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.