UMW is Going the Distance
While a majority of the University of Mary Washington’s online courses are offered to graduate students–32 sections were available during the 2009-2010 school year, compared with 17 undergraduate sections–the presence of distance learning at Mary Washington has expanded in recent years.
Source: John St. Clair
Distance and blended learning was not even mentioned in UMW’s operating budget summaries until the 2009-2010 school year, at which point it was allocated $8,000. By 2010-2011, the university’s distance and blended learning budget had risen to $108,644.
John St. Clair was hired two years ago in the summer of 2008 to fill a position that the university had just created: director of distance and blended learning. With background as executive director on the Tennessee Board of Regents Online Degree Program, he was tasked at UMW with helping develop infrastructure and policy that would unite the distance programs of the graduate and undergraduate campuses.
Online classes necessitate more explicit ground rules, since they omit the daily face-to-face interaction. For instance, students and faculty must have the same concept of grading time frames, since a student can’t just inquire during class time.
Distance learning offers added convenience that benefits both faculty and students and on an institutional level enables the university to attract additional students, he said. At the same, time, however, he does not want to change the essence of the university.
“At UMW there is a great interest in maintaining its identity as a smallish, liberal arts, residential university,” St. Clair said. “I don’t think online learning is ever going to be a major [undergraduate] focus.”
One stigma associated with online classes is that they are most often taught by adjunct professors. Mary Washington in fact offers a majority of its distance learning with fulltime professors.
One of the major benefits distance learning has brought to education on the whole is a reinvigorated focus on teaching. With so much discussion of the best ways to conduct an online class, there has be more devotion to what constitutes a quality education, according to St. Clair.
A wide variety of disciplines at Mary Washington have begun offering online courses, giving several hundred students the opportunity to try out distance learning.
“I am somewhat of a traditionalist, but I am a proponent of online education. I think it deserves a place in the curriculum,” St. Clair said.
–Sarah C. Smith