Arizona Summer Wildcat
Their first goal was a modest one - pooling the three Arizona public universities' collection of online courses on one central Web site - but it could mark the beginning of a virtual educational institution.
It seems like a rather simple Web site with few options and unimpressive graphics. A search engine, course listing and registration information make up www.azdistancelearning.org, which will be presented to the Arizona Board of Regents at their meeting at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff on Friday.
While right now it is small, in a few years it could be a fully accredited university called the Arizona Regents University.
"We really envisioned it as a series of stages," said Arizona State University President Lattie Coor.
Stage one was a common Web site for all the online courses already offered by the individual state universities.
The second stage is to mix and match courses to design entire online degree programs for students. Students will receive a degree from whichever university they earned the most credit hours from, said Regent Judy Gignac.
If a student attends the UA but completes more hours of course work at NAU, the student's degree would be received from NAU.
"You can take classes through any of the three (state universities)," Gignac said.
The third stage is the Web site shifting into a complete online university, which will require accreditation.
"It may or may not make sense (for ARU to become accredited)," said University of Arizona President Peter Likins. "Anytime you create a whole new university, you have to explain it."
Accreditation may be unnecessary if there aren't enough students using the online courses or if the expense is too great, Likins said.
"We don't intend to take a big (financial) plunge into this venture," he said. "We don't have the money to make the capital commitment,"
The fight for additional funding for the state educational system is currently taking place with Gov. Jane Hull's Arizona 2000 plan - a 0.6 percent sales tax increase- now being considered by the Legislature.
If passed by the voters in November, the funds that the universities would get would most likely go toward easing the brain drain - loss of professors due to the universities' inability to provide competitive wages.
The regent's university would have not have a faculty. What course work the classes will require has yet to be determined.
"We do have some issues the council of presidents needs to sit down and honestly address," Gignac said.
Under the current plan, a student is not intended to take only online courses, but have those classes be an addition to a class schedule taken on the campus.
"It's not a substitute for going to college," Likins said. "You go to college and supplement (a student's education) with it."
Though it is only intended to be a supplement, Tom Davis, UA pharmacology professor, said that he is concerned with the lack of faculty involvement in ARU.
"I think teaching is very personal," Davis said. "As a primary tool it (an online university) lacks that critical interaction with other students and faculty."
While shifts away from the old model of an instructor lecturing in front of a class are actively being discussed on the frontier of learner-centered education, some feel this may be an extreme model for the future.
"One concern is the lack of one-on-one personal contact in a lecture," Associated Students President Ben Graff said. "There will not be a sense of identity."
That sense of identity, Graff said, comes from physically being on a university campus and partaking in the activities provided in a campus setting.
"I think alumni support would go down," he added.
New trends and new options in learning
As the learning environment changes - through the implementation of such ideas as learner-centered education and distance learning - professors' teaching methods may also evolve.
"The role of faculty is changing," Likins said. "Rather than being the source of all rhetorical information, they take on sort of a coaching role, a guiding role."
However, if students go the way of online institutions, that role may diminish.
"Without (faculty involvement) the most important aspect of college doesn't take place," Davis said. "I'm not in favor of it."
Still, online courses can provide more convenience and possibly less expense for the students, Davis added.
The regent's university will also offer a broad course listing from all three universities, with many more options than students now receive. Once the state universities have added more classes to their individual lists - with most of the work expected to be done by 2005 - full degree programs could be offered for UA students through ASU.
While this is an advance into a new arena of online education for Arizona students, some university systems have had a system like this one for many years.
"We're behind the curve," said NAU President Clara Lovett.
The New York Board of Regents created a virtual college in 1971 to serve students who completed their degrees at more than one accredited institution.
It received full independence in April 1998 and the New York Regents College now includes 32 degree programs and "provides a means to earn a college degree through a combination of credits earned elsewhere," said Bill Stewart, Regent's College spokesman.
While the regent's college acts as a "credit bank," its distance learning program includes online course work.
"It's playing an increasing role," Stewart said.
Once a student has completed the credit hours required to attain a degree, he or she receive it from the New York regents.
With the compilation of credit hours earned from different Arizona universities, territorial boundaries could become a concern.
"We've worked pretty hard to keep a uniqueness between these universities," Gignac said. "To be homogenous between the three universities is not beneficial."
Likins said he isn't worried about the three institutions losing their individual identities and that all the ARU will be is an addition to an Arizona college student's options.
"It's an augmentation of the learning procedures," he said.
Reaching out and connecting someone
Besides students already at the three state universities, the online university may be able to benefit students in rural areas or non traditional student who work - which is a large portion of the New York Regent's College student body.
"That was a large topic at the Arizona town hall in Prescott," Graff said. "It provides accessibility and affordability."
Though Davis is opposed to the online university for students who are already on campus, he's in favor of it as a way to branch out to rural areas and provide higher education to a larger number of people.
"If it's an attempt to reach out to those students, it's an outstanding idea," Davis said.
The purpose that on line courses will come to serve is unclear, though it is clear that learning done on the Internet will play a large role in educating and influencing the current generation inhabiting the UA's classrooms and many that will follow.
"It's a different animal," Gignac said.