have some truth in pricing higher education. We need to figure out what it costs and charge that.” 

At Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University,  “we outsource everything. We don’t expect faculty to design an Internet course.” By using standardized curricula accepted at all institutions,  “we can offer 300 courses at $75 a year. We shouldn’t pay faculty extra for teaching a Web course. We are working very hard to make what we do ordinary.”

Rita S. Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, earlier praised the more than 400 community college, university and technical institution scholars attending the three-day conference sponsored by the foundation and the American Association of Community Colleges, saying they represent one of the foundation’s “most valuable partners in preparing the workforce for the 21st century.”

It is a partnership that has existed ever since the foundation was created in 1969. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the foundation is selecting 50 discoveries that “reflect our reach, our scope, and our influence as an institution,” Colwell said. Magnetic resonance imaging, computer aided design, and computer aided manufacturing are among the foundation discoveries being celebrated.  “The key to success was linking academic and industrial leaders,” Colwell said.

But she fears that the government’s dwindling share of research and development funding may have harsh consequences. Although funding from all sources is now just over $220 billion—“the highest it’s ever been—there are signs of deterioration,” Colwell said.

“The knowledge that drives industry comes from publicly funded research,” she said. “We are an economy based on knowledge.” Yet government funding “is moving in the reverse direction from what is fueling our economy.” The government provided less than 30 percent of the $220 billion spent on research and development in 1998, she said.

The challenge now, said Colwell “is to try to find where [scientific] fields are going—not where they have been. You are creating a quiet revolution in technological education that is long overdue,” she told participants.

Washington Post science writer and editor Curt Suplee, who had been invited to the conference to suggest ways that community college scientists might get more and better press coverage for their Advanced Technological Education science projects, said that attracting more coverage would not be easy.

“This is not a terrific time to pitch any subject,” he said.  Some newspapers are folding and many others are losing circulation, causing publishers to worry about “changing the mix” of news and features within their publications, he said.

His research before coming to the conference revealed that only 25 stories about Advanced Technological Education projects at community colleges have been published in newspapers since the ATE program was established by federal law in 1993. And most of those were in local papers, he said. “You’re pitching a subject that is difficult in a time that is difficult.”

Complicating matters is the fact that most people have a very limited knowledge of scientific concepts, he said. He pointed out, for example, that a 1997 survey of public understanding of scientific terms and concepts carried on the National Science Foundation’s Website showed that only about 50 percent of Americans know that the earth circles the sun once a year.

“The likelihood that your ATE community college is going to get on the first page is zero,” he said.

Regardless, Suplee did have suggestions for how to place stories elsewhere in the paper.

“Think about how to generate news rather than report messages,” he said. “Think about where you need to go to find your audience.”

He recommended that researchers “create an event” to generate publicity for their projects, find the right department and reporter for the story, use talk radio and the wire services, “provide explanatory stuff and graphics” to reporters, and hitchhike on other stories in the media.

When all else fails, “make noise,” he said.  “Call and complain” until someone finally does a story.

In addition to featured speakers, the conference offered workshops and seminars on various topics, and provided small group sessions in which participants presented papers. The conference also featured a carousel-like exhibit center in which 103 participants showcased their research and development successes.

Representatives from about 10 high schools also attended the conference as did 18 electric and print media publishers.
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