As U.S. institutions of higher learning seek to address the problems of affordability, budget shortfalls, and access to education, alternative learning environments have emerged as possible complements to the traditional college classroom and central campus. These alternative learning environments include online classes, MOOCs (massive online open courses), outreach colleges, and regional campuses. While these tools have understandably garnered enthusiasm for their potential to cut costs and broaden access to higher education, they are not easy solutions to the complex problems that students and institutions face.
Over many years of debate and experimentation, one point of clarity continually emerges: Alternative learning environments are neither good nor bad; they are tools, and as with other educational techniques, the central question has to be how we use them in support of each institution’s specific mission.
For public research universities, alternative learning environments can extend regional economic development by offering many different points of access to higher education.
Since 1885, the UA has been a leader in engaging students through unique means of access to higher education: Our fully online, branch campuses, and other access programs enhance and extend our land-grant mission for the 21st century. Our vital task in the years ahead will be to incorporate alternative learning environments without sacrificing engaging learning experiences that have defined UA excellence for over 130 years.
At the UA, incorporating alternative learning environments consists of much more than adding new tools to an old toolbox. The Never Settle academic and business plan emphasizes 100% Student Engagement and establishes our way forward by employing the most effective educational tools to leverage our strengths as the premier public research institution in the Southwest.
A number of recent examples already have demonstrated their practical efficacy and social benefit. The UA Bridge program for Arizona community college students provides robust support for students transferring from over half of the community colleges in the state and we plan to expand the program to all Arizona community colleges. Innovative service learning programs like New Start and Think Tank have helped the UA achieve its highest retention levels in history, and our newly implemented Guaranteed Tuition program provides students and their families with a predictable budget for college and a strong incentive to graduate in four years.
Fully online classes will serve as valuable educational tools complementing the UA’s 100% Student Engagement efforts. The UA’s branch campuses offer four-year degrees around the state featuring the same engagement opportunities available to students at the main campus in Tucson. Additionally, UA faculty members have used MOOCs to broaden the reach of UA engagement. Department of Astronomy Professor Chris Impey teaches students around the world through an open online course on introductory astronomy. Other alternative learning environments, such as regional learning centers, have enabled the UA to serve rural populations and to provide students with professional experiences as part of the benefits of a public research university education.
Though we are proud of these many accomplishments, the UA will continue innovating its multi-point accessibility. Enrollment in online degree programs is expected to increase by nearly 8,000 students over the next decade, and the UA plans to invest in the necessary resources to serve this increased demand. Importantly, most students who enroll in online classes live within 100 miles of the physical institution offering the program, which provides a key point of understanding as we plan our online offerings.
Alternative educational environments are important additions to the UA’s ability to achieve its mission as Arizona’s super land-grant university. As a public research university, quality, affordability, and accessibility will continue to be the strengths of a UA education, whether it is accomplished in classrooms or online environments.
In this month’s insert, we outline some of the ways that we’re communicating the value of higher education to K-12 students and their parents and how we’re supporting those students once they arrive on campus. I also recently posted a blog on multi-point access to public higher education, and I encourage you to read it to find out more ways that the UA is serving the needs of the diverse people of our state. Thank you for your continued support.