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Arkansas State University

An Interview with Dr. Leslie Wyatt, President of Arkansas State University

Arkansas State University entered into a partnership with Higher Ed Holdings (HEH) in April 2008. Below, Dr. Dan Howard, Arkansas State’s executive vice chancellor and provost, introduces an interview with Dr. Leslie Wyatt about the partnership.

As a consequence of the Arkansas State University partnership with Higher Ed Holdings, A-State was able to benefit by the unique expertise of HEH in marketing and providing technical assistance with the development and delivery of high-quality academic programs through distance learning. An important aspect of this relationship is that A-State faculty teach all courses and the University has 100 percent control over all academic and financial matters; whereas, HEH is responsible for marketing, providing the online platform on which the courses are delivered, and offering an array of technical assistance that has proven invaluable to the University. The result is that A-State is now able to offer higher-quality distance learning courses and programs to a wider audience at a lower cost than through traditional delivery methods. Currently, Arkansas State is offering a Master’s Degree in Educational Theory and Practice in association with this partnership and expects to launch four additional Masters degree programs in October 2009. In addition to delivering these programs throughout Arkansas, A-State intends to deliver them in a number of other states and expects associated enrollments to eclipse that of all other distance learning programs currently offered by the University.

In the following interview, Dr. Leslie Wyatt, the President of Arkansas State University, reflects on the reasons the University chose to give students the option of distance online learning and the impact of implementing the online platform.?

1. Why was Arkansas State University interested in distance learning?

Dr. Wyatt: Arkansas State campuses have been involved in distance learning for many years, from the early days of videos-by-mail to contemporary, internet-based systems. We have always been interested in distance learning because it fits in with our mission to provide access to high quality university-level learning experiences for students wherever they may be. We have also sought ways to lower costs of student participation, which is possible as distance learning enrolls more and more students and scale is achieved.

2. What students are you trying to serve through distance learning?

Dr. Wyatt: A-State has found distance learning technologies to be effective to reach students who are place-bound because of family and occupational obligations or other limitations. Because A-State campuses are located in rural areas, distance learning delivery can be easily spread over this large geographic region to give students removed from campus the same access to some courses and programs which would otherwise be available only to students on campus. We are also able to deliver courses and programs to other university and college campuses throughout the state using distance learning, instead of requiring the presence of an instructor at those locations.

3. Is the experience giving you the kinds of results you were seeking?

Dr. Wyatt: Yes, distance learning has proved to be an effective and popular way to offer courses and programs in addition to those which are offered on the campus. We have evidence that distance learning has helped A-State fulfill its mission of teaching, research, service and economic development. We have certainly been able to address place-bound students and those in rural areas, but we also have been pleased to see the participation of so many students who are engaged in distance learning in their workplaces because of the encouragement of their employers. This engagement has been a win-win-win situation for the employer, the student and the university.

4. How do you see online distance learning fitting into A-State’s educational goals?

Dr. Wyatt: It is inevitable that more and more future students will turn to distance learning technologies for educational needs because of the challenges imposed by cost, time and distance requirements for courses and programs on campus. Distance learning can be less costly and more immediate, and online technologies can make access available anywhere. Online courses incorporate a learning style and methodology that contemporary students understand and demand.

From a strategic standpoint, every university which harnesses online distance learning will remain competitive with other institutions which also develop and exploit the medium, but those which do not will soon become uncompetitive, despite the quality of their offerings. The presence and success of online providers is testimony to the acceptance of this delivery method by today’s students. The traditional universities must become competitive or lose more market share to the online newcomers. Arkansas State has recognized that our online offerings are an important addition to our traditional delivery process, due to the positive reactions from both faculty members and students, and as demonstrated through the dramatic growth in the number of online participants.

5. How would you compare the general online offerings of A-State campuses to those which are offered in partnership with HEH?

Dr. Wyatt: Arkansas State works hard to deliver quality education consistently in both face-to-face and online programs. That said we have found that HEH, in partnering with us to deliver our faculty-developed curriculum to students online, has created a delivery system superior to, and more productive than those which have been developed outside the partnership with HEH. The production skills, marketing strategies and student recruitment efforts provided by HEH are more far-reaching than similar capabilities we have developed on our campuses for online programs and courses. The HEH partnership has in a short time produced the largest enrollment of any of our online programs at any of our A-State campuses. We anticipate that the HEH programs we develop in the future will produce enrollments greater than the total number of students in all of the other online programs at all of the A-State campuses, and that outcome will be realized in a matter of months, rather than years.

6. What kind of feedback are you getting from students?

Dr. Wyatt: Student comments about the delivery method, course support, and accessibility issues are uniformly positive. Students have reported that they would not have had opportunity to pursue the graduate degree had it not been for the A-State-HEH partnership because it has a relatively low cost and abbreviated time for completion. Students who now participate in the program live near other state universities which offer the same graduate degree, but at greater cost and for a longer period of time for completion, so their enrollment in the A-State program is a form of positive feedback.

7. Do you have any data on how your online students are performing compared to your campus-based students?

Dr. Wyatt: We have not yet had the first cohort complete the program, so we have not had the end-of-experience evaluation which is intended. That evaluation will involve commentary from participating faculty, chair and dean, university administration and the students who are a part of the first cohort. In the interim, we have reviewed a new report released by the U.S. Department of Education in June entitled “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies“, which found that students in online classes “on average producer stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction.” We have every expectation of a similar outcome for our students who will complete the A-State-HEH partnership program next year.

8. Does distance learning have the potential to positively impact A-State’s revenue as state funding for public universities declines?

Dr. Wyatt: Arkansas has not had the budget difficulties which other states have experienced, but at best our appropriations have been constant while costs across the university have increased. Arkansas State, like most other state universities, has seen a decline in the percentage of state funding as a share of the total institutional budget. Because there is public and political pressure to not increase tuition, the A-State-HEH partnership has provided a source of additional revenue without new appropriations and without increasing tuition costs across the board. In fact, students in the A-State-HEH program pay less than they would have paid for the same program on campus.

Apart from potential revenue, perhaps the most significant aspect of this first graduate program offered in the A-State-HEH partnership is that a marginal program enrollment has now been dramatically increased; it is now one of the larger graduate programs in the college in terms of enrollments. Previously, the program may well have been eliminated because of low productivity when counting only on-campus enrollment, which numbered fewer than twenty students. In less than a year, it is flourishing because of the online enrollments of more than 850 students from across the state. While the additional revenue is valuable, a great gain is that a productive and capable faculty has been able to continue involvement with a newly viable program.

9. How would you describe the experience of working with Higher Ed Holdings?

Dr. Wyatt: I would classify Higher Ed Holdings as a higher education support organization. There are many of these organizations, companies, associations and entities which exist in some relationship to colleges and universities. In my opinion, Higher Ed Holdings is among the best of these to be found today. They are at the top of class for marketing and packaging of existing educational products, courses and degrees in ways that are newly pertinent, engaging and productive. The HEH staff is innovative, diligent, responsive and well informed. I have found each of the staff members to be highly professional and willing to adapt their processes to fit the interests of our university. They recognize and value the traditions of the academy and they understand that they must support us, rather than the other way round. I think that each of our university participants would say that they have been treated by HEH with dignity, respect, and even appreciation.

It has been my pleasure to have worked personally with the HEH Chairman, Mr. Randy Best. I regard him to be one of the true visionaries in his ambition to make a high-quality state university education available to many more students. He is dynamic, progressive, tireless and constantly open to personal and professional change to create opportunities for growth and development. I greatly appreciate that he is still, at heart, a learner.

10. Would you recommend HEH partnerships to other universities?

Dr. Wyatt: I would recommend Higher Ed Holdings without any hesitation or reservation, and have given my recommendation in support of HEH to many other university leaders. I also have recommended to many prospective students that they find and enroll in offerings by HEH partner institutions. The students have been pleased with their decision to do so.

11. What impact has the initiative had on the overall campus and how might it affect A-State’s future?

Dr. Wyatt: HEH has enabled A-State to make a significant entry to the online marketplace using our A-State faculty, our course content, our evaluation procedures, our posting of grades, and our control of the program. We have kept what is important to us, the academic piece, and we have contracted with HEH to provide what they do better than we can do with the marketing piece. The outcome is that we have achieved a statewide presence in this program, which magnifies the value of our state university, and which now drives us to achieve similar results throughout the state with other programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels. We have expanded A-State’s reach, capability and productivity at a time when these outcomes are expected of us by the public we are here to serve.

Editor’s note: Dr. Leslie Wyatt is the 10th President of Arkansas State University. He served concurrently as President of the Arkansas State University System and Chief Executive Officer of Arkansas State-Jonesboro from July 1995 until the first chancellor for Arkansas State-Jonesboro was appointed in November 2006. Arkansas State University is a system of higher education with campuses and degree centers in several Arkansas cities.

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