Lamar University Reaches Thousands Online With Help From Higher Ed Holdings
Accessible and Affordable Graduate Degree Programs Establish Lamar as Largest Educator of Teachers in Texas
By Dave Sorter
Lamar University in Beaumont made a remarkable recovery from two devastating hurricanes.
Within three years of the disaster, Lamar became the largest educator of teachers in Texas. It’s fitting that the state university named after the “Father of Texas Education” launched with Higher Ed Holdings the online graduate degree programs that to date have enrolled more than 4,000 certified teachers from school districts across the state.
The university credits Higher Ed Holdings of Dallas with helping its brick and mortar campus in far southeast Texas cross a digital divide. In the spirit of innovation that marks the “Golden Triangle” region known for the legendary discovery of oil at Spindletop, Lamar struck a partnership with Higher Ed Holdings to help professors move their courses online and increase enrollment to meet state goals.
In October 2007, Lamar University launched online master’s degree programs for its College of Education and Human Development. Higher Ed Holdings provides the Internet delivery platform – including high-quality production, discussion and chat-room capabilities, and a comprehensive student support system.
Dr. Hollis Lowery-Moore, dean of the College of Education and Human Development, said the university lost about 500 students because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, before Lamar’s partnership with Higher Ed Holdings began. The story was different when Hurricane Ike pummeled southeast Texas in 2008, when the online platform was in place.
“After Ike, we had the distance learning option and those students didn’t miss a beat,” Lowery-Moore said.
Access and affordability are the primary reasons Lamar’s online offerings have attracted more than 4,000 students among its three Master’s Degree programs.
“We’re unique in our location,” Lowery-Moore said. “You go east, you’re in another state (Louisiana). You go north, there’s Stephen F. Austin State University. West, there’s Houston, which has all sorts of educational opportunities. And if you go south, you’re in the Gulf of Mexico.
“So we don’t have a large population to reach out to. If we were to grow, we had to reach beyond the surrounding community. Distance learning was one answer.”
Online learning is certainly a trend. More than 4 million college and university students nationwide took at least one online course each of the past two years, according to the 2008 Survey of Distance Learning by the Instructional Technology Council and an April 2, 2009, article in U.S. News and World Report.
The growth at Lamar University is reversing a troubling trend as the nation tries to meet the 21st Century challenge of seeding the knowledge economy of the future.
“The enrollment of working-age adults in college-level education or training has been declining since the early 1990s,” according to Measuring Up 2008, a report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “Indicators show that access to college is fairly flat in the United States, with mostly small improvements in some states and declines in others.”
The states that are improving include Texas, where Higher Ed Holdings partnerships at Lamar and the University of Texas at Arlington make it possible for more students with jobs and families to expand their education. Those who have teaching jobs can earn their master’s degrees online at Lamar and UTA, often earning a valuable stipend for the advanced degree and positioning themselves for leadership opportunities.
Donna Lewis, a 14-year teaching veteran who teaches special education students at the Secondary Reassignment Center in the Irving Independent School District near Dallas, is enrolled in Lamar’s online Education Administration program. After learning about the opportunities distance learning provides, she “decided it was time to go for it.”
Lewis said she likely would not have been able to pursue the degree without the online option.
“I wouldn’t be able to get out of my home that often,” she said. “It would be too much time away from my family.”
She also said that the flexibility of the program – she can view the courses when she’s able, do the assignments around her schedule and join discussion groups at her leisure – was one reason she decided on the online Lamar program.
And, one Lamar professor said, that’s an incentive for students to enroll.
“It’s economical and psychologically friendly,” said Dr. Dorothy Sisk, who holds the Conn Chair in Professional Pedagogy at Lamar and teaches the courses Cognition and Instruction, and Creative Instructional Strategies on the online platform.
“You can look at the video when you want; you can bounce your baby on your knee while you’re doing it.”
Ever-evolving technology also is spurring the growth in online enrollment. The expansion of bandwidth, the ability to create video in higher and higher definition, and chat room capabilities make these courses virtually identical to their classroom equivalents.
For example, Sisk is updating her online Cognition and Instruction course for the 2009 Summer Semester – the Creative Instructional Strategies class will be updated for the fall term – and is using updated video technology to enhance the class.
“I found video of B.F. Skinner explaining his theories and using the Skinner Box,” said Sisk, referring to the renowned 20th-century behavioral psychology scholar. “We’ll have that video in a session, then have the students go into a chat room and discuss.”
In fact, Sisk said she would start using the same techniques in her on-campus, face-to-face classes.
“I told my face-to-face students that we’re still going to do science, but we’re going to use the same format as online.”
“It’s a new way to do everything,” Lamar dean Lowery-Moore said. “It helps the professional development for the faculty. They learn new ways of instruction, learn technology, and there’s been better collaboration between departments.”
Access and technology are just two parts of the equation. Equally important is affordability – especially in an economic downturn, such as the one we are experiencing.
Lewis, the Lamar student who teaches in the Irving ISD, said cost was a big factor in her decision to choose the online Lamar degree, and that she would not have been able to afford a graduate degree otherwise.
The 18-month degree program costs her and her computer classmates less than half the tuition they would pay at a for profit online university like the University of Phoenix.
Lewis said the fact she is getting a quality education from a state university with recognized credentials and excellent scholars on its faculty, makes her believe she is getting more bang for the buck.
Low-cost, high-quality online degree programs will be necessary to attract future generations of students, according to the Measuring Up report.
“College tuition continues to outpace family income and the price of other necessities, such as medical care, food and housing,” the report stated. “The continuation of trends of the last quarter-century would place higher education beyond the reach of most Americans and would greatly exacerbate the debt burdens of those who do enroll.”
Said Lowery-Moore: “What I hear a lot is that ‘I wouldn’t be able to get a master’s degree any other way.’”
Universities know that offering online courses and degree programs that provide the same quality of education, a flexible schedule that is conducive to work and family life, and are affordable will be necessary to compete in the future.
“For-profit schools have identified types of students and programs that the traditional public and private non-profit students have paid relatively little attention to – especially older than 18-25 and students who hold full-time jobs that restrict their ability to attend courses during usual school hours,” said Burton Weisbrod, co-author of “Mission and Money: Understanding the University,” in a March 2 interview with Inside Higher Ed. The University of Phoenix’s enrollment climbs about 16 percent per year. State universities’ enrollments rise at a 2 percent rate.
Lamar and other Higher Ed Holdings partners have started responding to this new competitive reality. And Lamar professor Sisk is trying to spread the message.
“I’m on the board of a private college, Mount Union in Ohio, and I said they need to do this,” she said, referring to using a service provider such as Higher Ed Holdings to move their courses online. “I have a friend at the University of Louisiana in Monroe who told me they are trying to move as many of their courses online as they can.
“I think this is the future.”
Source by Greg Russell