Thursday, November 16, 2000

Online classes can get loans

The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — A new state program that offers interest-free loans for the development of online curricula is the first of its kind in the nation.

        The Kentucky Virtual University, which offers college courses on the Web, will use a $1.5 million state “venture capital” fund to spur the creation of online learning programs that turn a profit. The money will go to Kentucky colleges and professors for the development of the programs.

        “It's a more entrepreneurial approach, which Internet technology requires,” said Mary Beth Susman, chief executive officer of KVU. She said the new approach requires schools to think about how their programs can make money over the long haul.

        The online projects are outlined in a business plan. They must generate enough income or cost savings so that the loan can be repaid within three years, although it remains unclear what will happen if repayment is not possible.

        The $1.5 million comes from the state technology trust fund, which was established by the legislature during the 1997 reform of higher education and which also created the KVU. Although the legislature provided general instructions about how to use the money, it gave final authority to the Council on Postsecondary Education.

        Professors have been eager to take advantage of the plan.

        Gail Summerskill Cummins, a University of Kentucky English professor and director of the campus writing center, has applied for a $10,000 loan to create a virtual version of the writing center.

        “My New Kentucky Home” would provide one-on-one tutoring, writing workshops and opportunities for writing groups to meet. A second phase would focus on technical writing for businesses.

        “I've been thinking about this for a long time, but I didn't have anyone to talk to about it or any way of getting the money,” Ms. Cummins said.

        The Kentucky Community and Technical College System also has asked KVU for a loan. It is seeking $170,000 to develop an online associate-degree program in information technology.

        “We have had far more demand than we can handle in our classrooms,” said Tony Newberry, chancellor for the community and technical colleges. He said the loan will allow the system to offer the degree as early as next summer.

        “It enables us to focus our resources and get a much faster start in getting a curriculum online than otherwise would be the case,” Mr. Newberry said. “Under normal budgeting and curriculum processes, at the quickest it would take us two years.”

        Since it began offering courses in the fall of 1999 to 237 students, KVU has grown rapidly. Now in its third semester, it enrolls 3,156 students.

        “We've found that the more programs we offer the more students we have,” Mr. Susman said. “I think Kentuckians are hungry for education that is convenient.”

        As its student body has grown, KVU has developed a reputation as a leader in online higher education.

        The “venture capital” — a term more often used to refer to the start-up money needed to launch a new business — is expected to serve as a model for other states.

        Mike Abbiati, associate commissioner for information and learning technologies for the Louisiana Board of Regents, said that despite recent discussion about the idea, KVU is the first state online program to embrace it.

        “We have all mentioned it before, but we're just waiting,” Abbiati said. “Everyone is absolutely watching. Everywhere else it's a concept. It's a reality at KVU.”


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