Are Online Courses Part of UT's Future?

On the late June day when the University of Tennessee's board of trustees was meeting in tranquility, all hell was breaking loose at the University of Virginia over the firing of its president, who was immensely popular with faculty and students.

While U.Va.'s board has since reinstated President Teresa Sullivan, the concerns that prompted her dismissal haven't gone away. A now-public exchange of e-mails between key members of the board reveals that foremost of these concerns was the pace at which the university was pursuing the development of online courses—or rather the lack of same.

Much-publicized online initiatives on the part of Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other top-tier universities have been most dramatically heralded by Stanford President John Hennessy's proclamation that, "There's a tsunami coming." And U.Va.'s overseers were concerned that they could be swept away by it.

By contrast, no mention was made of online education at the UT trustee's meeting. Nor is it identified as such in Chancellor Jimmy Cheek's strategic plan for making UT Knoxville one of the nation's top 25 public research universities. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Sally McMillan points out that the plan—known as Vol Vision—makes mention of "teaching and learning modalities" and says that, "We're thinking about the way we deliver courses and online is one of them."

However, McMillan has deep reservations about the sort of purely online courses that Harvard, MIT, and Stanford are now offering because "in that environment you can't have any faculty-student interaction. We are primarily offering students a four-year residential experience, and we don't want them spending all their time in dorm rooms taking online classes. That's not what we are."

One might suppose that more online courses could help reduce UT's much publicized bottleneck to graduation due to reductions in faculty ranks and course offerings resulting from budget cuts over the past two years. But McMillan insists that such is not the case. "When they're taught right, [online courses] take more faculty time than courses taught in a classroom setting. We don't want them to be plug-and-play, so teachers are doing a lot more one-on-one student interactions than when they're in the classroom."

Whether this is a proactive as opposed to a protective posture, I'm not qualified to say. And the refreshingly candid McMillan is frank to acknowledge that "We haven't had a clear sense of strategic education" where going online is concerned. In the fall, she says, "We'll be pulling together a task force to think about where we want to be." But until it reaches some conclusion, the math department has suspended the one online course it had been offering, leaving Nutrition 100 as the university's only online offering for undergraduates. (At the graduate-school level, distance-education masters degree programs for professionals in several fields that are largely online have been offered for several years.)

In the meantime, McMillan and her staff have been trying to alleviate bottlenecks to timely student completion of the courses they need to graduate in other ways. A system is now in place for tracking pre-registration in key courses in time for additional sections to be added if needed and a new Strategic Instruction Fund for the upcoming year includes a $2 million allocation for hiring some 40 instructors to teach them.

On the other hand, a more robust system for getting and keeping students on track to graduate in four years that was due to be in place this fall is lagging a year behind schedule. This system, known as UTrack, is intended to tell each student what courses they need to take each semester depending on their major. And it will also have an early intervention feature to flag students who are getting off track and recommend corrective steps including summer school or a change in their major.

The success of all of the above depends upon the university's information-technology capabilities, which have been notoriously deficient in years past. Indicative of these IT failings is the fact that, despite a huge emphasis on raising the graduation rate from a little over 60 percent in 2010 to 75 percent, the university still doesn't know its 2011 graduation rate and thus can't measure how much progress is being made.

U.Va.'s overseers probably went overboard in their initial reaction to Stanford President Hennessy's prediction of an impending tsunami, but if UT really aspires to be a top-25 university, its trustees should start to give some heed to it.