Online Education on the Table for UA Board of Trustees

A new online education initiative meant to target adult students will be considered at the University of Arkansas' Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday. 

The plan, developed by UA System President Donald Bobbitt and his staff, would expand a consortium of UA System campuses to participate in planning an online university, which would offer a limited number of degree programs designed for adults looking for the flexibility of an online education.

The move is hoped to tap into a group that now looks to for-profit online institutions for higher education. 

"Our state ranks 49th in educational attainment, and if we are going to reach Gov. [Mike] Beebe's goal to double the number of Arkansans with college degrees by 2025, public higher education must deliver quality educational options to non-traditional students who desire to attend college online," Bobbitt said in a university release.

"We have spent the past year visiting with constituencies across the UA System and throughout Arkansas, and we've studied similar efforts in other states. I believe creating an online university focused on adult learners is the best way for us to answer the board of trustees' call to expand and coordinate online education in the UA System," he said.

Talk of the online university comes on the heels of a resolution passed by the board in 2012, which directed the president to coordinate and expand online education.

If the initiative comes to fruition, university officials hope it will complement the UA System's traditional institutions, some of which have online programs. Initial degree programs would be offered by fall 2015 in partnership with UA System campuses while the online university sought accreditation.

Michael Moore, the UA's vice president for academic affairs, has led initial planning for the online initiative. He said he thinks it's necessary to create a new university because online students have different needs than the traditional students on campus.

"Online-only students, particularly those adults who are currently turning to for-profit colleges for higher education, have a specific set of needs that you have to meet in order to attract them," Moore said. "To accomplish our goals, we'll need to create processes for enrollment management, course scheduling, financial aid and other areas that are specifically focused on online students."

According to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, more than 80 out-of-state institutions offer degree programs in Arkansas. 

"Our idea is to utilize our outstanding faculty to create programs that will lead students directly into the workforce," Moore said. "We hope to attract those students who are looking at for-profits, as well as those who have some college but need a flexible option to complete their degree."

Long Time Coming

It's a push toward a new landscape in higher education that Bobbitt has championed for quite some time. He told a group of Little Rock Rotarians in 2012 that the traditional agrarian calendar, lecture system and tuition models are outdated.

"We're operating under the same university structure as Oxford and Cambridge did 1,000 years ago," he said. "We haven't changed much since then. Is that structure really appropriate today?"

Bobbitt also told the group he liked the idea of traditional universities offering more courses available online, but made it clear there was still something to be said about the on-campus experience and the impact it can have on a community.

Later in 2012 at the UA Distance Learning Symposium, Bobbitt called the Internet a "disruptive innovation" to the education system. He also said part of the disruption is from for-profit educational institutions that are "playing in our sandbox."

"The difference right now, and this is the advantage that we can't squander, is that the students aren't being as successful and it's not at a lower cost," he said. "And we can deal with both of those."

The Distance Education and Technology Committee of the board of trustees is set to meet at 10 a.m. Thursday in the Reynolds Room of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.