East magazine, Summer 2007 edition
From the Classroom

Internet Ready
As online education soars, ECU opens
its doors to anyone with a computer

By Steve Tuttle


lthough he’s associate dean of the East Carolina College of Business, Stan Eakins (above) seems as comfortable around computers as spreadsheets. He should after spending the past six years leading the business school’s move to the Internet and its enviable status as the only nationally accredited online MBA program in the UNC system.

He’s learned two important things about the online medium and its message. “We can’t tolerate downtime. You have to have an IT infrastructure that will get us back online in 15 minutes. You also have to rethink how a teacher interacts with a class of students when you don’t see each other face to face.”

For example, when a student in a traditional classroom has a question, she raises her hand. The professor answers the question, and everyone in the class shares the same information. How do you transfer that information-sharing process to a virtual classroom?

It’s simple. Almost all of ECU’s online MBA classes involve audio and video, often delivered live through the Blackboard portal, where the student—who might be in Beaufort, Benson or Baghdad—hears a lecture and sees interactive graphics. On the corner of their computer screens is an icon in the shape of a hand. “The teacher will talk and illustrate something by writing on the screen or showing a PowerPoint,” Eakins explains. “Then he will stop and ask, ‘Are there any questions?’ If someone does, they click [the hand]. The teacher will see that and can even call the student by name—‘I see that John has a question.’ And everyone hears the discussion, just the same as if everyone were sitting in a class on campus.”

While this marriage of technology and teaching may seem futuristic, it’s working today for the 343 adults who are getting an MBA from East Carolina without ever necessarily leaving home. While that sounds impressive, it’s just a fraction of the overall distance education delivered by East Carolina, which has built the largest such program by far in the UNC system and the 12th largest nationwide, according to U.S. News and World Report. This spring semester, roughly 5,800 distance education (DE) students were working on one of 35 undergraduate and graduate degrees that can be completed entirely online.

They earned 78,000 credit hours last year. N.C. State, which has the second-largest program in the UNC system, delivered only 27,000 credit hours to its DE students. ECU alone is responsible for more than a quarter of all distance education delivered through the 16-campus UNC system.

Who—and where—are all these virtual ECU students? Typically, she is a 35-year-old woman with two or more children at home who is pursuing a degree primarily to get a better job. Almost 60 percent live east of I-95 and many receive financial aid. Most are getting degrees in high-priority areas: Nearly half—48 percent—are majoring in teacher education as part of ECU’s commitment to address the state’s teacher shortage crisis. Another 14 percent are getting degrees in health care—many of them as nurses—and 19 percent are in business-related fields. About half are completing an undergraduate degree and half are working at the master’s level or higher.

Blazing the trail

'ECU has a tradition of service
to our region and our region
is large geographically, people are spread out. So the idea
that somebody can’t come
to campus is not a new idea
to us. We take education
to them.'

/Users/stevetuttle/Desktop/Summer 07 photos/DE 1959 class
In this 1959 photo, East Carolina students take a history course using televised lectures.
Why is distance education so much bigger at East Carolina than most other schools? It’s because the concept isn’t new here, according to Elmer Poe, associate vice chancellor for academic outreach. “You could say we started this back in the 1940s when we had what was called extension education,” Poe explains. Back then, professors traveled around the region to hold classes. That gave way in the 1970s to classes delivered by correspondence. “ECU has a tradition of service to our region and our region is large geographically, people are spread out. So the idea that somebody can’t come to campus is not a new idea to us. We take education to them.”

The growth of the Internet in the early 1990s allowed ECU to plan the switch from the mailman to e-mail to deliver course work; it offered its first online classes in 1994 and by 1996 had enough practical experience with the medium to begin offering an online master’s degree in industrial technology, Poe says. The UNC system watched ECU’s groundbreaking efforts and similar initiatives at other state schools and officially made distance education a priority in 1997. After East Carolina and three other schools led a pilot program to deliver classes by video conferencing, the General Assembly made the financial commitment to open the doors to higher education to everyone with a computer.

By 2002, ECU’s virtual student body had grown to nearly 2,000. Much of the necessary computer infrastructure had been installed and a large number of faculty had been trained in the technology of online teaching. “Our faculty members have this mindset of service,” Poe says. “They’re willing to explore new ways of communicating and interacting with students. We just didn’t have the resistance to online education that was seen at some other campuses.”

As DE enrollment swelled to 3,200 in 2003 and to 4,500 two years later, ECU became the world’s largest user of the Centra software system, which essentially turns an online student’s computer screen into the blackboard the teacher writes on. The university became the world’s fifth-largest user of the Blackboard system, a web portal that is the online student’s virtual campus.

State funding paid most, but certainly not all, the tab for all the expensive computer equipment. The General Assembly also started compensating UNC system campuses for DE students roughly the same way it does regular students. If you live in North Carolina, you pay in-state tuition whether you’re on campus or online.

That fact is a major reason why ECU’s online MBA program is rated tops in the nation for quality and affordability by GetEducated.com, a national clearinghouse for distance education programs. An in-state student can complete ECU’s MBA degree in one year at a cost of $7,164, the cheapest in the nation of all online MBA programs accredited by AASCB, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. “We talk a lot about ROI—return on investment—in our MBA classes,” Eakins says, “and for $7,000 our DE students are getting a pretty good ROI, while still carrying on their regular lives.”

East Carolina also has noticed a new trend—a growing number of students on campus also are taking online courses. Many are students working part-time jobs to help pay for school who find online classes easier on their complicated schedules. Currently, almost 23 percent of DE students are also attending classes on campus.

To support their in-class and online students, many departments at ECU have dedicated staffs of IT people who maintain banks of servers and miles of Internet cables. The College of Business, for example, has a full-time IT staff of seven, buttressed by several grad students.

Because of ECU’s rapid growth in distance education enrollments, recruiting and hiring nearly 200 faculty members was a challenge last year.

Keys to success

Early on, Poe says ECU set a high standard for its online classes. The university made the decision that instructors teaching online classes must have the same academic credentials as everyone else. Online classes would have the same academic content as those given in class. In the broadest sense, DE students would be considered equal to traditional students. The university adopted an attitude that “they are not second-class students,” Poe says.

That means DE students are a real part of the student body. Thus, when ECU says it had close to 25,000 students this semester, it means it had 19,200 sitting in class and 5,800 sitting in front of a computer.

East Carolina provides DE students with an extensive support structure. Early on, they are assigned an academic advisor to guide their path toward a degree. A live help desk with an 800 number is open seven days a week. There’s even an online writing center to help DE students with day-to-day class assignments.

ECU also provides a full-time DE librarian, and students can get textbooks for their online classes delivered from the bookstore in two or three days. They have a student ID card that allows them access to other UNC libraries. When they’re ready to graduate, the Career Services office helps DE students with preparing resumes. The center also stages career workshops that helps them prepare for job interviews.

ECU also regularly surveys DE students to learn how to improve their educational experience. In one recent survey, 89 percent gave top marks to their online courses.

Interestingly, some professors have come to prefer teaching DE students. One is Sherry Southard, who teaches graduate courses in technical and professional writing in the English department. “Many of them would never be able to get a degree were it not available online. Because of that, so many of them are just very eager to learn,” Southard adds. “They want that education.”

Helping those students is uniquely rewarding, Southard says. “They share a lot about their lives with me (through e-mail), and I learn so much about them. When they come to graduation, even if it’s the first time I have met them in person, they say ‘I think I really got to know you.’”

Becoming the university of anywhere
If North Carolina had to expand the UNC system to provide classes for every student now pursuing a degree through distance education, it would need another Appalachian State and UNC Greensboro combined. Even then there wouldn’t be enough seats for the nearly 33,000 students enrolled in online degree programs, according to a report to the state legislature by the UNC Board of Governors. The report concludes that the university system’s move to the Internet as a way to open public access to higher education is succeeding and should be expanded, particularly at a time when the UNC system is full to bursting.

“We have a lot of people to accommodate, and we don’t have the physical space to do that,” President Erskine Bowles said at a Board of Governors meeting held at East Carolina in March. Projections are for a nearly 50 percent jump in enrollment at the 16 state campuses over the next decade, he added.

The number of distance education (DE) students enrolled at the UNC system’s 16 campuses more than tripled in five years to 33,045 in 2005, the latest year for which statewide data was available. They completed 235,816 credit hours enrolled in more than 2,000 classes while working toward one of 90 different degrees available entirely online, one of the most extensive offerings in the nation. By comparison, the University of Massachusetts offers 61 degrees online, Penn State offers 14 and Texas offers 11.

Most DE students were enrolled in classes that meet occasionally at a regional location, such as a community college, the report says. Often, that’s so someone at the community college can administer tests. In fact, 71 percent of DE courses were delivered this way.

Statewide, nearly a third of all DE students are enrolled in the “2+2” partnerships between universities and community colleges focused on producing more classroom teachers. After completing a two-year degree, those students continue to take courses at their community college taught online or in person by university instructors. The Wachovia Partnership East program at ECU, which has become a model for other campuses to follow, graduates hundreds of additional classroom teachers each year who rarely set foot on campus.

About 42 percent of online students were completing a baccalaureate degree and 56 percent were enrolled in master’s degree programs. Many also were completing continuing education classes required to maintain licensure requirements, including nurses, community college instructors and other similar fields.

Every campus in the UNC system now offers online classes but East Carolina’s program dwarfs the others. In 2005 its virtual students represented 12 percent of the statewide DE population. The 78,000 credit hours taken by ECU’s DE students compare to 27,000 at N.C. State, which has the state’s second-largest program, and 21,000 at UNC Pembroke. UNC Chapel Hill had the fourth-largest program and ASU was fifth. ECU also offers the widest range of degrees that can be completed online, with 35—14 undergraduate and 21 graduate programs.

It costs the state $1,301 per student to deliver a course online, compared to $892 for a traditional student. The 30 percent difference comes from higher start-up costs in technology, staff training and support services. The instructor’s salary accounts for 60 percent of that. Those and other per-pupil costs should decline when spread out over additional years, the report says.

The Board of Governors prepared the report at the request of the General Assembly as part of its ongoing effort to expand online education through the 16 public universities and 58 community colleges. A 1999 law established a framework linking the two systems and provided funding to get the ball rolling. —Steve Tuttle