The Tennessee Board of Regents Online Degree Program: A (remarkably) integrated learning environment

The Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) is the sixth largest Board of Regents in the nation. It governs 47 colleges, universities, community colleges, and technical centers that offer degrees ranging from basic certificates to doctorates; its schools serve over 180,000 full- and part-time students. In September of 2000, the TBR approved the Regents Online Degree Program (RODP) projected to serve 7000 students in 2005.

The Regents online degree program was designed to provide statewide access to higher education using flexible, technology-based delivery systems. Specifically, the RODP's mission is:

· To increase access to higher education for adult Tennesseans, especially those with some college experience. Census data document that Tennesseans lag behind both the national and regional averages of educational attainment. Further, attainment is uneven across the state, with rural areas lagging far behind urban areas. Economic development of the state depends on increasing the skill levels of the population.

· To maximize the effective use of technology for delivery of college-level instruction. Distance delivery through the use of technology will increase access to higher education, especially in remote areas of the state and for adult learners for whom time flexibility is a critical resource.

· To provide student access to Web-based courses and degree programs. Web-based courses will reach populations not currently enrolled in higher education, and will also permit students who are currently enrolled in on-campus courses to take additional courses, thus completing their programs sooner.

· To encourage and support collaboration among TBR institutions. Course development and delivery will be cost-effective because courses will be developed by one institution and used by all.

By Autumn quarter of 2001, The RODP had inaugurated a virtual, online university, offering degree programs that drew from the resources of all the TBR institutions. They opened with 1,950 student course enrollments. By the second semester, the number had nearly doubled to 3,500 and the Regents capped the program to avoid overextending their new online educational system. In 2004, the RODP served over 5,000 students (with over 9,000 course enrollments) seeking online degrees and continued access to education in Tennessee.

All of the programs at all of the Tennessee institutions are fully accredited. Twenty-seven technology centers deliver and award the technical certificates and diplomas, thirteen two-year community colleges deliver and award the noted associate degrees, while all six TBR universities deliver and award specific bachelor and master degrees. Courses completed in the Regents Online Degree Programs are entirely online and transferable among all the participating institutions.

Students are able to choose the technology center, college, or university (home school) for their admission, registration, and the award of their certificate, diplomas, or degree. The TBR virtual library includes a variety of electronic quick references, 14 InfoTrac databases, and access to the library resources of the home institution of the course instructor. They also offer an online bookstore, managed by MBS Direct of Columbia, Missouri. MBS Direct works in partnership with local campus bookstores to purchase and sell required materials for the online courses. There is a 24/7 toll free phone help center, a Web form for submitting questions and searching a knowledge base, and live chat help available, also 24/7.

The final part of the equation is the TBR eLearning Professional Development Center located at the Renaissance Center; a comprehensive faculty development program based on the Southern Regional Electronic Campus Best Practices in Online Learning (http://www.electroniccampus.org/student/srecinfo/publications/principles.asp). The center offers on-site and online training in the pedagogy of teaching and learning online, best practices for student achievement online, and using instructional tools such as WebCT, FrontPage, Dreamweaver, and related programs. Their clientele includes faculty from both K-12 and higher education, allied health agencies, workforce development and continuing and distance education.

The RODP implementation presented quite a challenge for Robbie Kendall-Melton, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, who was hired specifically to initiate online teaching and learning at the TBR. First, she had to serve as a "change agent" and "motivator" for assisting the system in embracing the vision and mission for online education. Second, she had to coordinate various committees and teams to select a single online course development authoring system for RODP, work with course designers to establish a common template, assist the campuses in developing online student services, implement the "train the trainer" model to assist faculty to develop and teach online courses, institute guidelines and policies for quality and measurable outcomes, coordinate the SACS System Wide Substantive Change for RODP, and work with the campuses in developing assessments for program, course, faculty, and student evaluations.

Kendall-Melton and her evaluators chose WebCT Vista as the program delivery learning management system. All of the RODP's two- and four-year institutions use SCT's SIS. "Because WebCT interfaces directly with SCT, online courses created with WebCT are automatically populated with the appropriate registered students from the SIS," says Raja Kodali, the interim Assistant Vice Chancellor for Information Technologies whose staff supports the RODP team in coordinating registration of the campuses.

The two teams created a page that TBR administrators and faculty can consult to see which students have logged into the courses; all the information comes directly from the SIS. SIS integration has eliminated a triennial chore: manual downloading of grades. "When you consider we have over 7,000 students to grade three times a year, that is a lot of effort and manpower," says John St. Clair, Executive Director of ROPD Technical Services and Training. "Now all we have to do is have the instructors enter the grades in their gradebooks, and we just pull and post grades for each student and pass them on to the appropriate campuses." St. Clair and the TBR RODP Campus Administrators use the grades, plus easily obtainable data on student log-ons and page views, to document class participation for students receiving financial aid.

From the outset, Kendall-Melton knew that with WebCT's wide range of teaching and learning tools, courses could be designed to engage the students. "Ninety-seven percent of the math faculty use the whiteboard feature to enhance instruction," says Kendall-Melton. Chat boards and discussion boards are valued by the students for interaction, and several instructors have begun using Wimba voice support to deliver audio lectures online.

"We've met the board's expectations for interactive courses, and then some," she says. "Visit an RODP sample course at http://www.tn.regentsdegrees.org/students/sample.htm to experience some of the course features appreciated by Tennessee students."

Faculty members benefit from WebCT's modular course home pages, that allow them to put lessons, discussions, quizzes and any other content all in one place so that students don't need to hunt around for course elements. Students like the My Progress feature, that lets them monitor their grades for the trimester and the year and having a separate e-mail account just for school," says Kendall-Melton. For her part, Kendall-Melton sees the Calendar feature as "vital" to help keep students maintain the steady progress important for completing online courses. RODP also employs the Student Home Page feature to help students bond with the instructor and with their other classmates. They have found the "My Progress" tool allows students to check on their progress and grades at any time. The most recent innovation for RODP has been the virtual online student center, which provides an audio and animated WebCT tutorial for both students and faculty. Other items incorporated with WebCT have been the Virtual Library and the online live tutorial labs (24 x 7) for English, Math, Spanish, and Science Courses sponsored by Smarthinking.

While the TBR has not taken an official measure of student satisfaction, overall response to the RODP - and to WebCT - is extremely positive. In a recent survey, 84% of RODP students indicated satisfaction with their online courses and experience. The RODP has added a graduate level (masters) program and two technical certificate programs. Perhaps more telling, 90% of the TBR campuses have adopted WebCT for their own online learning programs. "Remember, these schools are free to choose their own tools," says Kendall- Melton. "There's no question that the immediate success we had with WebCT at the RODP has driven participating campuses to the product."

Now in its third year, the Tennessee Board of Regents online program is experiencing solid growth. Enrollment has grown each semester (7,000 students projected for 2005) and the attrition rate has fallen as students and faculty gain familiarity with tools and pacing for online learning success. Kendall-Melton is justifiably proud of the progress her program has made in four short years. She attributes the program's growth to: the collaborative efforts of the campuses, the guidance of the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs (Dr. Paula Short) in establishing a Strategic Plan for RODP, the governance of the RODP Curriculum and Oversight Committees, the support of the Chancellor (Dr. Charles Manning) and the Board of Regents, and most importantly, the commitment from the faculty and campus RODP staff members.

For states hoping to emulate Tennessee's success she offers this advice: "Start with willing faculty members who are not afraid to think and work out of the box. Remember not to reinvent the wheel. Consult with your WebCT Team for knowledge and skill training for preparing faculty for online education. Learn to collaborate and share best practices with others!"

*RODP was rated as one of the top three virtual programs in nation by The Center for Academic Transformation Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2003, recognized by SREC for online student services, and showcased as an exemplary system wide model at the national WebCT International Conference, 2003. Most recently, RODP has been selected by the American Asian ELearning Support Services (non-profit educational agency in Bangladesh) as the virtual university of choice. For more information please contact Dr. Robbie K. Melton, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Tennessee Board of Regents E-Mail: rkmelton@tbr.state.tn.us

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