Phylise Banner is an online teaching and learning evangelist, according to her professional profile on LinkedIn.
Since late summer, she has put that passion to work as the first director of online teaching and learning at Union Graduate College, where she is part of a $1.5 million commitment by the Schenectady school to chart a larger online presence for its master’s degree programs.
Banner has worked in online education since 1997. That included time at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, where she helped support various online efforts, including University Without Walls, an early entrant in the field dating to the 1970s.
Years ago, the focus of online programs was the 40-year-old woman without a college degree who wanted to get ahead, Banner said.
“Now, it’s everyone,” she said.
That’s readily apparent. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher last week unveiled a formalized and expanded Open SUNY initiative by adding eight online degree programs – associate, bachelor’s and master’s — to the university system. The goal is to “increase access, speed degree completion and increase success among students and graduates,” she reported in her annual State of the University address.
Also last week, Union Graduate College announced it would launch an online MBA program in health care management in the fall, leading to a degree in 22 months — comparable to the on-campus master’s but capable of a wider geographic reach that could especially benefit “professionals working in the field,” college President Laura Schweitzer said.
The online expansions come as many colleges nationwide look for new ways to keep enrollment — and revenue — robust.
Moody’s Investors Service, the credit-rating agency, offered a negative outlook for 2014 for the U.S. higher education sector, saying conditions would “remain stressed” for the next 12 to 18 months. The report cited hangover “macroeconomic pressures” from the Great Recession, including affordability versus stagnant family income, as factors that would keep college revenue in check. Campus expenses, meanwhile, would continue to rise.
Banner understands the potential to grow enrollment with online additions, but what excites her about her job is Union Graduate College’s “real commitment” to “see what excellence looks like.”
“You can’t just throw up [anything] online,” she says. Instead, she aims to “help the whole institution build an online strategy.”
To that end, Banner will draw on a best-practices scorecard developed by the Sloan Consortium, a national group working to improve online education.
Banner also meets with faculty members to discuss what a well-designed online course looks like, recognizing some of them may be hesitant to make the shift.
That reaction isn’t uncommon. Indeed, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education formed three years ago around concern from faculty, staff and students nationwide that as interest grew in new models for online education, quality might slip. They didn’t want online courses to become cheap substitutes for in-class instruction.
“Any pushback is always individualized,” Banner said, explaining a faculty member might like standing in front of a class to lecture or might prefer working one-on-one with students. Her job then is finding “how do you inspire” that faculty member to try the new approach or making sure “hallways” outside of class exist for faculty-student interaction.
The graduate school’s deans will make the decisions about what will go online and when, Banner said. As to where she comes in, “I am the advocate … for finding a way to teach any course online.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.