A shift in state policy touched off a boom in online education at North Carolina State University. The transition has come to full fruition eleven years after North Carolina’s legislature began funding state colleges based on student credit hours–meaning distance-education students, like their bricks-and-mortar peers, count as full-time students. Since then, Vice Provost Thomas K. Miller III has seen online education evolve from a fringe alternative to a favorite among students and professors.
In the late 1990s, distance learners were not seen as full-time students in the eyes of North Carolina lawmakers. That changed in 1998, when the state’s education funding formula saw a dramatic shift that paved the way for online classes to become accepted by students and once-resistant faculty.
"It was clear that online learning was going to be big," said Miller, vice provost for North Carolina State University’s Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) program since 2000. "I saw that as the writing on the wall."
After watching a 20-percent annual growth in online students this decade — the university now has 9,408 students who take classes on the web, up from 886 in 1998 — Miller said the distance-education program could be the key to meeting a new goal set recently by North Carolina State decision makers.
The university announced last month that it will raise enrollment to 40,000 by 2017. This year, there are 31,000 students, and university architects say it will be daunting — perhaps impossible — to fit another 9,000 students on the Raleigh campus. Miller said growing the online program will help the school meet its ambitious goal without overcrowding campus lecture halls.
"There’s no way we’ll be able to fit that many [students] on campus," said Miller, 54, a North Carolina native who came to the university in 1982 as an assistant professor in the Engineering Department.
Overcoming the stigma of online classes — once thought of as "a second class education," Miller remembers — took some persuading. But reminding faculty of higher education’s technological evolution helped make a case for web-based learning.
"The best way to think of technology forward is remembering technology backward," Miller said, adding that he was assigned to a typewriter when he arrived at North Carolina State 26 years ago. "Typewriters don’t even exist any more. … And people are realizing that things change."
Miller, who addresses student government leaders about the next steps in distance education, was recognized for his contributions last year when the U.S. Distance Learning Association presented him with a leadership award.
"The common criticism was that it’s a lot harder for faculty to teach distance education so it’ll never catch on," he said. "The other one was that it’s not as effective, and students cannot possibly learn as well. Well, I never really believed that."
Miller expects future generations of North Carolina State students to embrace web-based curriculum with even more fervor than their predecessors.
"The students these days, they grew up with technology. Communicating by text and eMail is something they naturally do," he said. "The notion that it’s somehow inferior, you still get that from a few, but it’s not so much there anymore."
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