Monday, August 14, 2000

Virtual colleges get in spirit




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        Kentucky's newest college football team needs a name. The catch: It exists only in cyberspace, which isn't known for its fearsome linebackers, tough QBs or anything else with a body.

        So, what shall we call the mascot for Kentucky Virtual University? Next month, the school will play its first game — an online, fantasy football type of thing — against that equally geeky-sounding franchise, Michigan Virtual University.

        How about the Dot Com-mandos?

        The Spreading Viruses?

        The Fighting Mice?

        Kentucky Virtual University was launched last year as a clearinghouse for online courses offered by colleges across the state. In two semesters, enrollment has grown from 235 to 1,578 students.

        Online learning is wonderfully convenient but boring to describe. What's needed is an infusion of school spirit, a cause for campus unity, a ... fake football game?

        “It is so funny,” says Sue Patrick, KVU's marketing director. “I talk about it to people and they look at me like, "She must be in the outer limits somewhere.'”

        The “Fighting Mice,” by the way, was Ms. Patrick's suggestion.

        It all started after Mary Beth Susman, chief executive officer of KVU, gave her staff “athletic department” T-shirts last year. News of the joke reached Tom Krattenmaker, public relations director for Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He offered to arrange virtual games.

        To find out more, go to www.virtualcollegesports.com. So far, five other universities have agreed to play, including the University of Texas Tele-Campus and Open University of the United States, whatever that is.

        Buckeye fans are out of luck: Ohio's Learning Network isn't set up in the same way, and officials decided to pass on football.

        KVU is counting on students to help it come up with a mascot.

        “It's really kind of a cute concept,” says Megan Downing of Pendleton County, Ky.

        Mrs. Downing, 42, decided to switch careers after a car accident sidelined her from nursing. While working full time in the computer lab at a local elementary school, she has been taking courses in business education at Northern Kentucky University.

        So far, two of those classes have been Web-based. This allowed Mrs. Downing to study around her schedule, turn in assignments by e-mail and participate in Internet class discussions. Her degree will come from NKU.

        The online routine is especially appealing to nontraditional students. They're not the types to be crashing keg parties or decorating homecoming floats. Still, Mrs. Downing caught mascot fever right away.

        Brainstorming possibilities, she mentioned the animated “assistants” that pop up when users open Microsoft Office. The default character is a paper clip with eyes. Mrs. Downing chose another Microsoft critter, called “F-1,” who reminds her of the “roboty spaceship guys” from the movie Batteries Not Included.

        Perhaps KVU's mascot could be something similar, she says.

        “He's sitting here looking at me right now,” she says. “He's so cute."'

        Oh no. The dreaded “c” word again. This football team is already hurting.

        To reach KVU, call 1-877-740-4357 or send e-mail to kcvu@mail.state.ky.us.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or ksamples@enquirer.com.