There is a significant amount of legislative and policy activity here in Virginia to try to centralize, to varying degrees, post-secondary online learning. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, so let me offer some history and context as I know it1.

In the 2015 legislative session, House Bill 1400 (Chapter 665), added/included the following language to Title 23, Chapter 9.1, of the Code of Virginia:

G. In consultation with other institutions, George Mason University shall develop a plan for a comprehensive on-line course offering in Virginia. As part of the plan, George Mason University shall (1) research similar programs in other states; (2) evaluate the need for adult completion programs; (3) identify the academic programs to be included; (4) develop an appropriate scheduling model; and (5) recommend an appropriate pricing model. George Mason University shall submit the plan to the Governor and the Chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees by September 1, 2015.

Sure enough, in September 2015, in partnership with Old Dominion University, a report was issued and the concept of the Virginia Degree Completion Network was birthed. It’s not a terribly comprehensive or detailed report, but it included a purpose for the Network:

requirements for implementation

and a timeline.

My contacts and “insider” sources say the Network plan didn’t exactly take off and there was much foot dragging. Furthermore, by my account, at this point, there’s no way that timeline could be achieved.

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Well, the month after the report about the Network was issued, and while feet were dragging around the Virginia Degree Completion Network, Virginia Statute §23.1-909, was enacted (thus codifying House Bill 2320) and it stated that:

The Secretary of Education and the director of the Council [SCHEV], in consultation with each public institution of higher education and nonprofit private institution of higher education, shall develop a plan to establish and advertise a cooperative degree program whereby any undergraduate student enrolled at any public institution of higher education or nonprofit private institution of higher education may complete, through the use of online courses at any such institution, the course credit requirements to receive a degree at a tuition cost not to exceed $4,000, or the lowest cost that is achievable, per academic year.

This “$4,000 per year cooperative online degree” idea got considerable attention around the state, and those of us involved in online learning in higher education across the Commonwealth were eager to see the report that was due on October 1, 2016. I don’t know how much consultation there was with institutions of higher education, but I do know that some of us were offered an opportunity to comment via a listserv maintained for the Networked Learning Collaborative of Virginia (NLCVA). Well, sure enough, dutifully, Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia Dietra Trent and SCHEV Director Peter Blake submitted the legislatively required progress report on October 1, 2016. The comments from NLCVA members are included in that report as Appendix D. I can neither confirm nor deny that I am the first commenter.

The tl;dr version of the good report authored by Trent and Blake is “This cooperative degree idea is a good idea, but it’s complicated. Also, there is already this idea for the Virginia Degree Completion Network, so let’s combine those efforts into something called the Online Virginia Network (OVN). And, let’s be planful about this…oh, and $4,000 per year is not realistic…But, again, good idea!” Well, that’s my interpretation; you’re free to read the report and offer your own interpretation.

I do like that the report relies heavily on State U. Online, a report done by Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation. That report has been influential in my thinking around these matters and I referenced it in my comments through NLCVA to SCHEV. I don’t know if I introduced SCHEV to the report via my comments, but I like to imagine I did 🙂

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So, that’s where we were as of October 1, 2016. Fast forward to last week, January 11, 2017, and here comes House Bill 2262 which would establish The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority). Essentially and effectively, the bill would enact the recommendations of the report from Trent and Blake.

§ 23.1-3134. Online Virginia Network Authority established; purpose; governing board; staff support.

The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority) is established as an educational institution in the Commonwealth for the purpose of providing a means for individuals to earn competency-based degrees and credentials by improving the quality of and expanding access to online degree and credential programs that are beneficial to citizens, institutions of higher education, and employers in the Commonwealth.

Furthermore:

§ 23.1-3135. Scope; duties; funding.

A. Each public institution of higher education and each consortium of public institutions of higher education that offers online courses, online degree programs, or online credential programs shall offer any such course, degree program, or credential program through the Authority.

B. The Authority shall:

1. Act as the coordinating and administering entity for the delivery of each online course, degree program, and credential program identified in subsection A;

So, that’s kind of a big deal. There are additional parameters in the Bill, but you can read through those yourself. I have lots of random thoughts about these developments, so, in no particular order, here they are:

  1. I’ve long said that I’m an advocate for recognizing that online learning is a different animal and where issues of time and space are essentially out of play, we ought to be able to work better together and across institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Within limits, there are real efficiencies that we can realize by collaborating on online programs. So, I suppose, ultimately, I’m not opposed to the overall concept of the Online Virginia Network Authority.
  2. That said, it’s important to echo part of what Trent and Blake write in their report: “Delivery of online instruction is expensive to undertake and to continue… Dr. Trent and Mr. Blake have concerns about the statute’s expectation regarding tuition at public institutions of higher education. On the practical side, they are concerned that a cut-rate tuition will imply that the online education being provided is low quality, or that the on-campus education being provided at a higher cost is vastly overpriced, or worse yet, that both implications are true. They believe that a college education – regardless of its delivery method – is a college education. An online degree program must be – in fact and in perception – just as rigorous and high quality as an on-campus program; otherwise, it should not be offered.” Amen.
  3. As with any policy idea, the devil is in the implementation details. Per my comment in Appendix D of the Trent/Blake report, higher education in Virginia is very decentralized. There is no “system” of higher education, and purposefully so. There are pros and cons to that. But, one downside is that in trying to develop and implement something like the Online Virginia Network Authority comes with significant hurdles due to the lack of any centralized infrastructure. The Bill goes to great lengths to spell out how the Authority should be governed by a board and who should comprise the board. But, the authority will need much more than a board. It will need leadership and personnel. The Bill states that “The Council shall provide staff support to the Authority. All agencies of the Commonwealth shall provide assistance to the Authority, upon request” but there’s no way this Authority could be run just by a board with some SCHEV staffing and assistance. And, if by “The Council shall provide staff support to the Authority…” means that SCHEV needs to fund new positions to run the Authority under the guidance of the board, I don’t know where SCHEV will get funding for such positions.
  4. I note that the Bill states that “The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority) is established as an educational institution in the Commonwealth for the purpose of providing a means for individuals to earn competency-based degrees and credentials…” That very specifically mentions competency-based degrees and credentials. So, is the Authority limited to ONLY the realm of competency-based degrees and credentials? If so, that changes everything…
  5. I’m not that tuned into the Virginia legislature, so I asked around to others who are more tapped in about how likely this Bill is to pass. From what I’ve been able to gather, there is serious influence behind the Bill in general and the concept in particular. Kirk Cox, a co-patron of the bill, is the majority leader of the House of Delegates in Virginia. He has been in that position for over 6 years. I’m told he’s well-respected and influential. Thus, this Bill will be given serious consideration. I mostly feel like the Bill may not pass as is, but that this is an opening salvo and negotiations and testimonies will ultimately lead to some form of centralized control of online learning in Virginia. In the K-12 world, Virtual Virginia has been around for a while now and has been a valuable resource to students and school divisions across the Commonwealth. Also, Governor McAuliffe is a proponent of online learning even if he did veto a bill to create a statewide K-12 school overseen by a newly created state board.  So, there is some precedent in the K-12 sector and real support from key legislators and stakeholders. I’m not counting this Bill out.
  6. Ultimately, I hope institutions of higher education can come together to work with each other on this and not just resist out of fear of losing potential revenue. We are a COMMONWEALTH, and if we can do right by our citizens and provide high-quality and cost-effective postsecondary options via some form of centralized or collaborative efforts, we should.
  7. I note that the board would include “… three nonlegislative citizen members to be appointed by the Governor.” Hey, Governor McAuliffe, give me a call? I’m available…

So, I don’t know that we’ll get Virginia Online U (per the title of the post which is a nod to the aforementioned New America Foundation report I like so much), but we may very well get The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority). I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on this in the coming days, weeks and months and I hope I can share those as I can.

  1. which probably contains some inaccuracies or misstatements as I’m not completely plugged in to the legislative scene. Apologies if I misstate anything and I’m happy to clarify and update should anyone point out any problems with what I’ve written. []