Although some questions remain about the details of the plan, higher education officials told Oklahoma lawmakers Thursday that a statewide initiative to create online college courses could give more students access to an affordable education.
Blake Sonobe, the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education's vice chancellor for academic affairs, told a Senate committee the agency hopes to use online courses as a tool to reach more students in underserved areas around the state.
“If we can do that through an online format, that could be tremendously helpful to our students in Oklahoma,” Sonobe said.
The Senate Education Committee held an interim study Thursday to discuss the use of online courses as a way to make college more affordable. During the meeting, Sonobe said higher education officials are working on a plan that would allow students to take online courses from any college or university in the state while staying at their home institutions.
In some ways, the program would be similar to the existing Reach Higher program, a consortium of 14 state colleges and universities that offer in-person and online courses geared toward working adults. The program is geared toward students who have some college credit but dropped out before completing.
Students enrolled in the Reach Higher program can take courses from any of the 14 colleges and universities without needing to drive all over the state to do so. For example, if a student at Murray State College needed a course that was only offered at Connors State College, he or she could take the Connors State class online without needing to drive to the college's campus in Warner.
That program was “a trailblazer” for Oklahoma in the area of online education, Sonobe said. But unlike the Reach Higher program, which is open only to certain students, the online courses under the new system would be open to any college student, he said.
During the meeting, Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, asked Sonobe if higher education officials had considered developing a statewide web portal for any student in the state to use to access online courses.
Students taking only online courses may not be interested in enrolling in a particular university as their home institution, Stanislawski said. A web portal would allow those students to access all their courses in a single place and keep track of their progress.
That kind of website is a possibility a few years in the future, Sonobe said. But right now, most students taking online courses are also enrolled in traditional, classroom-based courses at their home universities. But as the needs of students change, the format of online courses will likely change, as well.
“We're still in the experimental stage,” he said.
Last year, Oklahoma Higher Education Chancellor Glen Johnson convened a task force to look at how to implement online courses statewide. Individual colleges and universities have long had their own online offerings, but no coordinated statewide program exists.
Johnson said Thursday that the conversation about distance education and online courses in Oklahoma began in 1996, when a citizens' commission on the future of higher education recommended the courses become a major component of the state's college programs.
Last year, nearly 110,000 Oklahoma students were enrolled in online college courses, Johnson said.