Faculty are divided over a plan that would expand online courses, questioning financial feasibility.

online-coursesIn a major initiative designed to help stabilize the University of Maine System’s financial future, trustees are considering a plan for shaping how the state’s universities offer online courses.

The plan is titled Unified Online, but some faculty members are divided on it, saying they have serious concerns about whether the system will be able to pull off the initiative in difficult financial times and about the effects it might have on campus academic offerings and students.

Unified Online, which system officials outline in a draft report released this month, seeks to build a “robust menu” of online course offerings for students across the system, its seven campuses, and beyond. It’s part of Chancellor James Page’s, an effort to make the system’s campuses more financially sustainable by reducing redundancies, increasing collaboration, and differentiating the missions of each school by focusing campuses on the programs that make them strongest.

“What will best distinguish a Maine version of a unified online approach will be the access we provide to the people of Maine regardless of where they live, and the high quality we employ as we do so,” the report states.

To determine what the online offerings will be and how they’ll be administered, the system would create a Center of Excellence in Digitally Enhanced Teaching and Learning, which would offer online access to certain degrees from the seven campuses, as well as collaborative degrees. The aim is to unify online learning in a way that’s cost-effective and can reach the most students, no matter where they are in the state or which campus they attend.

That center also would work to identify workforce needs in Maine and respond by ensuring those programs are available to Maine students, even those who can’t make it to a campus every day, according to the report. They’d also find “niche” programs with national and international appeal that could be offered online, and cut or combine online programs that are “unnecessarily duplicative,” according to the report.

Heading up this center would be a new system administrator — the associate vice chancellor for academic affairs for distance learning. That person would work under the vice chancellor for academic affairs, working closely with faculty and administrative teams from each campus and a Center of Excellence Leadership Team to identify, develop, build and market the online programs, according to the report. The vice chancellor for academic affairs role is currently vacant and also would need to be filled.

If the plan were approved by trustees, the system would immediately launch a search to fill the newly created distance learning administrative post.

(Next page: A big price tag)

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