MHEC Ruling On UMUC Program Must Be Reversed

Last October, the Maryland Higher Education Commission ruled that University of Maryland University College‘s online doctoral program in community college administration was a duplication of Morgan State‘s face-to-face program and thus a violation of civil rights protections in place for historically black colleges. As a result, UMUC is now prohibited from offering the course in Maryland, although curiously, it can offer the course in the other 49 states.

The MHEC‘s misguided ruling reflects not a bias toward Morgan State as much as it reflects the age of the members of the Commission, with the only member of the Commission younger than 45 being the student representative. The delivery system for higher education in America is being rapidly altered by existing and emerging technologies, and these changes require a modern, more nuanced way of thinking about universities, what they offer and how they serve the needs of the community. I have firsthand knowledge of this, being enrolled in UMBC’s online Instructional Systems Development program.

To anyone paying attention, it is clear that various forms of distance learning will play an increasing role in the delivery system of the nation’s colleges. As this occurs, there will necessarily be overlap with some traditional programs. However, it is a mistake to treat online courses as if they were classroom courses for the purpose of excluding them. We should be encouraging the development of parallel online courses, not shutting them down. And giving Morgan State, a university with limited online experience, two years to create something from nothing, is at best a weak nod in the direction of distance learning.

What the commissioners may not understand is that UMUC’s program isn’t competing with Morgan State’s – it’s competing with other online programs across the country. The MHEC’s decision presupposes that the market served by Morgan State, traditional students available for attendance in a classroom, is the same group of people targeted by UMUC’s online program. Clearly, this is not the case. Online learners are almost always working adults seeking to fulfill their educational requirements while maintaining job, family and other commitments (like me).

The good news is that the university system’s Board of Regents is unwilling to surrender so easily, and will ask the Commission to reconsider. From the Sun article:

“The decision completely ignores a stated priority in the 2009 Maryland State Plan for Higher Education,” wrote Board of Regents Chairman Clifford Kendall in a letter to the commission. “The State Plan supports access to degrees through online programs in order to meet ‘the needs of a largely working, adult population who require a flexible schedule.’ This decision sets a potentially debilitating precedent that will discourage universities from doing the very thing that MHEC’s state plan charges them to do.”

Demonstrating his antiquated view of the situation, MHEC Chairman Kevin O’Keefe said, “I remain convinced that this was an isolated issue.” Even more depressing is O’Keefe’s belief that there will not be a “…strong sentiment among the majority of our members that we should reconsider the issue.”

Perhaps it is asking too much of this particular group of individuals to free themselves of a lifetime of assumptions about higher education and the way this product is delivered to its market. Too often, membership on the MHEC is a reward for a career of service to the community and while this may seem noble, it deprives the commission of the benefit of fresh thinking and new ideas. It may be that the only way for Maryland to become a leader in e-Learning, m-Learning and other non-traditional delivery systems is to replace (or supplement) the existing members of the MHEC with individuals who are not so tied to the past. I just hope that by the time this happens, national leadership in higher education hasn’t fallen too far from our grasp.

My First, Largely Wasted Semester of Grad School

This fall I entered into my first semester of graduate school. (One of the cool perks of being a UMBC staff member is that the tuition is completely remitted. Make that a very cool perk.)

My undergraduate degree is in History, but my career path has taken me to DoIT at UMBC, so continuing my history education didn’t make much sense. Also, I needed a graduate degree that I could pursue online. For these reasons, I selected the UMBC Online Information Systems program, which fit all of my needs. The folks both at UMBC’s Graduate School and at the IS Department were great, and I was quickly accepted (because of my undergrad GPA, I didn’t have to take the GRE). (Here I also need to thank Drs. Laurie, Kars & Lindenmeyer for their recommendations on my behalf, not once, but twice. But more on that later.)

With the help of my graduate advisor (and Program Manager) Shannon Keegan, I was soon enrolled in my first two classes: IS 607, Intro to Information Systems, and IS 631 Management Information Systems. My books arrived by mail a few weeks before the start of the semester; I was ready to go.

One of my first thoughts upon starting the semester was how little the degree of difficulty seemed to have changed from my undergraduate courses. I guess I was expecting the coursework to be really, really heavy, but it was actually pretty manageable, even with a full-time job. I was used to getting A’s, but had been worried that I’d get less than a B as a graduate student and be disgracefully booted from the program. A couple of weeks into the fall semester, that fear was gone. (Don’t worry, it comes back.)

In IS 607, the coursework started with basic HTML, which seemed ridiculously easy. During the first week or two, we were asked to write simple HTML webpages and then upload these to our personal userpages for viewing by the instructor. (This is around the time when I was deciding that getting a master’s degree was going to be cake.) In IS 631, the assignments were much like what I had grown used to as a history major: read, take an online quiz (as many times as you needed to get 100%), submit a chapter evaluation to the discussion board, and write a short paper every few weeks. Again, cake.

By October, IS607 had moved out of HTML and into CSS style sheets. This is when I started remembering how much I hate coding. I mean really hate coding. But it was still OK, because there were plenty of workable examples I could use as a template (in the book and online) and I could modify these and learn enough to get by – for a time.

By mid-October, the class had moved into JavaScript, and I was panicked and lost. Hours and hours were spent banging away at the keyboard, bleary-eyed and wondering why pages weren’t rendering the way they were supposed to. More hours were spent doing internet research, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, what key element I was missing in my code. This however, just added layer upon layer of suggestions and confusion to my already messy code, and before too long, I couldn’t tell what was broken and what worked anymore. I hate coding. I really do. I began to question whether I was cut out for online learning; maybe I needed an instructor in front of me two or three times a week. Maybe I’m just stupid.

OK, now... what's not quite right with this code...

I looked at the course catalog. Was IS607 really critical? Oh, it was not just critical, it was a prerequisite for every other class in the catalog. Awesome. Just awesome.

By Halloween, I had come to the grim and deflating decision that I had been defeated by IS607. I would withdraw, not just from the course, but from the Online IS program. I had been totally and utterly defeated – by JavaScript, no less.

Fortunately, I found another online graduate program that is more in line with my strengths, the Online Master’s in Instructional Systems Development – Training Systems. This program is more about people than code, which suits me far better, but still relates to my career in IT (think online learning, Blackboard, etc.). Even though it seemed like a lateral move to me, I had to reapply to the Graduate School ($50), forcing me to get my three recommendations all over again (thanks again Drs. Laurie, Kars & Lindenmeyer). But, that’s all done now, and I’m just waiting for the official word that I’ve been accepted so that I can get my spring classes set up.

Chuck Hodell, the nice guy at the ISD program who also wrote the book on ISD - literally!

What about IS631, you say? Well, I’m still acing that, although I must admit, not knowing if the credits will be transferable has certainly lowered my motivation, making even routine assignments feel like heavy lifting. Reading and then writing about something you won’t be needing in a few weeks gets progressively more difficult. So why not just withdraw from this class, too? Because I hated the feeling of being whipped by a class, and also it seems like such a waste, especially at this late point in the semester. I figure I might as well finish, get my A, and salvage a moral victory from my experiences this fall.

So it goes.