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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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Haslam Praises Tech Centers for Efficiency, Putting Grads in Jobs

While the state’s four-year schools would reduce spending by the millions under Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget, public trade schools that turn out welders, cosmetologists and repairmen will face more modest cuts that average less than $50,000 per school.

The plan, which largely shields the state’s technology centers from a proposed 2.5 percent decrease in state spending next year, points to Haslam’s emphasis on applying tax dollars where he believes they are most cost-efficient. During a tour of the Tennessee Technology Center at Nashville on Wednesday, Haslam said the technology centers are on the front line of providing the sort of job training the state and companies here need.

“Our technology centers are doing great work, and they’re providing the real labor workforce training our employers need,” Haslam said. “When you have an 80 percent completion rate and about an 80 percent placement rate, that’s a really good track record.

“I’m a fan of what’s happening here. We want to see if we can do more of this.”

Haslam this week proposed cutting higher education by 2 percent, which translates into a $20.2 million reduction.

But the state’s new funding formula for higher education emphasizes outcomes rather than simply student enrollment, so the technology centers figure to stand up well in that system.

The technology centers are listed as a $1.3 million cut in Haslam’s budget proposal, but with 27 locations across the state that averages only $48,000 per school. The Nashville center Haslam toured has a budget of $2.3 million and 899 students, $2,600 per student.

“For most folks, I don’t think there is any drastic impact there in terms of this year’s budget on how it will affect the technology centers,” Haslam said. “We worked hard to where we’re providing direct services like this to try to minimize the impact.”

Haslam proposed a $30.2 billion budget, which includes a 1.6 percent raise for state workers but is down overall from last year’s spending plan.

The University of Tennessee system, which operates separately from the state board that oversees the technology centers, is facing $7 million in reductions in the governor’s proposal, including $3.4 million from the UT-Knoxville campus.

Haslam has proposed cuts of $1.9 million at the University of Memphis, $1.7 million at Middle Tennessee State University and just over $1 million at East Tennessee State University. Tennessee Tech is looking at a reduction of $825,000, and Tennessee State would see its budget reduced by $686,000 in the plan.

Technology center officials say their system provides a model that works well, with an emphasis on putting people in jobs without burdening them with a lot of debt. They point to the fact students can have a significant amount of their costs covered through Pell grants and the state’s Wilder-Naifeh technical skills grant, the technology centers’ version of the state’s lottery scholarship program.

The Wilder-Naifeh grant is named for two legislators behind it, the late Lt. Gov. John Wilder of Somerville and Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who is still a member of the General Assembly. The grant, introduced in 2004, provides up to $2,000 per year for students who meet attendance requirements and maintain a C average or better. The total financial aid available can cover about 70 percent of students’ costs, officials say.

The technology centers are largely trying to get away from the federal student loan program, said James King, vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees them.

“I don’t want our students leaving here with debt if they don’t have to,” King said.

The technology center approach can result in more immediate employment than the traditional four-year model at a major university.

“We’re graduating folks on time. Our students come in, they get out, and they can get on with their lives,” King said.

Taxpayers can be assured the technology centers are motivated to place graduates in jobs because their accreditation depends on it. The centers are accredited by the Council on Occupational Education.

“It’s not just placement into some job. It’s placement into the field where they’re trained,” King said.

All but one of the state’s technology centers is a free-standing facility, one in Chattanooga being the exception. The programs cover more than 50 fields of study. Haslam’s tour on Wednesday exposed him to programs as diversified as nursing and welding.

Mark Lenz, director of the Nashville school, conducted Haslam’s tour.

Haslam was hardly the first dignitary to visit the Nashville campus. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, who have made contributions to education in Tennessee from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, visited the Nashville school last November.

The 27 technology centers help make the Board of Regents system the sixth largest system of public higher education in the nation. The Regents system includes six four-year universities — Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State, East Tennessee State and the University of Memphis — and 13 community colleges.