Nevada System of Higher Education Heads Digital and Mass Markets

Digital learning

The NSHE paid $90,000 to Richard N. Katz and Associates for a report reviewing the online education system in Nevada, the resulting recommendation was a drastic overhaul of the Nevada’s e-learning system.

Katz and 5 of his associates labored for over 6 months with a team of faculty, staff and students from various institutions around the state and compiled a 105 page report, detailing the Nevada System of Higher Education’s current e-learning program, its flaws and opportunities for improvement.

The report did praise much of what NSHE has done over the last decade, helping to build a system that has fostered an environment that is friendly to on-line learning. “Enrollment in distance education courses (students taking at least one course) through NSHE colleges and universities grew 438 percent from fall 2001 to fall 2009,” the report notes. As of the time of the report, “33,213 students enrolled in one or more DE courses representing 31.6 percent of the NSHE student body.”

But the majority of the analysis remains directed at the shortcomings in the system. The lack of availability for many students, the lack of central oversight and the resulting lack of cooperation between member schools threatens to leave Nevada schools bereft of many of their enrolled applicants and much of their tuition heavy operating budget. “E-learning within NSHE appears to be a collection of disparate and often beautiful fabric patches, not quite ready for quilting,” the report says.

“Meanwhile, a juggernaut of educational innovation is massing outside NSHE’s boundaries and is bringing ever closer the day when market forces could reshape the system’s options without regard to institutional interests or academic tradition,” adds the report. The report laments the organization’s hesitation to move into a more accessible structure for natural students and into large organized Massive Open Online Courses, with which institutions of higher learning across the country have found success.

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“We conclude further that e-learning may become the dominant mode of instructional delivery throughout most NSHE campuses within a decade,” states the report. Stanford University President John Hennessy agreed in a 2012 article for The New Yorker, stating succinctly, “there’s a tsunami coming.”

Katz’s report suggests that NSHE member schools need to stop functioning and thinking of themselves so much as independent schools, seeing their viability for survival and future relevance situated in cooperation. Options for students are popping up at all turns, from the University of Phoenix, and other for profit institutions, as well as MOOC’s run by Harvard and the California State system.

“Many will (participate). And many will expect NSHE to recognize their efforts and issue credit of MOOC work taken. NSHE – like others – will ultimately need to find a way to do this,” warns the report. If they do not heed the needs of their applicant base, they will see their students poached by more accommodating institutions.

“And revenues will fall. As MOOC quality improves, more and more NSHE students will choose courses that are undeniably cheaper and that students might find better, more convenient, and so forth. There will be accredited colleges and universities that will readily accept credits transferred from the MOOCs. And the economics of institutions like NSHE will become further strained,” the report continues.

The report also finds that despite good work done throughout the decade, the NSHE schools have suffered debilitating setbacks due to massive budget cuts over the past few years. Cuts that have made it more difficult for schools to provide the level of services they would like to, to provide an adequate number of sections for students to choose from and to continue to improve the infrastructure of the e-learning system.

The main theme for the report’s recommendations is centralization. The NSHE system as a whole is encouraged to create a central director’s office dedicated to pushing forward the study and implantation of efforts to make the online education program more streamlined and accessible.

Their other primary suggestion is an extension of those themes, creating one size fits all classes, tools and techniques that would be implanted and transferrable across the state without regard to institutional autonomy. “. In the future, NSHE students should be able to discover on-campus and online learning opportunities within a true common course catalog across NSHE colleges, universities, and DRI, to enroll in these courses without regard to home campus, and to have course credit for satisfactory work accepted fully and seamlessly at the institutional and academic program levels,” the report advises.

The report was presented at the NSHE Board of Regents’ meeting Feb. 28 and March 1. Brad Summerhill, chair of the council of senate chairs, agreed with the sentiment of the report but also tipped his hat to its main caveat. “Obviously making significant, likely multi-million dollar investments in anything right now is a difficult prospect given our funding and budget situation,” Summerhill warned in his statement to the NSHE Board of Regents.

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Most of the regents welcomed the report and supported some or all of its conclusions, but the response from faculty who attended the meeting was far from supportive.

“Eighty percent of faculty surveyed was disappointed with the Katz Report,” complained Adrian Havas, an English professor at the College of Southern Nevada. According to Havas and a number of other speakers the idea of taking teaching out of the hands of educators and putting the design of these classes into the hands of detached bureaucrats would do students a disservice from the start.

Havas also contends that such large MOOCs would lead to bulk buys of books which would lead to the purchasers looking for deals. The endgame to such a plan would see classes being taught to the whims of booksellers designs. “The intrusion of corporate interests into classrooms,” was his biggest concern.

“Distance education is vital to the success of students at CSN, many students (say) they couldn’t succeed without it,” concedes Sandra Goodwin, a professor of 35 years. A not unexpected sentiment, considering the diverse population and work schedules of students in southern Nevada. But she too is wholeheartedly against the state centralization of the classes, removing professional, hands-on educators from the equations.

The state has “many communities and students with many different needs, and professors are better able to swerve students in the way they need to be served,” Goodwin says. She explains that the most important part of education in student teacher interaction. If anything, she would suggest, in perhaps an unintentional endorsement of hybrid classes, the e-learning design needs to feature more interaction.

In this line of thinking she is on the same page as UNLV Provost John White. “It is the interactive component that’s crucial to a lot of learning,” White agrees. He goes on to point out one of the major flaws with e-learning. “For some students online education is going to be more effective, and for others it won’t. The trap of online education is that it is convenient for students and that convenience may attract students who are not going to thrive in it.”

Even the Katz report couldn’t disagree with the statement. “On a less promising note, course completion rates among e-learners continue to lag those enrolled face-to-face, though research increasingly points to student preparedness and income levels,” the report says.

“I put myself in a terrible spot,” remembers Ford Kendrick, a student at UNLV until a year ago, as he allowed troubles in online courses slow him down while on academic probation. “It seemed so convenient, but it lacked any urgency and I fell so far behind. Put myself behind the eight-ball.” “With no professor to really talk to too, or seek advice from, it was way too easy to become disengaged and just fall off.”

All parties seem to agree that a lack of preparedness or self-motivation can lead to a quick failure in the world of online education. Many students “may need to be disabused of the idea that e-learning courses are easier than traditional ones, or given a reality check about their time management skills. Still others will benefit from the occasional reminder email or friendly phone call,” the report suggests.

It would seem that the interactivity offered by the still technologically friendly hybrid classes fit best into the minds of most people outside of the report’s writers. There is hope educators will have the chance to see their opinions further heard and heeded. “It would seem that the next logical step for you as policymakers would be to work in close consultation with your faculty and campus experts to see which ideas in the e-learning report can work now and in the future,” Summerhill directed the board.

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