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University embarks on strategic, focused self study

By Netta S. Smith

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 04 - September 19, 1996

Virginia Tech has embarked upon a different type of self study, a "strategic" or "focused" self study, according to Anne McNabb, chair of the Self Study Steering Committee, and David Conn, director of the Self Study.

Historically, all universities have done traditional self studies in which essentially all aspects of the universities' functions have been studied comprehensively. The strategic model is designed to allow a more creative (and less ponderous) approach that will benefit the university in its long-range approach to educational quality. Strategic self-studies are only approved for universities whose re-accreditation is considered extremely likely because of a past history of effectively meeting all the requirements for accreditation.

The topic of the strategic part of the university's 1996-98 Self Study is "Transforming Virginia Tech for the Information Age." As the title suggests, the use of technology in the learning environment is the key focus of the work. The major purpose of such a strategic study is to provide an in-depth analysis of a specific topic so that the university may use that study in future planning.

Parallel to the strategic study, a separate Institutional Effectiveness Committee at Virginia Tech is addressing the specific "compliance" requirements set by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Future articles about the self study will appear in Spectrum on a regular basis as a featured column. They will describe the work of the Institutional Effectiveness Committee as well as other aspects of the self study.

The Steering Committee for the Strategic Self Study was appointed during spring semester 1996. Committee members decided that, in keeping with the current national focus of higher education, the study should be focused around "learner groups." The committee felt that the four learner groups listed below represented major constituencies whose needs could be addressed effectively.

1. Traditional four-year undergraduates (degree seeking students, largely residential, mostly 18- 22 years of age, including transfer students)

2. Untraditional students (night classes for working adults, distance learning, satellite campuses, continuing-education programs)

3. Graduate students (full- and part-time, postdoctoral fellows, technical versus research graduate degrees)

4. Faculty and staff (including both academic and administrative/professional faculty).

Subcommittees corresponding to each of the learner groups are now defining the specific subjects they will study and are beginning to collect data on the use of information technology in current programs at Virginia Tech. The subcommittees also will set up working groups to study specific issues and will consult widely with the campus community.

An extensive list of resource people that subcommittees may wish to use as consultants or working group members has been assembled and is being added to on a regular basis. Members of the university community who have special expertise or perspective about the use of information technology in the learning environment may contact Anne McNabb (happy@vt.edu, (540) 231-6118) or David Conn (conn@vt.edu, (540) 231-2690).

In addition to subcommittee studies of these learner groups, the Steering Committee also will be addressing many cross-cutting issues. Current educational programs (where we are now, as shaped by past decisions) will be examined in the light of the Updated University Plan and the Core Values Statement. The study also will make recommendations for future educational programs based on assessments of the effectiveness of current practices, especially in the context of the effects of information technology on the learning environment.

The heaviest work of the Strategic Self Study, with respect to data collection, will be during Fall Semester 1996, with first drafts of a report to be prepared during Spring Semester 1997.

Findings will be used to position Virginia tech for the decade ahead. "Many people believe that new technologies are dramatically changing the way higher education is offered, sometimes, but not always, for the better," says Conn. "We need to decide what role our university will play." Examples of recent developments, at Virginia tEch and elsewhere, include:

* At Virginia Tech, since 1993, more than 1,000 faculty members from 90 academic departments have participated in 58 customized workshops under the Faculty Development Institute. One of the most significant outcomes has been the development of Cyberschool, conceptualized as a virtual campus, breaking the mold of credit for contact. More than 50 faculty members are engaged in restructuring their courses within the Cyberschool project. (Report on Instructional Development Initiative, Virginia Tech, August 1996)

* The Chemistry Hypermedia Project at Virginia Tech provides electronic tutorials aimed at undergraduate students of chemistry. (Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 30, 1996)

* The Western Governors Association is creating a "virtual university," envisioned as a supplement to traditional institutions, which will teach through video courses, tutorials delivered over the Internet, and other technologies. (Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 16, 1996)

* Corporate "universities" have been established by an ever-increasing number of large and small companies, such as Aetna, American Express, Apple, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and others (Stan Davis and Jim Botkin, The Monster Under the Bed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994)

* The accounting and consulting company Arthur Anderson runs an education system comparable in budget to that of the University of Virginia, with campuses in Australia, Mexico, Spain, The Netherlands, and the US. (The Monster Under the Bed)

* After establishing an "on-line campus" in 1989, the University of Phoenix is now the sixth largest private university in the US, offering accredited graduate and undergraduate degrees in business, management, and technology, entirely on line. (University of Phoenix Home Page) .