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As Pawlenty pushes for more online classes, some colleges lead the way

Gov. Tim Pawlenty challenged Minnesota’s colleges and universities to move at least one in every four classes online by 2015. But does e-learning in college work? Here are some real-life examples of success — and obstacles to overcome.

MinnPost illustration by Brian Barber
Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Almost everyone remembers a teacher who brought a subject alive with visceral intensity.

One of many for me was an energetic calculus professor who paced the classroom and flailed his arms as if they could clear our foggy mental path through the manipulations of numbers approaching infinity.

Memories like that made me skeptical this month when Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in his state-of-the-state address, challenged Minnesota’s colleges and universities to pull beyond “geography and bricks and mortar,” and move at least one in every four classes online by 2015.

Was this truly in the best interests of advanced learning in Minnesota? Or was it a Trojan horse hiding a bid to slash costs in the face of a fiscal crisis?

At first glance, Pawlenty saw e-learning as a potential cost saver, Susan Heegaard, director of the state’s Office of Higher Education, testified last week before a panel of the Senate Finance Committee.

But after looking deeper, the governor came to see online education as an opportunity to open college classes to more Minnesotans, she said, especially to mothers of young children.

Neither cheap nor easy
In fact, a shift to online courses could cost the state more money than traditional classroom education — at least for the next few years.

“If done well, it is neither cheap nor easy,” Heegaard testified. “Our understanding is that there could be up-front costs.”

State Sen. Sandra Pappas
State Sen. Sandra Pappas

Sen. Sandra Pappas, (DFL-St. Paul) who chairs the Finance Committee’s higher education panel, remarked that it seems counter-intuitive that the costs could be the same or even higher when a class doesn’t need to meet in a building. No light or heat bills. No janitor cleanup.

Other experts agree with Heegaard, though.  

The Minnesota State College and University System is well into online instruction with more than 8,000 course sections offered online, said Linda Baer, a senior vice chancellor for the system. A cost study in 2007 showed that half of the online sections were more expensive to run than traditional class meetings.

Tom Sullivan, vice president and provost at the University of Minnesota, helped explain why.

The fact that so much cyber stuff is free for the finding on the Internet doesn’t mean it didn’t take skill and time to put it there. Building and maintaining an online class takes hours and hours — not only for teachers, but also for designers, coordinators, librarians, graphic artists, videographers and Web developers,   Sullivan said.

The average cost of launching an online nursing course at the University of Minnesota, for example, has been $23,000, he said. In all, the University system has nearly 21,000 students engaged in more than 1,600 courses that are all or partially online this academic year.

Once a class is launched, teachers must be available to interact with students individually and in groups, sometimes by phone as well as online. In the traditional mode, the University could pack 500 students into an undergraduate biology lecture. Done properly online, the biology teacher can’t handle more than 25 to 35 students, he said.

“In the short term, the costs will increase,” Sullivan said. “There will not be savings. . . . We can’t tell you what the net cost saving will be down the road. It’s too new, too evolving.”

If there is an immediate cost saving, it tilts to the students who don’t have to pay for gas or bus fare, parking and day care, said Baer at MnSCU.

Not for everyone
For some students the savings are huge. Take Brendan Babcock. He lives 12 miles from the Iowa border in the Minnesota hamlet of Huntley. When a funding cutback cost him his job as an alcohol and drug counselor in the Fairmont schools, he qualified for displaced worker training benefits.

Babcock wanted a degree in special education focusing on kids with emotional and behavioral disorders. Bemidji State University offered the right program but it was in northern Minnesota, 300 miles from his home.

“At my place in life, with kids and dogs and everything else, this just wasn’t going to happen,” Babcock said.

But Bemidji State is pushing aggressively into the online frontier, so Babcock could take his classes from home. He is required to make just three trips a year to the Bemidji campus.

Babcock said he struggled at first.

“This is not for everybody,” Babcock said. “I’m an older person. I’ve been around. I’ve got skills, and I needed them.” 

Baer at MnSCU said students are led through check lists to help them determine whether online is a good option for them. And the system is working to improve its ability to sort out those who aren’t likely to succeed online.

Person to person, screen to screen

Pawlenty acknowledge in his state-of-the-state talk that “online courses won’t replace some needed face-to-face education and hands-on experience.”

Advocates for e-learning agree.

But they also insist that student-teacher interaction can be rich and full when it happens screen-to-screen. And students can interact with each other too in chat sessions and group projects.

At the hearing, some senators wondered whether students could cut corners without an instructor standing watch at the front of a classroom. Students typically are required to log in to a secure course site and do required work there. 

“How are you knowing you are dealing with the person who signed up for the online class as opposed to their mom?” asked Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm).

State Sen. David Tomassoni
State Sen. David Tomassoni

Barbara Bridges, a professor at Bemidji State, said face-to-face components are built into that program. For example, students take their final exams in front of their instructors.

Bridges also holds regular “discussion boards” with students and gets a good sense of each student’s grasp of the subject and assignments. If a student submits a paper that doesn’t match demonstrated capabilities, “I’m investigating that situation,” she said. When she gives online multiple choice tests, she does it rapid-fire so there’s no time for the student to look up the answers.

Finally, she said, “Dr. Google knows all.” She searches phrases from students’ writings to make sure they weren’t lifted from an online source.

“If I catch them cheating, they are out,” she said.

Bridges eased my concerns about losing those visceral connections. Flailing arms and other physical gestures may be lost to an online class unless it uses video. But a top-notch online instructor is not necessarily the same as those disembodied authorities we’ve all encountered filling out generic forms on the Internet.

Risks political, practical
While plenty of students and teachers alike share Pawlenty’s excitement, worries persist. One is whether students in remote locations will get adequate services for disabilities, tutoring and problems that require counseling. 

A major worry is a lack of good quality Internet access in some parts of the state.

“If you are going to do programs like this, you need to have access for people everywhere,” said Lee Warne, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association and an adjunct faculty member at Southwest State University in Marshall.

Warne is an enthusiastic advocate for online studies, but he said, “The equality of access is one issue that needs to be addressed.”

One longer term risk is political, not academic.

The bricks and mortar Pawlenty seeks to downplay stand in every legislative district in the state.

In many areas, small colleges and universities “are the cultural heart of the communities and the reason why industries locate near them,” said Russell Stanton, a former state legislator who directs government relations for the Inter Faculty Organization.

To borrow a term from Warren Buffett, every legislator had “skin in the game.” It was a reason to fund higher education. If the bricks and mortar fade away, will the funding fade too?

Stanton worries that it might, eventually.

“There is a very big difference between a university and a laptop,” he said.

But Baer at MnSCU said the bricks and mortar will be needed for a long time. The system still will need places where people can meet and network, where new high school graduates can experience the rite of passage of getting away from home, and where students and teachers can get their hands on high-level computers and other equipment.

“In fact, I see it bringing people more together than ever before,” she said, describing a future when e-learning can help businesses efficiently train workers and support veritable think tanks for research at a community level.

For many e-learning enthusiasts, quality will be the key to success. And time will tell what level of quality the state will be willing to support.

“There will always be some people who will view innovations like this as a way to save money,” said Warne at the Rural Education Association. “The concept that you just give it to the students and walk away, that’s not good online learning. Good online learning is interactive, student centered and inquisitive.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.