EDUCAUSE 2011 is fast approaching. As a lead-up to the conference, we’re interviewing some of the speakers who will be sharing their knowledge and experience in Philly next week. It’s our hope that these interviews will spark conversation and give conference attendees a better sense of this year’s speakers.
Dr. Jim Linksz is the President of Bucks County Community College. He’s speaking at a session entitled Online Learning: What College Presidents and the Public Think About Its Future. Dr Linksz was kind enough to answer a few questions about his own perceptions of online learning, and the ways in which Bucks is embracing technological change.
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1. You’re leading a session at EDUCAUSE about perceptions of the future of online learning. Can you talk a bit about how your own perception of online education has changed over the course of your career?
In the 1980s I was chief academic officer at Catonsville Community College in Baltimore, which already had a commitment to distance learning. It was expressed through on-line cable courses delivered on our own cable station as well as in collaboration with Maryland College of the Air managed by our local PBS channel. Now at Bucks, we have made a substantial commitment to delivering courses through 21st century methodologies we did not even envision in the 1980s, including learning spaces, chat rooms, Internet 2, etc. Equally important, our support services have grown to match academic skills – on-line library and tutoring and orientation for example. We have evolved new techniques for teaching lab courses on-line and participative courses like Speech. Our faculty development work has also grown to support these efforts, including specialists to help develop materials and strategies that support interactive courses. And, many of these mechanisms are now working their way back into traditional classes.
2. How has Bucks’ approach to technology and online learning changed in the time since you became president? What do you consider Bucks’ most important goals for the future with regard to online learning?
When I came to Bucks in 1992, distance learning was really just a conversation a few key leaders were having. Today 2000 student registrations a semester are in distance learning and it has become a fully integrated part of our offerings strategy, with several curricula available on-line. Our winter mini-semester is totally on-line. This represents about 20% of Bucks credit production. More important, we have moved from the canned course in a box to much more integrated and interactive course dynamics.
For the future we want to see even more integration of distance techniques into our non-credit offerings. In certain areas like emergency services training, we already have a world presence and we see that growing through the use of distance coursework. I see credit based distance education growing another 10% before the turn of the decade.
A number of years ago Bucks was a leader in beginning the Pennsylvania Virtual Community College – an amalgamation of all of the courses then available from all 14 community colleges. As competitive pressures emerged and all colleges grew their own distance portfolios, inevitably the idea was sidelined. But I think with recent national efforts to create great course catalogs shared interstate, perhaps even PA will come around.
3. Part of the description of your EDUCAUSE session reads: “The public, in particular, questions whether students engage as effectively online as in a brick-and-mortar classroom.” How do you feel about this skepticism? What do you think it would take to convince the public of the merits of online learning?
The ‘public’ really is three separate publics. The first is the faculty inside colleges – they need to be convinced first. Part of that convincing is done through effective development of key faculty opinion leaders who embrace the technical aspects and who can see that on-line learning is an effective way to reach a student set that otherwise might not enter their traditional classrooms. The second is the employer community. They need to be convinced that colleges are serious about protecting their traditional classroom quality metrics and that the results are measurable in terms of skills learned and able to be applied. I include in this set of folks, those in further education institutions who accept college courses in transfer – for example Colleges of Pharmacy accepting science courses from other colleges that have on-line labs rather than traditional wet labs. (At another time we should digress and speak about the separation between credentialing and education.) The third is the general public wanting the best for children and wondering whether the on-line experience can do the job that a traditional college education has done in educating the whole person, which includes face to face interactions in social as well as educational settings. I suppose that the last set of folks is the students themselves, perhaps included in this general public, now increasingly digital natives, but still wondering if frat parties, football, and on-line learning go together really. No amount of adherence to Quality Matters rubrics or similar external validation really addresses this issue.
The for-profit national universities have created models for on-line learning that traditional colleges have yet to adopt. We are in a temporary greed/growth induced hiatus; but I really believe something major can happen if some key players take the obvious next step.