As is the case in many states, politicians and educators in Maryland want more undergraduates to finish in four years. So the regents of the University System of Maryland last week adopted a series of new policies designed to encourage that.
The headlines in Maryland focused on the possibility of tuition surcharges for those who exceed certain numbers of credit hours. But the Board of Regents may have more influence with another policy  it adopted for its 13 colleges, which collectively enroll nearly 130,000 students.
The board adopted a policy that all of its colleges should encourage students to take at least 12 of their credits outside the classroom -- through online learning, internships or other activities. Experts on online learning see this policy as part of a shift taking place in distance education. Whereas studying online once primarily appealed to older students who needed the flexibility, it is increasingly being seen as important for traditional undergraduates.
Diana G. Oblinger, vice president of Educause, said that a policy like Maryland's may have multiple motivations, with the primary one being the need to get students to graduate on time or to conserve classroom space. But encouraging significant numbers of traditional undergraduates to take courses online will have a significant impact beyond efficiency, she said.
"What we're seeing in careers is that you have to be a lifelong learner, and many of those learning programs are going to be online, and developing the facility to work with people in a remote, online or distance environment is increasingly important," she said. "So the ability to be comfortable, and to learn to communicate and collaborate online, really gives people a leg up."
Maryland will now join other universities in seeing that "some online experience is very beneficial" even for students who can and do enroll full time and live on a campus. "This is a real growth in the blended or hybrid learning environment," she said.
Gerald A. Heeger, president of the University of Maryland University College, an institution within the Maryland system that focuses on distance learning for adults, praised the new policy. Online education is "increasingly an important modality of education," so it makes sense to expose most students to it, he said.
Heeger said that his institution might start offering sections of general education courses designed for traditional aged college students, who could take them the summer before they enrolled at other Maryland campuses.
Donald Spicer, chief information officer for the Maryland system, said that he could see all kinds of ways for different institutions to encourage distance education. He's heard interest from some campuses in starting programs primarily for their own undergraduates, but offering them during the summer or winter breaks, so students can finish their degrees more quickly.
Other campuses want to create "boutique programs" to attract students in selected fields.
Irwin Goldstein, vice chancellor for academic affairs, said any number of challenges now confront the university system, including: how to train faculty members, how to charge tuition for online courses for students at other institutions, how to assure comparable quality in online and traditional courses, and how to develop intellectual property policies that will be needed as more courses are created.
But he said that campuses are already engaged in discussions on these issues, and that the institutions should soon be in a position to encourage more online education.
Heeger said that what the new Maryland policy really does "is reaffirm how online education is going mainstream."