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story.lead_photo.caption Instructional designer Tim Kessler (left) works last week with Gregory Borse, an assistant professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, on designing two classes Borse will teach online for the University of Arkansas System’s eVersity. The two were working at the UA System campus in Little Rock. - Photo by Stephen B. Thornton

There's a fixture on Michael Moore's desk.

Photo by Stephen B. Thornton
Michael Moore (left), the University of Arkansas System’s vice president for academic affairs, talks with instructional designers Sara Dierk (center) and Adam Peterson on Thursday inside the eVersity’s cabin headquarters on the UA System campus in Little Rock.

It's the number 49, and it's crossed out.

The number is something of a motivator for the University of Arkansas System's vice president for academic affairs. It's where Arkansas ranks in the nation in the percentage of residents who have college credentials. Only West Virginia is lower -- but not by much.

"They're closing the gap a little bit," Moore said. "So, if we don't do things, we're going to be 50th. That's what we want to fix."

Others have gotten behind the charge, too. Last week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for higher education leaders to help the state review and polish recommended policies on achieving student success and state funding for colleges and universities.

The end goal is the same as Moore's: move more Arkansans to a degree. After all, state leaders have said, the more educated a workforce is, the more likely the state will attract business and industry.

Higher education leaders are trying to find different methods to go about the charge.

For Moore, it's the UA System's online-only university, eVersity. Since he arrived at the system in 2013, building up the online university has been his main task. And after less than two years, it's opening up in October, and the application period opens up for students Tuesday.

The UA System board of trustees in March 2014 gave the go-ahead to start eVersity.

At the time -- and even now -- the online market was a competitive one. And in the ring are some of the biggest for-profits, such as the University of Phoenix with its some 250,000 students, as well as the traditional brick-and-mortar universities going online, including Arizona State University with its nearly 83,400 students, 17 percent of which are online only.

In Arkansas, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education has allowed more than 100 distance education providers.

They range from niche schools offering certificates to universities granting degrees. Mixed in all of that, there are some that are fully online, some that are blended -- a mix of face-to-face and online formats -- and then some that offer students a way to finish out a degree.

The push for the UA System's online-only university was the brainchild of Moore and UA System President Donald Bobbitt, who had worked together at the University of Texas at Arlington. There, the two helped to bring online courses to mostly first-generation students and other nontraditional students.

"The reason they were there was because they could not otherwise take the course," Moore said. "So, it wasn't taking students from face-to-face [interactions] and putting it online. It was really opening up a new population of students."

Other universities had tried treading the new ground. Some succeeded. Some, such as Illinois -- which went for a systemwide approach called Global Campus -- folded.

"While there are many online-only providers, there are fewer at the undergraduate level, which is where eVersity will focus in the near term," Moore said. "It is also the case that we are carefully selecting the degrees we will build so that we select degrees that have demand in the marketplace."

The whole idea was to get to an estimated 350,000 Arkansas adults who don't have a college credential. The figure -- which is made up of people with some college experience -- comes from the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase college attainment by 2025 nationwide.

The eVersity got off the ground with about $3 million from the state. The system found $1 million in its own coffers. The online-only university also got a few gifts here and there, including a $500,000 grant from Tyson Foods Inc.

Then it borrowed $7 million from its campuses. They haven't had to tap into those funds just yet, Moore said.

Some campuses weren't too hot on the idea at first.

In November 2014, the UA-Fayetteville Faculty Senate passed a resolution, showing its opposition to the online school. The faculty group asked the UA System administration and board of trustees to delay eVersity's implementation.

A few weeks later, the UA-Fayetteville provost told eVersity's leaders that the system's largest campus would not participate in a volunteer governance board for the venture.

Then, in December, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Faculty Senate recommended eVersity take advantage of UALR's "existing systems of curriculum and governance supervision, rather than inventing new processes, as an aid to reaching its October 2015 opening date," the group's president wrote in an opinion piece published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"Creating stand-alone degree programs from scratch is time-consuming and duplicative when there are already complete degree programs, fully accredited, supported and successful at existing system institutions," he wrote.

"The Faculty Senate recommended that the Board of Trustees assess the impact on enrollment and funding of its constituent campuses and share this assessment with the faculty. We hope in the future that UALR will be able to work collaboratively with eVersity in designing programs not already available, but that will meet crucial Arkansas needs."

But eVersity was coming one way or another.

TEAM HOMEWORK

Moore and his team have undergone hours upon hours of meetings on the coursework, on access, on technology and data.

The behemoth behind eVersity is a massive student information system, the keeper of the keys for student data, including admission information to financial aid.

The eVersity is using Banner, software that most larger universities use. But unlike most universities using the software, eVersity is storing its data "on the cloud" and having it accessible to students, staff and faculty when needed, Moore said.

Moore is big on data. And his team -- holed up in a log cabin across from the UA System's administrative office -- has ideas on how to use that data to help motivate the students through the six-week long eVersity courses. Students will take one course at a time -- at $165 per credit hour or $495 for a three-hour course -- beginning with a free class called Engage.

In Engage, the student will gain familiarity with Blackboard, the learning management system; figure out a budgeting plan for his tenure with eVersity, and take something of a personality test that measures his mettle.

Moore calls it "hope and grit." Hope is what the student wants to achieve -- overcoming challenges, reaching for dreams. Grit measures tenacity, a student's ability to fight through problems.

Those measures, Moore said, will help eVersity counselors and faculty learn more about what motivates the student and whether the student will need more of a nudge, like an instant message or email every other day -- or a push, a call everyday -- to move along in the course.

"What you want to try to do is create the most comprehensive view of the student that you possibly can," Moore said. "What kind of conversations are they having with people? Is their faculty member saying anything to them that they needed?

"So, we're actually trying to create a data warehouse. We're going to try to figure out what information do I need that's in Blackboard, what information do I need that's in the student information system, what information do I need that's from the advisers, and we're going to try to figure out what information do we need to try to figure out success."

Moore is still playing around with a few ideas on how to take advantage of the data.

Take the cellular phone app Strava. Runners and bicyclists use it to measure the length of their run or ride. They can share it with their friends who use the app. And they can take up individual challenges, such as unlocking a possible prize after riding a certain amount of miles.

The eVersity can take after that, Moore said. For example, he said, eVersity could show how a student is progressing in readings, activities and tests compared with the rest of the class. Or, if a student committed spending a certain amount of time on a class, then eVersity could knock a certain amount of money off the next course or give the student a free T-shirt.

REINVENTING REMEDIATION

Measuring data and charting success isn't the only out-of-the-box method eVersity is taking.

In Arkansas, students who score less than a 19 on the ACT college-entrance exam have to take remedial courses.

The online university will offer students who need remedial work supplemental instruction along the way, or "just-in-time" remediation, Moore said.

That method concerned some faculty, including Jason Chism, who teaches several English and writing courses at the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope. Chism is helping eVersity build a freshman composition course.

"No question the biggest concern -- and this is for every English teacher I've talked with as well -- it's a daunting enough task to prepare a student in six weeks for college writing," he said. "[Moore's] idea of incorporating remediation within six weeks seemed impossible."

Florida gave students the option of enrolling in a remedial course. After a year, those who opted not to take the remedial courses were more likely to fail college-level courses, Inside Higher Ed reported in June.

At the same time, separate remedial courses don't work, Chism said.

"One of our biggest problems in higher ed with student success and remediation particularly is the need to change how we do things," he said. "I knew that it was clear eVersity was going to be an institution that ... if it's not working, we're going to change."

Chism said he wanted to be part of the eVersity team, despite the potential problems and challenges, to make sure it was done right.

COURSE DESIGN

Chism is one of the many faculty members whom system administrators hired to help build eVersity courses.

The faculty, who all took an introductory course on online programming, will be paid $4,000, with an extra $3,000 if they can develop the courses without textbooks. The alternative is to use free open-educational resources. Pay is different for subjects with faculty teams, such as mathematics or English courses.

The groups have worked to refine the online-only university's curriculum and have teamed up with instructional designers to build engaging courses that are relevant, said Harriet Watkins, eVersity's director of online learning.

Adam Peterson, an instructional designer for eVersity, said the biggest thing for the designers, even before the courses came along, was removing barriers for students. Professors design online courses in different ways for different classes, he said. For example, the syllabus may be in a different location for different courses.

With eVersity, all courses will have the same layout. Embedded videos will include an external link, the duration and an explanation of why the student is watching the video and what the student is expected to take away from it, Peterson said.

"It's like little things that kind of get pushed to the side that will help the student," Peterson said. "For instance, all these videos have closed captions. If a professor is providing a video off YouTube or wherever, we're making them provide a transcript."

It's not only for accessibility, he said. It's also a way to target the different learning types.

"The faculty are the builders," he said. "We're the interior designers. We're thinking about how does the student best learn the content."

Some of the courses have taken the narrative approach. For one of the criminal justice courses, for example, on day one, either the student or a character gets arrested and then the student goes through the journey of the correction process each week, he said.

"If you learn their journey throughout the whole time, it gives the student a reason to say, 'Oh, I wonder what happens next,'" Peterson said. "And it puts it into a story context that they don't even know they're learning while they're doing it."

All courses will include pre-tests and post-tests to gauge how much the student learned in the course. Each course will also include knowledge checks in between the lessons to ensure the student is understanding the material.

The classes will also include eight employer competencies, which are measures related to the workforce, Moore said.

The eVersity will document the employer competencies on student transcripts.

"And at the end of a degree program just like we calculate your GPA, we're going to say that you had 15 hours of communication classes, you had developed team leadership abilities in over 18 hours of coursework," Moore said.

MEETING DEMAND

The eVersity will offer core curriculum courses, along with program options in business, criminal justice, health care management, information technology and university studies -- all in high-demand fields from employers, Moore said.

Administrators with the online-only university will place a county-by-county map of the state, showing places that currently have free Internet access. It will include public libraries, restaurants and coffee shops. The eVersity is also looking at other access points, such as city parks or even recreational vehicle parks, officials there have said.

The map will be updated as people submit information, officials have said.

Some students in rural counties may have to drive a little farther to get Internet access, Moore said. That includes Lee, Lincoln, Sevier and Yell counties, which have the lowest percentages in the state of those with at least an associate degree, the Lumina Foundation says.

"That to me comes into the category of effort on the part of the students -- 'How bad do I want this?'" he said. "I think this is one thing to remember too, and you've heard me say this: College should be hard, but going to college should not be."

Metro on 09/07/2015

Print Headline: Online-only eVersity ready to enroll after just 18 months

Comments

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  • arkateacher54_aol.com
    September 7, 2015 at 9:13 a.m.

    It is a mistake to focus all our educational efforts on providing "college" opportunities. There are plenty of those available. What we need is more vocational education. There are large numbers of young people who don't need or want to go to college and who would never succeed at college. They aren't succeeding - they are dropping out and trying to pay off student loans while working at low-skill service jobs. They don't need algebra or western civ, but they do need computers and other technology, trade skills, skills that will allow them to get jobs that are actually available now and will be in the years to come. Higher education is largely a money-making scam that is taking advantage of many of our young people instead of meeting their needs. As my screen name indicates, I am a teacher in Arkansas.

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