The Campus Chronicle
Vol. XVI, Issue 6
for the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts
Oct. 6, 2000

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Faculty role key to quality of distance learning, says Bulger

by Sarah R. Buchholz, Chronicle staff

Distance Learning forum
President William M. Bulger addresses a Sept. 28 forum on proposed distance learning programs. (Stan Sherer photo)

C ourses and degrees for the new system-wide distance-learning initiative will be subject to the same faculty governance procedures as other University courses, President William M. Bulger and Vice President for Academic Affairs Selma Botman told a crowd of about 260 at a Sept. 28 meeting. Botman also underscored the role of individual faculty in developing and delivering courses as a source of quality control.

     "Continuing Education is part of the University of Massachusetts," she said, referring to the division which is likely to oversee distance-learning offerings. "Those same procedures [for course approval] will apply to UMass Online. The content developers are ... the faculty."

     "The best protection for the reputation of the University is to anchor the quality control within the faculty of a department or campus or cross-campus group," said Lowell campus Chancellor William Hogan.

     "Faculty across the five campuses will be invested with quality control," Botman said.
Botman and Bulger each also asserted that there will not be a system-wide degree, a suggestion that appeared in the original Pricewaterhouse Coopers report on the feasibility of a system-wide distance-learning initiative commissioned by the Board of Trustees.

     "There will not be a system degree," Botman said. "We do expect that there will be joint degrees, so campuses that want to collaborate ... will be encouraged to do so."
Faculty, staff and students crowded into a Lincoln Campus Center room, standing across the back and overflowing several rows deep at all four exits, to observe and ask questions of the panel.

William Bulger
President William M. Bulger, Vice President for Academic Affairs Selma Botman and UMass Lowell Chancellor William Hogan listen to a speaker during last week's forum on distance learning. (Stan Sherer photo)

     Chancellor David K. Scott moderated, and Bulger, along with Botman and Hogan, who are co-chairing the Professional and Distance Education Transition Advisory Committee, made up the panel. The function of the advisory committee is to move the University from its tentative, general plan to pursue the creation of UMass Online to a specific, fixed plan of action.

     The panel fielded questions about quality control within UMass Online, funding sources for the initiative, governance of online courses and degrees, the impacts on faculty workloads and on-campus students, the possibility that faculty will become isolated from each other, and accessibility.

     Botman said the goal of the distance-learning initiative is three-fold: to reach students who would not otherwise have access to the University system; "to generate revenue through Continuing Education for faculty, departments, colleges, and programs"; and "to create a technologically sophisticated institution."

     Richard Burt, professor of English, asked about the effect of the initiative on the number of classes faculty would be asked to teach and whether additional classes would mean increased remuneration. Botman said faculty will be paid for delivering and developing courses.

     But when Steven Brewer, a lecturer in Biology, asked whether faculty will retain intellectual property rights, Botman said that because the transition committee wants more input from faculty and administrators before deciding how to proceed on that "critical question, ... We have deliberately not taken a policy decision yet."

     Several students expressed concern that funds used to invest in UMass Online could be spent better on the campus to support programs like English as a Second Language, which they said is being cut.

     Bulger said that the initiative will be funded through cash reserves as an investment that he is confident will generate substantial revenue, much of which will be returned to the campus that produced it. He said that the use of funds for UMass Online will not affect the state appropriations the campus receives.

     Botman said another source of revenue might be the $6 million distance education initiative by the U.S. military, which has called for proposals from universities and others involved in distance learning. The University is looking into participating in that program, she said.

     When students repeatedly questioned the wisdom of proceeding with UMass Online and even Bulger and Scott's intentions, Bulger made it clear that the issue at this point is not whether to join the distance-learning business but how.

     "Every single competitor [is doing it]," Bulger said. "I think we have to because I think people want it. Every single indicator is that more and more people are coming online.
"Have some confidence that people are trying to work their way through this thing. We want to adopt positions based on the collective input [of the campuses]."

     Several staff and students asked about accessibility issues. Some wondered whether distance education would become the poor person's university, others that it would be too costly for many students. Some asked about accessibility for students with disabilities, and one student expressed concern that the University might cease providing "live" accommodations for students with disabilities if educating them through online courses became cheaper.

     Botman echoed earlier remarks by Scott that distance learning would likely be used by a wide variety of people. Bulger acknowledged that there may be problems with cost but said, "We would like to make it more accessible." Both said that specifics are still being worked out and that the forum was part of that process.

     "Access will be very important to us," said Hogan, referring to issues of cost. He said the Lowell campus has had success with charging higher prices for electronic professional education and more moderate prices for traditional undergraduate courses. He said his campus has followed the socioeconomic profile of its distance learners by checking their ZIP codes.

     "We're getting a mix," he said.

     Cordell Bagley, a senior in Computer Science, asked about financial aid and student services, such as advising, for online learners. Botman replied that student services are critical and that all services one expects to find in a university environment will have to be considered as the plan develops. But she also stressed that the most likely users of UMass Online will not be people pursuing an undergraduate degree from scratch, but those wishing to complete a degree or to get master's or certificate-level education, presumably people who are already familiar with higher education.

     Vice Chancellor for Outreach Bob Helgesen told the audience that the Faculty Senate's Outreach Council has a subcommittee of faculty and students which will continue to examine issues around the creation of UMass Online. The subcommittee includes members of the advisory committee chaired by Hogan and Botman, director of Continuing Education Kevin Aiken, who is the campus representative on the transition team in the President's Office, and campus representatives on the search committee for the CEO of UMass Online: Computer Science chair Jim Kurose and Journalism professor Ralph Whitehead. The campus representatives on the transition advisory committee are Massachusetts Society of Professors president Jane Giacobbe, School of Nursing dean Eileen Breslin, director of Libraries Margo Crist, Marketing professor Eric Berkowitz, director of Applied Management Linda Enghagen, and Whitehead.

 
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