This article was originally published in the student-run Cavalier Daily

Emails from Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas and former Vice Rector Mark Kington obtained Tuesday by The Cavalier Daily through a Freedom of Information Act request suggest the two believed the University should become more amenable to online learning — and quickly.

On May 31, Dragas sent Kington a Wall Street Journal op-ed discussing the “coming revolution” in higher education. The article detailed how universities could become “much more productive” by replacing human labor with technology. The subject line of Dragas’ email was “[W]hy we can’t afford to wait.”

‘The world is simply moving too fast’

The role of online delivery in higher education has sparked contentious debate among academics in recent years. Many public universities are flailing under state budget cuts — state funding accounted for a mere 9.5 percent of the University’s academic operating budget this past academic year, down from 10.5 percent the year before. And with students facing swollen tuition rates and record-high unemployment numbers for recent college graduates, proponents of online learning point to higher education as a system seemingly in danger of collapse. Meanwhile, defenders of brick-and-mortar schooling, fearing a lapse in quality as courses go virtual, protest. They say the in-person exchange of ideas remains the time-tested way to impart deep critical-thinking skills.

At an institution that reveres tradition, Dragas and Kington wanted change — and more than just “incremental” change, as Dragas said in her June 10 remarks to vice presidents and deans, hours after announcing that University President Teresa A. Sullivan would step down Aug. 15.

“Higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions,” Dragas said in her remarks that day. “We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.”

Distance learning at the University

Distance-learning programs, however, have been a part of the University for decades, said J. Milton Adams, the University’s vice provost for academic programs. He said the Engineering School had offered a master’s degree “effectively online for over 25 years.”

“It didn’t start online because the Web didn’t exist then; it started out as satellite linkages,” Adams said.

The University currently offers online courses for graduate programs in nursing, education and business, Adams said. The School of Continuing and Professional Studies, which serves more than 10,000 students, hosts 18 degree and certificate programs online, including master’s degree programs in several engineering disciplines.

“Some online courses are basically what the experience in the classroom would be here, but you’re watching video and submitting homework and taking tests online,” Adams said. “But what I think we would be much more interested in is how to make learning easier, more engaging, more focused, more adaptable to the individual, using computer technology.”

How the University plans to further implement distance learning, however, remains a point of dispute. Future interim University President Carl Zeithaml said in a press conference Wednesday that distance learning is something he and his colleagues are “wrestling with.”

“Obviously, some of our competitors have made major moves in that area,” Zeithaml said. “We all have a commitment to really seriously explore how the University is going to go into that. I think that’s a big, big issue that all of higher education is dealing with.”

Zeithaml, who will take a leave of absence from his post as dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, said the Commerce School had launched an online certificate program. He said the school was studying how to put more courses online “and gain some efficiency.”

“We’re in serious conversation there, and I think the whole University has got to engage in that,” Zeithaml said. “We have to do a very careful and thorough analysis.”

Ivy-League ‘experiments’ with online courses

Top-tier institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and M.I.T. have recently made high-profile ventures into online education by offering free massively open online courses, known colloquially as MOOCs. In a June 3 email to Dragas, University alumnus Jeffrey Walker, a member of the Miller Center Governing Council, attached a video about Stanford’s “hugely successful on-line [sic] course.” He warned Dragas the University needed a strategy for incorporating online learning lest it “be left behind.”

“How are we thinking about [online education] at UVA?” Walker said in the email. “How might it lower our costs, improve productivity and link us to a group of students we couldn’t afford to serve?”

Despite the attention they’ve garnered, the MOOCs offered by elite schools are “experiments,” Adams said. Free and open to essentially unlimited enrollment, MOOCs are signposts of a changing academic world. But they are “not how the future looks,” Adams said.

“That’s not a business model,” he said. “We’re all thinking about how to do this and what the future looks like. I don’t think anyone knows the answer.”

Adams emphasized that online education should focus on enhancing learning, not merely duplicating classroom instruction through video streaming. “What I see is the question: How do we do this better?” he said. “Whether it’s great literature, debates with Aristotle, whatever it may be, how can I improve what we do so the quality of our education is better? And, of course, we have to figure out how to pay for it.”

Adams did not say whether the University was in talks with any specific companies to expand the school’s online course offerings.

An uncertain future

The flurry of recent emails to and from Dragas about innovations in higher education supports her June 10 observation that “the world is simply moving too fast.” In a June 3 email response to Walker, Dragas said the Board was “keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change” and focused on developing a strategy for online learning.

Sullivan, however, cautioned against rapid change in her remarks to the Board Monday, in which she defended her leadership style.

“I have been described as incrementalist,” Sullivan said. “It is true… [but] being an incrementalist does not mean that I lack vision.”

The recently ousted president also expressed hesitancy about online learning. “There is room for carefully implemented online learning in selected fields, but online instruction is no panacea,” she said to the Board. “It is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential, and unless carefully managed, can undermine the quality of instruction.”

Yoke San Reynolds, who retired last month after serving as the University’s chief financial officer for 11 years, said Sullivan had worried online education could potentially damage the University’s highly-reputed undergraduate experience if it caused the school to expand.

“What I had heard the president say is that she thinks what our comparative advantage is is the undergraduate experience that our alumni speak so highly of and our students speak so highly of,” Reynolds said. “She’s saying that’s our special niche, that we graduate students… who are very special because they’ve had this unique kind of experience and that’s one reason we don’t want to scale up.”

Sullivan’s departure marks a juncture in higher education in which the future of instruction is increasingly uncertain.

“No one knows how this is going to work in the future,” Adams said. “Technology may disrupt what we do and change it for the better.”

Statements from Sullivan and Dragas have reiterated that differing opinions about the appropriate pace of change for the University contributed to the president’s departure. Nevertheless, Adams said, significant change does not happen overnight.

“I would say that the recent history is that U.Va. has expanded online,” he said. “[But] I do not see places like the University of Virginia, Michigan or UCLA or North Carolina suddenly becoming online diploma mills. That’s not going to happen.”