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October 25, 2014

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SunGard boosts drive to add online classes

Undergirding the move to outsource information technology at the College of Southern Nevada was the desire to greatly expand online class offerings.

In 2006, CSN had 260 online classes but there wasn't a single degree or certification program that could be fulfilled completely online, interim President Michael Richards said. With the help of SunGard Higher Education -- the company the college hired to handle its information technology -- the college now has 16 degree programs fully online, six more on the way and four certificate programs.

For the most part, that involved filling the gaps in degree programs with missing classes. SunGard was awarded a secondary contract to help do that, creating nine programs during the next three years in conjunction with professors. SunGard is now working on a Virtual College Web site that will help improve student services to online course takers.

Online enrollment has increased by 20 percent from fall 2006 to fall 2007, accounting for nearly 3,400 full-time students.

Richards and his predecessor, Richard Carpenter, have both framed the online expansion in terms of meeting customer demand: Online classes are what students want. But it has also been cast in terms of keeping up with the Joneses -- in this case, for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix.

And that is causing concern among some faculty.

“We don't want to be providing a product that doesn't meet the same standards of everything else we do,” said Sondra Cosgrove, who teaches some of her history classes online and sits on many of the distance education committees. But because Las Vegas is an asynchronous town, students need access to class work at all hours -- and online classes make that possible, she said.

The CSN Faculty Senate has been working on new policies to ensure the classes offered online have the same rigor and quality as their traditional, in-class counterparts. But there are still pockets of resistance among faculty who fear CSN will begin to emphasize the bottom line or mass appeal rather than personalized instruction.

“There are a lot of really good things going on in distance education,” said Joshua Levin, who teaches anthropology online and in the classroom. But there is a danger, he said, the online curriculum will be mass produced like a at the expense of individualized instruction.

The hiring of SunGard to help develop online classes -- after the company was hired to handle the college's information technology needs -- increased professor concerns that the content would be outsourced too.

Their anxiety was heightened when Carpenter directly hinted that if professors didn't make strides to develop the content, he would find others who would. The veiled threat wasn't executed, and never will be, Richards said. But faculty agreed that the threat was enough to inspire even reluctant professors to think about how to put their classes online.

Still, alhough online classes may be what students want, professors say they are responsible for making sure students take the best classes for their academic development.

Done right, a distance education class can be as good or better than one in the classroom, but it all depends on how students learn, said Terry Norris, director of the CSN's E-Learning office.

Across the college, the success rate for online classes -- the number of students passing with a C or higher -- is about eight percentage points lower than for students in traditional classes, at 57 percent. Part of the Virtual College SunGard is creating includes an orientation to distance education so students will know what they are in for, and that, officials hope will help improve the success rate, Norris said.

“We are making strides,” Norris said.

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