Chicago Tribune - U. of I. taking its mission to online frontier
By Catherine Williams
URBANA -- University of Illinois officials are planning an experimental new branch that could upend traditional admissions requirements and course lengths, using a largely part-time faculty to teach tens of thousands of students from around the country--many of whom never set foot on campus.
The Global Campus, as administrators are calling it for now, could begin offering comprehensive online degree programs by January 2008, officials told the board of trustees Thursday. They are seeking $20 million, mostly from private donors and foundations, to get the project off the ground.
Each of the university's three campuses currently has online programs, with about 6,900 students taking such courses last year. Other state universities have succeeded with still larger non-profit programs.
But the independent, for-profit Global Campus would push the university into a whole new realm, competing against other for-profits such as the University of Phoenix, in a market where a number of other traditional institutions have stumbled.
University officials say the new campus would help them reach a population that wants a college education but is unable to attain one on campus, either because of location or family and job commitments. Tuition has not been set yet, but administrators say it should be "highly affordable."
"Global Campus is not about making money--it's about fulfilling our land-grant mission in the 21st Century," U. of I. President B. Joseph White said. He said profits would be invested into the online programs and the three traditional campuses.
Trustees still need to approve the plan, including the creation of a limited liability company (LLC) and a board of managers, which they expect to vote on in November.
Within five years, planners predict, the program could turn a profit, by enrolling 6,700 students in nearly 30 bachelor's, master's and certificate programs. White said in an interview that he expects enrollment eventually will be larger than enrollment at the three existing campuses combined, with tens of thousands of students taking part in the online campus in the next decade.
"There are chapters in the life of any institution. ... We think the time has come to write a next major chapter in the development of the University of Illinois," White said during a board meeting in Urbana-Champaign on Thursday.
Faculty members, however, already are balking at the idea of using non-tenured, part-time instructors, some of whom might be competing against classes taught by current faculty. Officials estimate that about 60 percent to 70 percent of online instructors would be non-traditional faculty.
"We see a campus staffed mainly by non-faculty staff, who are given the responsibilities of delivering courses to students," reads a letter that 20 faculty leaders sent to White this week. "We have serious concerns about the educational responsibility and probable resulting quality of this approach."
Terry Bodenhorn, chairman of the University Senates Conference, the faculty leadership group for the three campuses, said he thinks online classes can be as successful as traditional ones. He has taught a history class online and supports the university's goals to expand online education, but only with careful quality control.
"There needs to be constant oversight by full-time faculty so courses stay of high quality, still relevant, still current," said Bodenhorn, who teaches at the Springfield campus.
Trustee Bob Sperling raised another set of concerns Thursday, asking what effect Global Campus would have on the university's reputation. Other trustees said they were concerned that financial management would be outside their control and that the project was moving ahead too quickly.
"Are there reasons that some of the best universities out there have stayed out?" Sperling asked. "It may reduce their reputation in the institutional world. Will this affect us as far as our reputation?
U. of I.'s plan comes as student interest is growing nationally, with 1.2 million, or 7 percent of college students, enrolled in an online degree program last year, up from 500,000 in 2002, according to Boston-based Eduventures.
Richard Garrett, senior analyst of online higher education programs at Eduventures, said U. of I.'s large-scale, for-profit plan is unique.
He said the university has an advantage over other for-profit operations because it has brand recognition and a strong reputation. Still, the project isn't without risks, he said.
"Trying to marry the elite, on the one hand, with mass distance learning on the other hand, is relatively unchartered waters," he said. "It will be interesting to see how they pull it off."
Several universities have launched for-profit spin-offs only to shut them down, including New York University, Temple University and a joint venture led by Columbia University.Chet Gardner, a special assistant to the president who is leading the online effort, said keeping Global Campus separate from the university will allow officials to keep expenses lower by outsourcing some functions, including payroll.
Programs also could be created and dropped quickly based on demand. Courses would last only about seven weeks, Gardner said.
Keeping the project independent also provides some protection to the university if it fails.
"We are setting this up as an LLC so that we can focus on the business aspects, make sure that it is sufficiently run and costs are kept low so we can keep tuition low," Gardner said.
Admissions requirements will be easier than at the traditional campuses, with a minimum 2.0 grade-point average for the undergraduate programs and a 3.0 or three years of experience for the graduate programs.
At least in the beginning, undergraduates will be required to have 60 credit hours or an associate's degree. White said he hopes to offer full undergraduate degrees eventually. He also said that he would prefer that some education occur face to face, possibly in a required two-week session at one of the campuses.
The University of Phoenix is the largest for-profit online educator, with nearly 170,000 students, spokesman Joe Cockrell said.
There are few traditional universities with an online presence as large as what U. of I. has proposed. The largest include the University of Maryland, the University of Massachusetts and Penn State University.
University of Maryland University College had 52,000 online students last year.
Penn State's World Campus, which started in 1998 with four programs and 41 students, now has 54 credit programs. About 14,000 students are taking classes online this fall, spokeswoman Amy Neil said.
UMassOnline, with 69 academic programs, enrolled more than 9,300 students last fall. Revenues have increased from $3.9 million in 2001, the year the program began, to $23 million last year. The online branch had $10 million in profits last year.
David Gray, chief executive officer of UMassOnline, credits the success to the non-profit structure and buy-in from faculty. The same faculty members who teach at the five campuses also teach online. "We have avoided the suspicion and skepticism of the faculty. ... That distinguishes us from most," Gray said.
Gray also said students pick the Massachusetts program over others because their professors are traditional faculty members. "They know they will be getting the seasoned professor they would get if they were pursuing courses face to face," he said.