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Expanding access to education at the U

By Adam Overland

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The Digital Campus will expand the reach of educational opportunity at the University of Minnesota

October 14, 2008

The popularity of online degrees has steadily increased over the past several years, and online enrollments are growing faster than overall enrollment in higher education, according to a report by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Nationwide, nearly 3.5 million students were taking online courses in the fall of 2006 (the latest data available)--almost a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Technology is largely responsible for the uptick; high-speed Internet connections, streaming video, podcasts, and easy-to-use educational technologies like Moodle and WebVista offer an enhanced learning experience. In response, the U is developing a Digital Campus to expand the reach of educational opportunity and better accommodate learners across the state, the nation, and even the world. A clearinghouse for courses offered from all U campuses, continuing education, and statewide Extension programs, Digital Campus hopes to take advantage of the technology of myU to deliver online courses, library resources, and information personalized to students.

This convenience is key to growth; classes that don't require a set time for physical attendance can, paradoxically, be more inclusive. Being physically present for a class is taxing for some (and lately, so is the price of gas of getting to that class), and until the invention of teleportation, the Internet is the best mechanism for distance learning.

Billie Wahlstrom, Vice Provost for Distributed Education and Instructional Technology, was charged with creating the Digital Campus; she began by assembling disparate pieces of a puzzle that already existed. The U has long offered online courses (and even full degrees)--about 1,065 of them, in fact, says Wahlstrom. But since courses are often offered on a department-by-department basis, it can be difficult to navigate these course offerings easily. The Digital Campus is placing these courses in a newly created online centralized catalog, from credit to non-credit courses, for personal and professional development.

"In President Bruininks's travels around the state he found that people in Hibbing or another Minnesota community without a physical U presence might say to him 'What's the U of M doing for us?'" says Wahlstrom. The Digital Campus makes answering that question much easier. For some of these people, the Digital Campus can serve as a gateway to discovering an education and making a commitment to higher learning. "They can begin their work [online] and later transfer to the U," says Wahlstrom. Through a Post Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO), even high school students can get a jump on their college career. PSEO offers Minnesota high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to take on-campus or online courses at the U.

Online learning: Right for whom? Online learning hasn't always been held in the same esteem as the bricks and mortar campus. Levels of accreditation have varied, as flimflam institutions offering online education in the United States have received little oversight. But almost every respected institution in the United States now offers some form of online learning and the bar for online education has raised. The degree programs offered by the U Digital Campus are accredited and equivalent to on-campus degree programs, generally with the same instructors, program requirements, and curriculum.

Wahlstrom recognizes that people might be worried about quality, and agrees that to some extent it's a valid concern. Lab sciences, for example, might not be best offered online. "Those are areas we're not trying to develop," says Wahlstrom. "We're trying to develop areas where best practices show that students do just as well, if not better, through online learning." To that end, the Digital Campus offers tools for the potential student to discern their learning style and whether online learning is the right path for them. Both a self-assessment tool and a learning styles inventory on the Digital Campus Web site help in determining a proper fit. Questions students may have are answered promptly, and if the U can't provide the service, says Wahlstrom, it'll help the student find an institution that can; for example, by directing them to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MNSCU) online or another online university. The key mission is simply to provide access to education to anyone, anywhere. "Our goal is to find out what it is that people need and provide it. We don't want to have to say no," says Wahlstrom.

The next step in the process is to begin getting the word out about the online U. Because it brings together all courses, the Digital Campus takes the burden off individual departments to advertise their own course, saving money for each department and the University as a whole. The potential for creating access to the U for people across the state--anywhere the Internet can be accessed--is fantastic, but it won't change the U's core. "This is a research institution, and there are always going to be people here," says Wahlstrom. "We won't replace that, but we're trying to make more accessible all the assets we have."