Virginia Tech Magazine
Winter 2008

eLearning at Virginia Techby Jenise Jacques

At 60, most people are researching retirement options, making plans for another chapter in their lives. Secondary school teacher Judy Craig Hartley, however, explored a new path within her profession by way of Virginia Tech's online Instructional Technology Master of Arts (ITMA) Program.

"I enjoyed taking courses online and knew I had the discipline to do so," says the Giles County, Va., resident. "But as a full-time teacher, I didn't have the time or energy to drive across the mountain to pursue my degree on the Tech campus. So it was exciting to have the opportunity to earn a master's degree without compromising my daily teaching."

Even before graduating from the program, Hartley, who's a quick study in electronic environments, was hired by Giles County Public Schools as an instructional technology resource teacher. "This position, which I got because of the master's degree from Virginia Tech, was the springboard to my goal of leaving the traditional classroom to teach instructional technology to my fellow teachers," she says.

Virginia Tech Online is home to
37 programs, inluding graduate degrees, graduate certificates, undergraduate concentrations,
and licensures.

* 58 percent of students in the Class of 2006 took an online course.

* 88 percent of eLearners reported satisfaction with the experience.

* More than 700 different faculty have taught eLearning courses.

* 88 percent of academic departments at VT participate
in eLearning.

Hartley is one of thousands who have taken advantage of electronic education at Tech since 1995, when university faculty members introduced online courses through the Virginia Tech Cyberschool. A partnership between the College of Arts and Sciences and the division of Information Systems, Cyberschool championed the implementation of eLearning policies, such as a university-wide student computer requirement and electronic commerce-based tuition payment and registration.

University Distinguished Professor of political science Tim Luke, one of Cyberschool's founding members and lead coordinator, helped initiate the effort. "Cyberschool originated as a kind of social experiment in moving the university forward," he says, "involving an alliance of faculty members, deans, and administrators who were interested in change." In 1997, Luke launched an online M.A. in political science, the first degree program of its kind in the country.

Establishing a holistic system

Virginia Tech is recognized as one of the first universities to embrace new digital information technologies and effectively integrate them into the teaching and learning process--on campus and beyond.

In 1993, the Faculty Development Institute was launched as part of a university-wide initiative to integrate technology into the teaching and learning process. Under the direction of Peggy Meszaros, senior vice president and university provost from 1995 to 2000, the Center for Innovation in Learning and the Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning (IDDL) were established. The IDDL provides leadership, coordination, management, and support to Virginia Tech's online and distance eLearning activities and initiatives.

eLearning at Virginia Tech

Guided by a holistic approach to education, "the institute has provided not only an engaging environment where Virginia Tech students and faculty can be successful but also a philosophy grounded in the belief that eLearning is an academic endeavor focused on teaching and learning, not teaching and money," says Tom Wilkinson, associate provost for distance learning and summer sessions and the primary author of the original proposal to establish the IDDL.

Not surprisingly, the university's pioneering approach to eLearning garnered national attention. In 2001, Tech received a major international eLearning award for its collaborative approach to developing and delivering its online master of information technology program. And in 2003, the university was highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of 10 educational institutions successfully implementing distance education. In the piece, President Charles W. Steger expressed confidence in the growth of the university’s eLearning endeavors:

Virginia Tech's investment in distance and distributed learning has yielded unprecedented opportunities. As barriers of time and place are overcome, students have a greater possibility of realizing their potential, while faculty members engage in research that transforms the educational experience. Alumni continue to look to Virginia Tech for lifelong learning. This union of people and technology is a powerful combination that facilitates Virginia Tech's ability to fulfill its core mission [of learning, discovery, and engagement].

Achievements in eLearning

Now in its eighth year, IDDL continues to adapt to evolving technology and changing practices at Virginia Tech and in higher education nationwide. The institute remains at the core of the university's efforts to strengthen the role of distance and distributed eLearning in achieving its goals in learning, discovery, and engagement as outlined in the 2006-2012 Strategic Plan Update.

In 2007, eLearning at Virginia Tech reached two significant milestones. The university's online summer session program, first offered through VTOnline, observed its 10th anniversary. The program, which in its inaugural year accounted for 696 enrollments from 25 course offerings, has recorded a total of 3,650 enrollments in 187 courses since 1998, a 425 percent increase. Last summer alone, special summer session funding allowed the online summer session to add nine courses that accounted for 221 enrollments. These courses, which averaged 25 students each, provided a three-to-one return on investment, yielding $150,501 in tuition revenue.

Equally significant, total eLearning enrollment, comprised of both credit and noncredit enrollments since summer 1998, passed the 100,000 mark in the fall. Wilkinson, the keynote speaker at a recent university eLearning special event, Expanding Access to Education, commended "the vision, creativity, drive, persistence, focus of purpose, and dedicated efforts of many individuals across the university to come together to ensure that individuals have access to a Virginia Tech education, regardless of where they live. This celebration is about Virginia Tech making a difference."

VTOnline's academic portfolio now features 30 graduate degree, certificate, and licensure programs; a program of 55 undergraduate core courses; an undergraduate concentration in humanistic traditions; and five noncredit professional or personnel development programs. Online courses toward to a master of agriculture and life sciences degree were introduced this fall in response to the emerging educational needs of the agriculture industry.

Distance education has proven to be both efficient and cost-effective in offsetting institutional capacity, as evidenced during the 2006-07 academic year: there were 8,368 enrollments in 168 online undergraduate courses, including 80 from the liberal education curriculum, and an average enrollment of nearly 50 students per course.

With eLearners from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, VTOnline has also enrolled students from 93 different countries, with India and China topping the list. On campus, more Tech undergraduates now take advantage of the university's eLearning opportunities, sprinkling online courses into their academic schedules to add more flexibility to their plan of study and to reduce their time to graduation. In fact, 59 percent of the Class of 2008 has taken at least one online course while at the university. Because of eLearning opportunities, the Hokie Nation has never been so far-reaching.

Going the distance

The graduate certificate program in liberal arts celebrated its first three graduates last spring. Appropriately enough, in light of eLearning's international reach, the program was created in Finland by Virginia Tech professor of interdisciplinary studies Michael Saffle while he was serving as Bicentennial Fulbright Professor of American Studies.

After a phone call from his director requesting some ideas for an online graduate course in interdisciplinary studies--needed in 24 hours--Saffle strolled around Helsinki's harbor with his wife, Sue, an English professor at Virginia Tech, discussing ways to reach out to graduate students. After dinner, he returned to his office and created the syllabus for the nine-hour certificate program.

One of Virginia Tech's eLearning pioneers, Saffle first entered the online environment in 1997, when he learned that one of his summer humanities courses might not launch. "It was either go online with the course or cancel it," he admits. "I hired a colleague who knew HTML to help me transform the course into 10 Web-based 'lectures' and 'worksheet' assignments." The course was a success; the following summer, Saffle taught two sections, the next year, three.

Even before teaching online, Saffle, a 2007 recipient of the university's William E. Wine Teaching Award, says that he had embraced the concept because he had taken courses through the mail. "I realized way back then that distance learning could work, that teachers and students didn't have to be in the same room at the same time." Indeed, despite the physical distance, one of the remarkable components of distance learning is the frequent student contact and feedback. "The students e-mail me all the time," says Saffle. "Later, some of them drop by my office to say hello. But even those who never visit me make their virtual presence known."

An eLearning community

Saffle is one of more than 700 Virginia Tech faculty members, representing 88 percent of the university's academic departments, who have developed or delivered distance eLearning courses since summer 1998. Specifically, in 2006-07, more than 280 faculty members were involved in developing and delivering eLearning courses, an increase of 15 percent from the previous year. Online and distance learning enrollments accounted for 36,000 credit hours.

In addition to its expansive offerings, the eLearning experience at Virginia Tech is a good fit for many students. In a recent survey, more than 61 percent of undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in online and distance learning courses in the Spring and Fall 2006 semesters indicated that they could not have taken the course had it not been offered online.

Such was the case for Superior Court Judge Michael Clark of Lawrenceville, Ga., who, searching for courses to learn more about the circumstances preceding Sept. 11, was led to Virginia Tech's online graduate political science courses. "I looked around for a program that offered an understanding of American foreign policy and could be pursued without interrupting my career and that would have minimal impact on my family and personal life," Clark explains. "The professors were well-informed, and classmates brought a tremendous range of experience and expertise to the class."

A recent eLearning undergraduate student, Claire Elpi, feels similarly. "The format of the courses was perfect," she notes. "It gave students the opportunity to have a choice in their studies, which I thought was a marvelous idea. As well as being a creative outlet, the course gave me a preview of what graduate school would be like, allowing me to enthusiastically prepare for my post-graduate studies and employment."

ITMA graduate Hartley says that her Virginia Tech eLearning experience changed the face of her career. "Obtaining my master's degree has met every professional expectation I could ever wish to have. It has inspired me to continue working in the educational field well past the usual age of 65. I look forward to each day with a spring in my step and a smile on my face."

For more on eLearning opportunities at Virginia Tech, go to

Jenise Jacques is coordinator of communications, marketing, and development for IDDL.

Virginia Tech