In the sometimes slow-moving world of higher education, Louisiana’s college leaders know they need to get in line with the expectations of their tech-savvy, fast-moving student clientele.
Getting in line these days means getting online.
A 2011 Sloan Foundation Survey found that more than 6 million people, or nearly one-third of all college students, are taking at least one online course on their way to a degree.
Louisiana’s four-year public colleges are responding by ramping up both their online course offerings and their online degree programs with varying degrees of success.
And while Internet-based learning formats can be a revenue generator for colleges, they can represent bigger workloads for faculty and financial hazards for students who lack the discipline to finish courses.
Public colleges also have to look in their rearview mirrors watching for start-ups like Coursera, an online education company that has enrolled more than 1.3 million students in free online courses in just over five months.
Initiatives like Coursera don’t offer the traditional degrees employers typically look for, but their no-cost model and affiliation with prestigious institutions like Stanford University, Princeton University and Columbia University, have them positioned as an intriguing option for an increasing number of students.
Southern University senior Richard Moses is one of the new-era students whose circumstances led him to pursue online courses.
After leaving his native Pennsylvania after high school to pursue his dream of playing baseball, Moses found himself at colleges in Spartanburg, S.C., and New Rochelle, N.Y., before landing at Southern last year as an accounting major.
Transferring from a junior college to a small private school and then to Southern left Moses, 21, with a jumble of college credits, some of which didn’t transfer from one school to another.
So while traveling to different states to play baseball in the summers, Moses started taking online courses to keep him on track for graduation. He says those courses require more discipline than traditional ones, but still are worth the effort because they can be done on one’s own schedule.
“Online courses have been a tremendous help to me. I’m a student first, athlete second; but as an athlete we have to go to workouts, practices, games and we have study requirements,” Moses said. “As an athlete you really have to learn how to regulate your time.”
A little more than a decade ago, most Louisiana schools wouldn’t have been able to accommodate a student with Moses’ expectations. Industry watchers say every school in the state will have to build the capacity to serve students like Moses in the very near future or risk being left behind.
First at the table
Northwestern State University in Natchitoches is generally considered one of the trailblazers in Louisiana’s foray into online education.
The school of about 9,000 students began offering advanced online degree programs in the late 1990s, Darlene Williams, vice president for technology, research and economic development, said.
Today, roughly 30 percent of their students are taking at least one online course, she said.
Williams explains that more than a decade ago, faculty at the school were looking for a way to reach older, working students living in rural areas when they developed an online course management system that allows them to deliver web-based services to students “from application to graduation.”
The system allowed students to apply and register for one of the school’s 31 online degree programs while benefiting from around the clock support services without ever stepping on campus, Williams said.
Schools around the state offer hybrid programs — traditional classes with some online components mixed in — but Williams said the fully internet-based courses are what attracts students.
Williams said the demand in higher education is moving toward self-paced courses, called asynchronous, where students can watch online lectures as many times as needed and complete assignments on their own timetables.
“A lot of these folks have full-time jobs and families. They need flexibility. They can’t be limited by time and place,” Williams said. “Many of our students wouldn’t have completed their degrees if they didn’t have this option.”
Louisiana State University
LSU is expanding its online degree offerings and planning a spring launch of several new internet-based masters programs.
Gil Reeve, LSU’s vice-provost for academic programs, said LSU is quickly evolving from the synchronous method, where out-of-town students would have to log-in to computers from remote classrooms to watch in-progress lectures in Baton Rouge, or another method where students were shipped videotaped lectures stored on portable hard drives.
Next year, LSU will roll out a new joint venture with the Dallas-based Academic Partnerships company, in which students will be able to choose from up to five masters programs offered by the College of Human Sciences and Education, the College of Engineering and LSU’s business school.
David Kurpius, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management, said the programs, which will include construction management and education leadership, were all designed by faculty.
If the programs are approved by the state, American Partnerships will market them, recruit students and work with them to keep them enrolled, Kurpius said.
Once the first set of programs is up and running, Kurpius says he expects future launches to be easier.
“The marketplace dictates,” Kurpius said. “Now is the time for LSU to be offering these programs.”
The strategy fits comfortably with what interim LSU System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins has been saying for several months. Jenkins told the Press Club of Baton Rouge in August that LSU would be left behind if it didn’t fully embrace online education.
While internet-based degree programs are becoming more prevalent, LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope expressed reservations this month about what he said are still mostly “experimental” programs.
Some faculty remain skeptical that students earning degrees behind a computer screen rather than in the classroom are getting the true college experience, Cope said.
He added that online programs are often assigned to less experienced professors. He also said the programs can mean a heavier workload for instructors who have to repeatedly answer the same question posed by multiple online students, rather than address the question once in a traditional classroom.
“Online education can probably give you a body of facts, but will it make you an education person?” Cope asked. “That remains to be seen.”
Across town, Southern University is a little further along than LSU in launching its new online initiative. Southern has partnered with Florida-based Education Online Services Corp. to offer a bachelor of science nursing degree and an executive master of public administration degree online this fall.
Southern Chancellor James Llorens said he sees an opportunity to boost enrollment by attracting out-of-state students.
“For years some universities have been making inroads, while others shied away from it thinking the quality didn’t match courses taken in the traditional environment,” Llorens said. “The perception that these programs aren’t as prestigious has changed.”
But the partnership hasn’t quite taken off in its earliest stages, with fewer than two dozen students enrolled in both programs combined.
But Southern System President Ronald Mason said he expected the partnership to get off to a slow start.
“We wanted to start with beta programs, work out the issues that came up and then ratchet it up and market some more popular courses,” Mason said. “Whenever you start up a new operation, it ain’t always easy, but we’re on track.”
Mason said Southern is prepared to begin offering more popular, and therefore, more lucrative criminal justice, financial management degree programs in the near future.
“Online education is a hard-to-ignore tool if you plan to have a modern university,” Mason said.
Ben Chavis, a former executive director and chief executive officer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is president of the EOS Corporation.
Chavis said the company screens the students it recruits looking for the most dedicated and the most likely to complete the course. Students participating in the dual eight-week terms will have access to an around-the-clock help desk to get them through, he said.
“There’s only a very small percentage of historically black colleges that have full-time online degree programs. Southern is positioning itself as a leader,” Chavis said.
Southern Faculty Senate President Thomas Miller was a little more subdued last week calling the push toward online degrees, a “useful tool that needs to be properly applied.
“You have a lot more work to do independently, so it would be inappropriate for undisciplined students to enroll,” Miller said. “The faculty realizes this is another tool, but I don’t think it will replace traditional classrooms.”
University of Louisiana System
The UL System, which includes the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, has had a robust online education presence in the state going back more than a decade.
UL System Spokeswoman Jackie Tisdell said administrators tailored the programs to fit the 600,000 adults in the state, 25 years old and up, who completed some college without earning a degree.
Pending state approval, the UL System is set to launch a new initiative where online students can earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership where the core courses are taught by faculty at all nine universities. The specific concentrations will be taught by faculty at different universities, Tisdell said.
So, students interested in cultural and arts institutions will go through the University of New Orleans, while a student interested in project team leadership would be taught by professors at Louisiana Tech University, Tisdell said.
“We want to be flexible and we want to be playing off the strengths of each our institutions,” Tisdell said.
All the big plans the state’s college systems have to enter into the online marketplace hinge on whether the state’s top higher education board, the Louisiana Board of Regents, gives the OK.
State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell didn’t reveal which way the Regents were leaning on any of the programs, but he acknowledged that the market demand, cost-effectiveness and increased access of online education is a tide sweeping through higher education nationwide.
“It’s inevitable,” he said.