UNC looks to boost online education

More programs planned as debate over quality continues

jstancill@newsobserver.comDecember 13, 2012 

— The UNC system wants to extend degree programs to different types of students in more efficient ways, but the trick will be to accomplish that while ensuring quality.

A panel of business and education leaders on Wednesday heard about what other states are doing to measure the quality of education at their universities.

The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions is giving input to UNC system leaders on how the state’s public universities should graduate more students while better preparing them for jobs of the future. The work is expected to conclude early next year with a recommendation to ratchet up degree attainment among North Carolina’s adult population.

On Wednesday, Peter Ewell of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems told the panel that many states are setting similarly aggressive targets for an educated citizenry.

With those goals comes a responsibility, he said.

“There’s plenty of ways to get to that target – you just print degrees,” he said. “So if you want to avoid being the degree mill, you really have to think about how you’re going to ensure these are degrees of quality.”

Ewell said states are making concerted efforts to assess learning outcomes among college students. Some use standardized tests, while many conduct surveys of students or alumni – a sort of customer-service model. Yet others survey employers on whether graduates have adequate skills for the workplace.

The UNC advisory panel did not come to a conclusion for how to measure performance.

The five-year plan is likely to put a strong focus on online instruction and more flexible ways for students to earn degrees and post-college certificates.

The discussion centered around the hottest trends in online education, including Massive Open Online Courses offered through various companies and higher education consortia. Duke University has joined with other universities to partner with Coursera, a company that offers the free online classes.

Universities nationwide are jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, but there are many issues that have yet to be resolved in online instruction – how to create a viable business model, how to award credit and how to prevent cheating by students.

New student paths

Suzanne Ortega, senior vice president for academic affairs in the UNC system, said she is optimistic that UNC can build on its already robust online offerings to devise new pathways for nontraditional students. The system already has 313 online degree or certificate programs.

“I know we can appropriately make the claim, we can commit ourselves to being the very best in the country within five years in creating these flexible learning programs,” she said. But first, she said, there is work to do to figure out how to appropriately evaluate online students to make sure they have achieved competency.

Online education has moved from simple delivery of content to “competency based learning,” she said, in which students advance when they master content, with no limits on time or place of learning.

All the ideas add up to revolutionary change in types and numbers of students and methods of teaching and learning, UNC President Tom Ross said.

“People see the world differently now than they did in 2007, and they recognize change has to happen,” Ross said. “We’re all still sort of trying to figure out what that change ultimately will look like, but I think people are expecting it and they’re more open to it than maybe they have been in the past.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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