Wilson appointment spells green light for distance \ learning \

The University of Massachusetts system is moving forward with its distance learning initiatives after the appointment of Dr. Jack Wilson as chief executive officer of UMass Online.

Wilson was appointed by President William Bulger and was chosen from an original list of approximately 80 candidates. A committee interviewed five finalists and then Wilson was chosen to head the new learning initiatives to officially be launched on Feb. 7. He will work out of the President’s office as a part-time consultant until May at which time he will assume a full time $235,000 a year position.

‘Thanks to the innovative work done by campuses and the bold vision of President Bulger and the Board of Trustees, the University of Massachusetts is strongly positioned to offer excellent web based educational opportunities,’ Wilson said in a statement to the press. ‘The University’s reputation for excellence, nurtured since 1863, is now being combined with 21st century technology to attract a whole new population of students who, otherwise, would have been forced to delay or cancel their educational dreams. A high quality online program has become a key part of any leading University’s portfolio. I can’t wait to get started.’

A co-director of the Paul J. and Kathleen M. Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Wilson is also a professor of physics, engineering science and information technology and management. He is also the founder of LearnLinc Corp., a group that provides a virtual classroom environment for corporate training and professional development. Some members of the committee to hire the executive officer expressed their excitement about the appointment.

‘I am thrilled that Dr. Wilson is joining us. He was my first choice,’ said Professor Linda Enghagen, director of the Amherst campus Division of Applied Management, said in a statement to the press. ‘Dr. Wilson brings a depth and breath of experience and a clear understanding of the different roles that faculty play.’

UMass Online has already integrated into the University with a series of online courses available for the spring semester. Some classes that are offered online are introductory art management courses, Introduction to Hotel, Restaurant and Travel Administration, the Fundamentals of Marketing, Professional Nursing II and Elementary Psychology among others. Also offered is an MBA Professional Program, Master’s Degree in Public Health for Professionals and a Master of Science in (Nursing) in Community/School Health.

According to the University, online courses are geared towards working professionals, military personnel, people with disabilities, parents with small children and those who have transportation problems in regard to reaching the UMass campuses. Online courses still allow for communication between faculty and students featuring online ‘office hours’ and the ability to communicate with other students via email. Students are also required to take courses during the same period as typical University semesters. Some of these courses include readings, projects, chat rooms, illustrations and sometimes video.

These courses allow for students to access the web 24 hours a day, seven days a week and provide for studying and, in some cases, getting a degree at home. Textbooks for the class can also be purchased online.

However, there continues to be lingering doubts about the concept of distance learning in the University environment. The distance-learning plan spans to encompass all five UMass campuses and will serve students all over the world.

Lasting concerns about the way that the measure will be funded and how classes will be taught have not been fully addressed at the present time. In an attempt to dispel concerns about funding issues, both President Bulger and Chancellor David K. Scott spoke to the student body late last September. Scott explained to students that he felt that distance learning was necessary for the University and would give opportunities to people who would otherwise not be able to attend UMass.

‘The prediction is that every person in the work force will require 30 credits every seven years,’ Scott said. ‘I believe that UMass needs to be a player in that, not to replace professors with television screens, but to give a chance to those who would never have an opportunity to set foot on this campus. We feel that we have something very special to offer.’

Bulger also did his part to try to explain funding of the initiative. He maintained that the money was coming from a cash reserve and that the money would not be taken away from any of the campuses.

‘The University is prepared to make an investment of 10-15 million dollars,’ Bulger said. ‘We call this an investment because we are confident that it will be made back.’

Kristen Herrmann, a senior History and Political Science major, expressed the opinion of many of the students in attendance asking of Bulger, ‘You suggested in your opening remarks that you needed the support of UMass students to go forward with Distance Learning. If it becomes clear that the student do not support Distance Learning, will you then end the program?’

‘I think a question can be posed to the students,’ Bulger answered ‘But I don’t believe that the University should be governed by those who are just passing through.’

Faculty members continue to struggle with issues surrounding distance learning and details such as intellectual property. A recent newsletter from the Massachusetts Society of Professors addresses the struggles and issues a warning to professors.

‘The MSP continues to urge faculty and librarians to refrain from signing any contracts with UMass Online until the intellectual property, working conditions, and governance issues have been resolved,’ the newsletter stated.

However, the administration is moving forward in its distance learning venture and plans to offer courses in Plymouth, MA in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Early plans include potentially offering online courses in Plymouth that could include students viewing lectures online. The school is not a sixth campus, but rather a location that allows students in the Plymouth area to take classes offered on the Boston campus. These classes will be smaller than typical University classes and will focus primarily on business.

It is hoped that at some point bachelor’s and higher degrees may be offered at the school. Some are hailing this as yet another venture by the UMass system to reach out and allow students from different parts of the state the opportunity to pursue a University education. Tentative plans are also in the works for a UMass campus in the area of Brockton.

Although the details of distance learning have not yet been fully explained causing concern for both students and professors, the UMass system as a whole is making plans to advance the program and make it available to people across the United States.