Seamless e-learning system pushed for Nevada higher education

Nevada’s public colleges and universities must better embrace online education, or their students will go elsewhere.

That was the message an education consultant delivered Friday to the board that governs public higher education in Nevada.

“If we don’t succeed in this — and time is of the essence — there will be others who will usurp nearly everything,” Richard N. Katz told the Board of Regents. “They will take (our) students.”

Nevada’s system of higher education commissioned Katz last year to evaluate e-learning within the system and identify ways to serve students through online education.

The resulting 105-page report said that Nevada’s public institutions of higher learning have done much to increase e-learning opportunities for students. But they haven’t gone far enough.

To compete, the institutions need to establish a seamless, integrated e-learning system to meet student demand, according to the report. Students prefer the convenience of mobile education and aren’t afraid to look elsewhere — perhaps to virtual colleges and massive open online courses offered on the Web — if they can’t find it through local campuses.

The report recommended the establishment of a system-wide e-learning program office.

“Students should be able to discover on-campus and online learning opportunities within a true common course catalog across” Nevada’s public colleges and universities, the report said.

Many local professors were skeptical about the report, saying they worried its recommendations would wrest academic control from faculty members, lead to increased class sizes and depersonalize students’ educational experiences. Several spoke of the danger of a “one-size-fits-all” style of education, saying students at different institutions have different needs.

Levia Hayes, chairwoman of the English department at College of Southern Nevada, said faculty members “don’t have a problem continuing to learn” and “understand that we’re digital immigrants and our students are digital natives.”

But “we don’t want to see standardization,” she said. “We want to see that academic freedom continue to grow and flourish.”

Sandra Goodwin, who teaches computer courses at CSN, said “students emphasize the need for distance education all the time.”

But “students also tell us that they need more personal faculty involvement, that they need more personalized instruction,” she said. “Making things bigger and more centralized does not necessarily mean making things better.”

Katz said a discussion about moving more education online “isn’t a moral conversation.” Instead, “it’s a description of what’s happening” based on “where students want their educational experiences to come from.”

Today’s students work more hours, are looking for low-cost educational options and are “mobile, ambulatory and impatient,” Katz said.

Nearly a third of students in Nevada’s system of higher education already have participated in e-learning enrollments, the report said. In the fall of 2011, more than 6.7 million students in the United States enrolled in at least one online course, compared with fewer than 2 million a decade ago.

Online learning doesn’t have to take control away from faculty members, Katz said. Offering e-textbooks doesn’t stop professors from choosing those textbooks, for example.

Regents were largely supportive of the report’s recommendations.

“We need to embrace these changes because, if not, there are all kinds of other people out there who want to steal our students, steal our revenues… and leave us with nothing,” said Regent Ron Knecht.

The regents voted to accept the report and direct Chancellor Dan Klaich to begin implementing its recommendations, taking into account the feedback from faculty members and other stakeholders.

Contact Lynnette Curtis at Lynnette.Curtis@yahoo.com.