Before Diane Fitzsimmons went back to college to finish her bachelor’s degree, the former University of Hawaii Manoa student decided to test her ability to juggle school and work commitments by signing up for a smattering of free online college courses through the website Coursera. 

Fitzsimmons, who wants to earn a bachelor’s degree so she can become a substitute teacher, took a few mini-courses from Penn State. She took another from Harvard University, and found that she excelled with the flexibility the courses offered. 

“This is doable for me,” she thought.

But when Fitzsimmons began looking for online degree programs in Hawaii, she was disappointed to find that the state’s public universities and community colleges offered few options.

“I looked through all the campuses,” Fitzsimmons said. “I couldn’t find anything at UH that would give me the online degree I wanted.” 

The University of Hawaii system has significantly increased the number of online courses it offers over the last decade. Last year at UH Manoa, the state’s flagship university, roughly 10,000 students enrolled in about 900 courses — a big bump from just a few years ago. 

But those numbers can be deceptive.

Of the 339 courses offered at Manoa last fall, 234 were offered through its Outreach College — an important financial distinction for full-time students. The tuition at Outreach College is the same, but the courses are paid for separately — meaning full-time students have to pay for Outreach credits in addition to their annual full-time tuition.

University of Hawaii. McCarthy Mall. 2 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
UH Manoa offers two online-only degree programs, but has numerous hybrid courses aimed at meeting the needs of students on neighboring islands. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Students like UH Manoa sophomore Jean Sueno, who looked unsuccessfully this year for an online advanced calculus class in the UH system, say there’s a real need for more flexible learning opportunities like hybrid courses that require some on-campus attendance but offer distance learning components.

“Its very limited,” Sueno said.

This spring, Manoa’s schedule lists only two undergraduate online English classes through its traditional or “Day School.” There are no online undergraduate math classes listed in the traditional course schedule. No sociology courses. Few options in the humanities.

“UHM is falling far behind similar public institutions, many with an even less compelling need in their states to offer online degrees.” — Jay Halfond, Boston University professor

Fully online degree programs are even harder to find. UH Manoa offers two fully online degree programs — a “dramatic contrast” to the average of 16 online-only degree programs offered at comparable public universities elsewhere, according to a Boston University professor who was invited to UH Manoa in 2013 by the dean of Outreach College to make recommendations on distance learning programs.

“UHM is falling far behind similar public institutions, many with an even less compelling need in their states to offer online degrees,” Jay Halfond argued in a 2013 memo.

Changing that is no easy task.

Halfond laid out a series of suggestions in the memo aimed at better positioning UH Manoa’s distance learning programs, from restructuring the financial model of online courses to conducting formal market research and developing new degree programs.

In the more than two years since Halfond submitted his recommendations to Manoa’s vice chancellor of academic affairs, little has changed about the structure of how online programs are developed and managed at the university.

The Manoa Distance Learning Committee, which is tasked with advising administrators on the direction of online learning at the university, has not met in more than a year. And several professors currently listed on the committee say they didn’t know they were members.

A lot of attention at UH Manoa in recent years has been focused on improving student success rates and addressing budget issues, UH Manoa Outreach College Dean William Chismar said.

“As a result, the emphasis on developing online degree programs has been given a lower priority,” Chismar said.

Despite the challenges, Chismar says the university has been making progress on some of the recommendations in the 2013 memo, and says the university offers a large volume of classes designed to meet the needs of students.

“We have been focusing on demand for online courses by our students as opposed to programs to attract students from out of state,” Chismar said.

Falling Behind The Times

Distance education, though most often equated these days with online classes, has a long history in the United States — dating back to correspondence schools in the early 20th century.

Because of Hawaii’s unique geographic challenges, the UH system has made distance learning a priority for decades, UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said.

In the 1990s, UH was considered a national leader in providing distance learning opportunities delivered through cable television — something the university still does, although students are increasingly turning away from TV programs in favor of web-based classes, said Greg Walker, distance learning coordinator at Leeward Community College.

“Do we keep things up to date and timely with what’s happening in learning as time goes on, or do we say ‘Great, we have this cable course now let’s forget about it,'” Walker said. “Time passes and we are not the leaders anymore.”

Students at Maui College now have multiple options for earning four year degrees without leaving the island, including hybrid classes conducted at University Center Maui.
Students at Maui College now have multiple options for earning four-year degrees without leaving the island, including hybrid classes conducted at University Center Maui University of Hawaii

One challenge in growing online programs is that creating quality online classes is expensive, particularly when it comes to technological infrastructure and support, says Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Then there’s the time and effort that goes into developing a robust academic course. Distance education done right is not as simple as filming a face-to-face lecture and putting it online.

Another challenge is the decentralized nature of distance learning at UH. At UH Manoa for example, the decision to offer an online course or develop a degree program is left up to each individual department.

If departments work with Chismar to develop online courses for the Outreach College, there’s a financial incentive: They get to keep a percentage of the tuition fees. Courses developed for the day students don’t bring in any additional funding.

But there is no centralized planning for distance learning, Walker said.

“It’s an afterthought,” Walker said.

Suggested Changes

Taking big steps forward in online learning would require a more coordinated approach, Halfond said in his 2013 report.

“UHM seems to have the will and even the institutional resources, but not the systematic, sustained commitment to quality distance learning that extends the reach and brand of the University,” Halfond wrote.

Halfond noted that the role of Outreach College has been “somewhat transactional, given the financial model that allows for Outreach to keep its income on campus” and that the Outreach staff sees its role as serving the other colleges, “reactive and deferential, but not as an equal partner or peer, or a thoughtful force on campus for new initiatives.”

The memo suggested that UH Manoa make a number of changes, including making the College of Education’s Distance Course Design and Consulting Unit report to Outreach College — something Chismar said the College of Education was uninterested in doing.

Halfond also suggested creating a centralized financial model for online courses, implementing formal market research and a student recruiting strategy.

UH West Oahu offers several online-only degree programs.
UH West Oahu offers online-only degree programs in education, business, public administration and social and human services. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The biggest changes he suggested for students was launching several undergraduate degree completion programs that would be targeted mostly to students on neighboring islands, who have limited choices for pursuing a bachelor’s degree without moving.

“The degree completion program(s) should be promoted very visibly throughout the state as an important institutional gesture towards keeping high potential students on the islands,” Halfond wrote.

Halfond also thought UH Manoa should  develop several graduate programs focusing on areas where UHM can be competitive in attracting out-of-state students, particularly “subject areas where a Hawaiian perspective differentiates the university — such as oceanography, renewable energy, and climate change.”

Although Chismar said he agreed with a number of the suggestions, he points out that Halfond did not have any market analysis to back up his recommendations.

“Online degree programs have sort of become a commodity market now,” Chismar said. “To successfully compete in that requires a lot of investment and recruitment.”

New Programs In The Works

Though big investments in online education may be years away at UH Manoa, there are several new programs in the works.

UH Manoa recently launched an online psychology degree program, Chismar said. It’s not fully online — students still have to take some of their general education requirements at a UH campus, but eventually all the psychology courses will be available online.

Chismar said the university is also working to develop an undergraduate degree completion program that targets mainly neighbor island students who have completed two years of community college and want to get a four-year degree without moving.

The university is looking at a number of possible majors for what would be be a part-time cohort program where groups of students from across Hawaii go through three years of classes together.

“Online degree programs have sort of become a commodity market now. To successfully compete in that requires a lot of investment and recruitment.” — William Chismar, UH Manoa Outreach College

Chismar also points out that the university offers a number of hybrid and distance learning programs though other sources like television.

Former UH Manoa student Fitzsimmons eventually decided to major in history at UH West Oahu, which she felt offered the most online options and flexible courses like hybrid and evening classes.

Each semester, Fitzsimmons plans her class schedule by searching for online courses from among the 10 University of Hawaii campuses in hope of finding online options for the courses that she needs to graduate.

Last semester she took a class from Leeward Community College, and another one from Windward. When online classes aren’t available, she takes hybrid courses or evening classes. The drive from the North Shore can be tough, she says.

She’d like to see Hawaii colleges expand their online programs, something she thinks could be a boon to both students and the university.

“We are paying the exact same tuition as students who are (on campus) but there’s less wear and tear on campus, it alleviates traffic problems and drive time is study time,” Fitzsimmons says. “I think it’s a win-win situation, where all these students benefit but I think the administration would benefit too.” 

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