Pawlenty Bucks Skeptics, Pushes Online Education

Published February 1, 2009

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has ordered the state university system to require students to earn a quarter of their credits through online courses by 2015—in addition to his plan, announced in October, to have high school students take at least one class online before being allowed to graduate from high school.

“They’re going to do this anyhow,” Pawlenty said of students in the state university system, known in Minnesota by the acronym MnSCU. “The only question is: Are we going to be ahead of it, or trailing it? You should see the online enrollment in MnSCU—it’s skyrocketing. We can’t even keep up with it.”

About 66,000 students in the MnSCU system (about 26 percent of the total enrollment) have taken at least one online class, and the number of college credits available online has increased 134 percent since 2005.

Pawlenty’s office highlights a report by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation claiming 22 percent of American college students have taken a class online since 2007. That’s a 12.9 percent increase from 2006, the governor’s staff says.

Plan Set off Alarms

Pawlenty’s ambitious desire to put state college and high school classes online has met with some alarm—including within the university system. MnSCU spokesman Dan Wolter said online learning is expanding across the state university system but “we’re not an online degree mill.”

University of Minnesota faculty members have expressed concern about the school becoming something akin to the online University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit university in North America with more than 345,300 students across the country.

Skeptics also fear Minnesota would repeat what they describe as mistakes by the University of Illinois. In January 2008, that taxpayer-supported school approved a massive expansion of its Global Campus program, the university’s effort to offer degrees and professional development programs online.

University of Illinois officials have raised questions about the program’s cost and effectiveness, saying they fear it is a distraction from the school’s larger academic mission.

St. Cloud State University President Earl Potter, however, dismisses such concerns.

“[The idea that] you have online over here and face-to-face over here is a simplistic view,” said Potter. “Most courses today have a Web site, a discussion board—even if they’re not online.”

Costs Questioned

Nevertheless, “these bells and whistles cost money,” said Rep. Tom Rukavina (D-Virginia), chairman of the Minnesota House Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance Division Committee. Others in the state House wonder why Minnesota should pay for what is already offered by the University of Phoenix.

Political debates in Minnesota’s legislature also have asked why Minnesotans who live in the rural regions of the state and generally have slow Internet connections should pay for expensive online education technology they cannot use.

Rukavina admits online learning is set to grow, but he says it is not cheaper than traditional learning because of the expense of technology upgrades.

“So where does that save them the time and money and the mileage?” Rukavina asked.

Questioning Demand

Ann Treacy, a consultant at the Grand Rapids, Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening the economies of rural communities in America, has mixed views on Pawlenty’s push.

“I like the idea of having online classes,” Treacy said. “I drove to and from Chicago two times a week for a semester to finish one of my degrees, so I definitely see a place for online learning. But mandating that a certain number of credits [must be taken online]?

“Do the students have broadband to access the classes? Do they have decent computers? Is there student demand for that much online learning?” Treacy asked. “Are all students well-served by online classes? Have the teachers [been trained] to provide online classes?

“I guess I like the goal if it asked the schools to be prepared for 25 percent online classes,” Treacy said. “Maybe the plan should be to create programs in the universities that are so good that people outside of the state are demanding that the courses [be] online.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.