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Distance Learning That Works

University Business, Oct 2007

VILLA JULIE COLLEGE, located in suburban Baltimore, is an independent college with a commitment to educating both adult and traditional students, but until recently it had been reluctant to enter the uncharted waters of distance learning (DL). As late as three years ago we were nowhere in a sea full of possibilities with regard to DL. Yes, we were aware of the winds that might blow us in that direction, but high start-up costs, the vast number of possibilities, and the competitive advantage of state-supported programs (with their low tuition rates) led us to resist the tide. What moved us to develop a robust, many-faceted program of DL had to do with a series of unique opportunities and a set of problems that had resisted remedies we had previously attempted.

One after another, they asked the question: 'Is this program available online?'

Our first venture occurred in the field of nursing education, where we had both a traditional clinical degree program and an undersubscribed RN to BS (nonclinical) program. When a number of community colleges let us know of their interest in developing RNBS articulation agreements, we saw a real opportunity, because hospitals were seeking more baccalaureate-prepared nurses and offering tuition support in order to retain their employees. Eventually we developed articulation agreements with eight area community college programs and even offered start-up courses at hospital sites. However, with so many locations our faculty members would have been forced to become "road warriors" on the congested network of Maryland highways, and even then the number of students as too small at any one off -campus site to justify offering special sections there. The problem, clearly, was distance and scale. A distinctive and powerful version of DL provided the answer. With the help of grants from Verizon Maryland and the federal government, we constructed rich media classrooms from which today our faculty members can teach to two additional sites in a real-time, interactive delivery system. Soon a new technology will be deployed to extend the reach of these classrooms outside of Maryland should such an opportunity emerge. Meanwhile, our RNBS program is flourishing and has been the recipient of an additional million-dollar government grant.

Our venture into a more traditional form of online learning occurred because of opportunities to expand the reach of a new program that enjoyed immediate success. Villa Julie's master's in forensic studies was in its first year in 2004. The program provides education in the area of white-collar crime, the kind that warranted the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. We established tracks in forensic accounting, law, and information technology, and the enrollment was stronger than projected from the start. Opportunity knocked as our graduate dean and the forensic faculty attended the national meeting of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE), where one inquiry after another asked the question: "Is this program available online?" Quickly the answer became, "Not yet," and back on campus program leaders explored the "What would it take?" question regarding developing a program. We needed about $250,000 for consultants and course developers to create a program to submit to our regional accrediting agency.

Six months later the online delivery option had taken shape well enough to satisfy the accreditation agency, but we decided to strive for excellence because the fledgling program could have been damaged if the online delivery method were to fall short of student expectations. Therefore, we followed the guidelines established by an online evaluation agency called "Quality Matters" (QM). The goal was to have every course-eventually the whole program-certified as QM approved. The process made it clear that we could and should move forward with our own team of course developers as well as contracted online technology and tutorial services for the students. During the first year, tuition from the expanded online enrollment paid all the costs for developing the program as well as giving us a team of course developers so that online instruction could be expanded.

Once the infrastructure for online teaching had been established, the stage was set for additional online enrollment benefits. During the last three years, Villa Julie College has transformed itself from an undergraduate commuter school to having a robust residential campus. However, one lingering result of being a commuter college was that summer enrollment remained paltry. At one of the president's weekly cabinet meetings, the CFO told the story of how much his daughter had enjoyed taking a summer online course from another institution because it fit her busy summer work and social agenda. "Why couldn't we offer our own online courses to our students during the summer?" he wondered. From that question emerged a decision to develop a few online courses to be offered this summer to both traditional and adult students as an experiment. Given the fact that we had already added course developers to assist faculty, it was hardly a stretch to create special summer offerings. Based on pre-registration, our summer 2007 enrollment is expected to double as a result of the availability of online offerings.

It appears now that online courses may also provide a solution to overcrowding and excessive demand for the computer literacy gateway courses, and perhaps the greatest benefit of online learning lies ahead. During the beginning conversation phase with the architects planning the new School of Business building, it became apparent that the demand for computer classrooms threatened to consume an inordinate amount of space. Instead, we settled on a laptop initiative, with college-provided computers having the course management software necessary for distance learning already embedded. This development sets the stage for more educational innovation to diminish the limitations of time and space that is the essence of the DL option.

In just over three years the DL alternative went from problematic to possible to essential and, given the added communication options that embedded course management software offers, it now seems imperative to remain open to the many new possibilities posed by the DL option. Even a cursory SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat) analysis suggests that a campus that is weak in DL options may well miss many opportunities and be vulnerable to threats that can never be fully anticipated.

Just imagine, for example, what the high cost of gasoline and the vicissitudes of commuting on overcrowded roads might do to enrollment. Or what might have been averted in the way of hurricane-driven enrollment declines in Gulf Coast schools had a DL option been available?

The time may well come when a mature distance learning program is essential rather than optional.

Paul D. Lack is the executive vice president for academic affairs and dean at Villa Julia College (Md.).

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