It's hard teaching distance education courses. I've done it. When I was at Fresno State, I drove to the Visalia campus twice a week and taught evening courses. I've taught ITV courses, hybrid, and a fully online course. Each course took a great deal of work to prepare and to deliver. And, there was a lot of late night driving back and forth from Visalia to Fresno for the face-to-face courses.
Both faculty members and students have to put up with a lot of frustrations. Traffic can be horrendous (especially in Houston), so you might arrive late to the learning center. ITV equipment or the computer server or Blackboard Vista (the software we use for the online and hybrid courses), as good as they are, occasionally break down or the system goes down. And, these courses are not cheap. The equipment costs a lot of money, as do the license fees. Understandably, you need to pay the faculty more to off-set their time and troubles. And, since the courses cost more, there are usually extra fees that the students must pay, althought that is not the case at UHD.
But, like it or not, distance education is the future, especially in Houston. Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, soon to be the third. If you count the University of Houston Victoria that is 123 miles from downtown Houston, Houston has ten public and private non-profit four-year institutions (not counting DeVry and the University of Phoenix). Chicago, which Houston will pass in population the next decade, has 40 four-year colleges and universities, including specialized schools.
Houston needs more access to higher education. Since it is unlikely that the state will approve construction of more universities, existing four-year institutions will fill the need through distance education. Other four-year institutions have set up centers in Houston or are offering programs online.
Distance education is critical to Houston and UHD's future. The Northwest Corridor will add 2 million residents over the next decade. That's the size of the current population of New Mexico, where they have seven four-year universities (three research universities) serving barely 2 million people. There is no four year institution in Northwest Houston. Other than UHD, the closest four-year schools are those of Texas A&M Prairie View and Sam Houston State University.
UHD has the best potential for serving the area. Only 40 percent of our students come from within the 610 loop. The rest come from throughout Houston. That need will grow. As the University of Houston moves to Tier One and adjusts its admission policy (from accepting the top 20 percent of high school graduates to accepting the top 10 percent), it will be vital that UHD fills the gap, not only on the downtown campus, but also via the learning centers and via online education.
On Friday, I received a tour of the many distance education sites where UHD offers courses. The trip took almost a full day to drive to all of the sites. The learning centers form an arc across the northern part of Houston from Cinco Ranch (West of State Highway 6 and South of Interstate 10) to Lone Star College-CyFair (along U.S. 290) to the new University Center near State Highway 249 and Louetta (the old Hewlett-Packard site) to the University Center along Interstate 45 in The Woodlands to Lone Star College-Kingwood on U.S. 59. At each site, we have great staff and faculty who serve as advisers. Some also teach. They are great ambassadors of UHD.
I was guided in the tour by the former distance education director, Gail Evans, the Provost, Molly Woods, and the new interim director of distance education, Louis Evans (no relations to Gail.) Gail drove. Along the way, each of them gave me a description of the city and areas we were passing, the programs we offer, the staff there, and the history and politics behind each site.
Faculty members have to be recruited for the programs. Some of our faculty live in the area where we offer the courses. It's convenient to them and they like teaching a portion of their courses at those sites. In some cases, their courses can be beamed by instructional television to our site downtown or faculty can augment their teaching with online materials and instruction. Either way, they like it. In other instances, we have to hire adjuncts from the region or pay extra for our faculty to drive in the afternoons and evenings to teach courses at the various sites. It is hard to build a consistent core of offerings, but that is essential for the students there.
In most cases, UHD is just one of several public higher education institutions offering courses. Degrees have to be approved to be offered In Multiple Institution Teaching Sites, where several public universities offer degrees. The problem is exacerbated by politics. Some institutions declare there intention to offer degrees (usually a whole list of them). Then, because of limitations on their own campuses (budget or lack of faculty support), they never offer the degrees. But, nobody else can either. What seems like a great system, doesn't always work in real life.
Meanwhile, for-profits, like the University of Phoenix or DeVry, can offer any degree they want. They don't need the approval of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board or the legislature. They can start up a program face-to-face or online. They can add bachelor's or master's degrees based on market demand. By contrast, if a public university wants to add a degree, the institution has to apply for the right to offer the degree. It takes a long-time to get the approvals at the various levels. And, there may not be any demand for the degree once it is finally approved.
But, even if you have the authorization to offer the degree, you may run into problems. At some sites, UHD has plenty of demand. We have faculty who want to teach there, but can't get classrooms or are bounced from one classroom to another. It can be very disconcerting to faculty and to students.
Even so, the need is growing. And, UHD wants to take our degrees and courses where they are needed. So, our faculty drive north. We hire faculty to teach who live there. And, we expand our online offerings, including full-degree programs. There's lots of work ahead and as I visit the sites more, I will get better acquainted with the city--or lost a lot. Either way, I'll be learning too!