Some Light on the Higher Ed Horizon

As another year dawns, the economic outlook for U.S. public higher education institutions is pretty bleak. However, I think there are some bright spots on the horizon for those of us who work with electronically delivered classes and programs.

More faculty members than ever before are using technology to provide academic services to students. At the recent Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) conference, Gartner Research Group predicted that by the end of this year 80 percent of higher education institutions will have a single, enterprisewide course management system. While most of the students using these resources will also be taking face-to-face classes on their campuses, many will be distance learning students. That means more place-committed students will be able to have access to higher education.

As more faculty members are using course management systems, they are looking for ways to save some of their time by not creating everything they use. While they want to create a unique "class" for their students, they are realizing they can take advantage of some of the open educational resources now available for them. MIT's course materials are coming online (www.MIT.edu); Rice University's Connexions project (www.cnx.org) will provide open-access teaching materials; The MERLOT project (www.merlot.org) continues to make learning objects available for faculty to use. In addition, the faculty that created Virginia Tech's Math Emporium (www.vt.edu), which has lowered costs and increased the quality of students' learning, is willing to make their software available in an open format for faculties at other campuses to adapt and use. I like to think of all these types of projects as gifts to the world.

In addition, state leaders are finally looking at policies and practices that have been inhibitors to institutions using distance learning to serve students. These barriers usually inadvertently developed as they evolved to address problems prior to the current capabilities of technology to effectively serve students. One of the most common barriers involves differential funding for electronic and face-to-face classes. In many states electronically delivered classes were funded at a percentage of on-campus classes or not eligible at all for state reimbursement. This is beginning to change as policy-makers in several states are realizing they need to serve more students for little increase in cost. They hope to divert some of the students' activities away from campuses and realize they must fund the campuses to make it worthwhile.

Finally, as Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, always points out, 85 percent of campus budgets are tied up with people. Cutting the budgets for savings from the other 15 percent makes little sense when campuses are seeing serious budget deficits. The technology budgets fall into that other 15 percent. Re-arranging how people on campuses work and what they do is the only way to really change the costs of serving students. Hopefully, state and campus decision makers will understand this and focus their efforts on helping change faculty and staff activities.

While things may seem a little bleak this new year, I think we will see dramatically increased opportunities for creative thinkers. We have an opportunity to encourage the adoption of some new ways to use technologies for teaching and learning.

I wish for each of you a peaceful 2003.

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