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Student Demand for Online Courses in TN Rising: Report

The number of UT Knoxville students taking distance or online classes has nearly tripled since the 2001 school year, a new report from the state’s Offices of Education Research and Accountability says.

The number went from 514 students in 2001 to 1,413 students in 2013 and is in line with significant growth nationally in interest in flexible, online ways to learn and get a degree. The report on online learning comes at a time when soaring student loan debt has captured the attention of politicians and the public — a problem BusinessWeek says may represent “the next big threat to the economy.”

The report doesn’t suggest the final word on that, but does track the early steps in an experiment undertaken by Tennessee and other states at affordable, online learning. Last year, state lawmakers put $5 million toward the establishment of a nonprofit, online school for Tennesseans who wanted to complete their degree. Students (who tend to be 25 or older) at this accredited online university pay about half what students at UT’s flagship campus in Knoxville pay in tuition:

“(Western Governor’s University) Tennessee’s tuition will average approximately $2,890 per each six-month term for full-time enrollment of at least 12 competency hours. By comparison, tuition and fees for undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville will total $5,597 per semester for full-time enrollment in 2013-14; tuition and fees for MTSU will be $3,920.34.”

A degree from WGU Tennessee can cost less as the student takes on more work, since pricing is set per term instead of per credit hour. Once a student establishes competency in a subject area, he can move on to the next class in the academic progression right away. That built-in financial incentive to finish efficiently should put college within reach of more working Tennesseans who want to stay out of debt. Online learning experiments are happening on Tennessee’s traditional physical college campuses, too.

The report documents the work to develop online courses through a collaborative of Tennessee’s public universities and technology center. In the high-growth field of nursing, the introduction of online coursework has provided students with more certainty that they can access the courses they need, even if a human at their campus is not available to teach the material that semester.

The report leaves open the question of whether students actually learn as well or better online, a question that the backers of MOOCs, or massive online open courses, are also struggling to answer. Also still to be measured is any cost savings estimate the state should expect from moving more coursework to the Web. Online courses cost more to put together on the front end than traditional, in-person courses, the report says, citing a study of the University of North Carolina’s online courses.

But if the UT Knoxville numbers are any indication, the demand for them is very real and likely to grow.

As to performance of students who participate in online learning, the report indicated that mixing remote coursework with in-the-classroom experiences may actually improve education outcomes over those who stick with classroom-only experiences. The OREA study  noted that the U.S. Department of Education has published research findings that suggest “students in online conditions perform moderately better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” Those conclusions, however, are disputed by some.

Last summer, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a memorandum of understanding that launched Wester Governors University in Tennessee as part of his “Drive to 55” effort to enroll more Tennesseans in higher learning curriculums.

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Clarence Thomas in Knoxville

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stopped by Knoxville last week to deliver remarks to an auditorium full of law students at the the University of Tennessee.

The occasion of Thomas’ visit was Constitution Day, although he was playfully evasive and opaque on most question relating to issues, matters of law or his views of the United States government ‘s founding document.

Asked at one point how he would rule on the federal health care reform package, Thomas shrugged and quipped that like most people in Washington, he hadn’t read it.

He preferred instead to talk about what he described as the supportive relationships and shared respect amongst the members of the court (“The thing that underscores it all, in all the years I’ve been there, and through all the differences we’ve had, I have still yet to hear the first unkind word spoken among my colleagues.”), and some of his past interactions with court luminaries like Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Thurgood Marshall.

Thomas relayed a conversation he had with Rehnquist not long after he (Thomas) was confirmed. Thomas was grappling with the weight of serving on such a powerful and august body, and wondering where “he fit” amongst his fellow justices. Rehnquest reassured Thomas that any feelings of insecurity or doubt he might be experiencing would likely be short lived. “Clarence,” the chief justice told him, “in your first five years you wonder how you got here. After that, you wonder how your colleagues got here.”

Upon meeting Marshall for the first time, the awestruck Thomas told the old civil rights warrior that he envied his courage. Thomas said Marshall “looked at me and he said, ‘I did, in my time, what I had to do. You have to do, in your time, what you have to do.’ That was the only advice he gave me.”

Only the second African American to be appointed to the nation’s highest judicial body, Thomas is typically regarded as one of the few beacons of consistency and principle among natural rights enthusiasts and those who generally tend to hold the constitutional rights of individuals in higher esteem than transient political agendas and policy initiatives.

Thomas, who often dissents even from those he votes with on particular cases, said the most important ingredients of professional fulfillment and personal achievement in his view are the faith and ability trust in one’s own judgment and an embrace optimism and the call of idealism.

“You’ve got to have something that inspires you and keeps you going through the dark days, ” he said. “People try to undercut ideals and principles based on what we do on a daily basis. What we do on a daily basis if by flawed human beings — that doesn’t undermine the ideal. I’ve been in Washington a long time and fought  lot of battles…I had the wonderful experience of getting confirmed. But you do you react to that by becoming a mean and angry person, or do you look for some good? You look for the good, and you always try to pursue it.”

“If you think that smoking bad, I can assure you that negativity and cynicism are far more carcinogenic to the spirit than cigarettes are to the lungs,” said Thomas.