Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Students Consider University’s Future as Strategic Planning Process Continues

University of Virginia students from across Grounds weighed in Wednesday on the issues that will shape the University’s strategic direction for years to come.

At a public forum hosted by the University’s strategic planning steering committee, students pondered the value of online education, made observations about the academic advising process and shared their thoughts on issues ranging from the use of technology to physical characteristics of the Grounds.

The meeting, which drew about 70 participants, was the latest in a series of public forums held as part of the strategic planning process launched in the fall by President Teresa A. Sullivan. At the beginning of the meeting, Senior Vice Provost J. Milton Adams – who is overseeing development of the strategic plan – told students that the plan will outline both long-term aspirations as well as immediate concrete steps.

“We will develop specific plans for what we’ll do over the next three to five years to try and achieve a vision for what this University will be,” Adams said Wednesday.

For most of the meeting, students broke into smaller discussions based around the topics being tackled by the strategic planning working groups: faculty issues, what it means to be a public university, resources, streamlining, student life and technology.

At the student life discussion, students compared their experiences to those of friends at other schools and considered the merits of online education, their own career preparation and the University’s curriculum.

Sam Atkeson, a third-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, said he believes most U.Va. students have strong feelings of ownership of the University, especially with regard to physical spaces such as the Rotunda and Lawn.

“As far as the experience of taking a course online, I think there may not be an issue in terms of the information presented, but there’s something about the experience of being in a classroom with a professor who is a great lecturer,” he said. “It’s like watching a play – if you were to watch a play online, it would be very similar, but it’s not the same as sitting in the theater and watching it in person.”  

Sean McAuliffe, also a third-year student in the College, pointed out that many students learn important lessons outside the classroom in areas such as leadership and civic engagement.

“That human-to-human contact isn’t something you can get online,” he said.

Other students pointed out that online learning in the case of “flipped” classrooms – or those in which much of the basic material is distributed before class online, saving class time for discussions with faculty members – can enhance the personal aspects of the learning experience instead of reducing them.

On the question of how well the University prepares students for their future careers, Atkeson pointed out that U.Va. students are largely able to choose how vocational they want their educations to be. Students preparing for a business career might study in the McIntire School of Commerce, while students interested in a traditional liberal arts education could pursue humanities opportunities in the College, he said.

Chelsea Stokes, a second-year student who serves on the Student Life Working Group and moderated that group discussion Wednesday, said she sometimes hears from students who lament the lack of curricular opportunities in communications or journalism. Other students pointed out that interdisciplinary programs such as Global Development Studies have shown that it’s possible create quality programs without establishing new departments or schools.

After the smaller discussions, each group shared a few of its results. Several students spoke about the need to improve U.Va. systems such as the Student Information System, or SIS, and suggested improvements to the way the University administers undergraduate advising.

Afterward, Stokes said she noticed that many groups hit upon the same topics despite the differences in the questions they were asked to address.

Earlier in the evening, the Resources Working Group hosted its own public forum to solicit community input on issues related to the University’s resources, including issues related to research funding, development and facilities.

David Breneman, senior associate dean for academic affairs in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and former dean of the Curry School of Education, chairs the group. He said its mission is not to focus on issues like state appropriations, tuition or faculty.

“Typically, what we’re after is new sources of revenue,” he said at the meeting, noting that his group isn’t charged with finding things to close in order to reallocate University funds.

During group discussions, participants offered ideas that ranged from consolidating the University’s numerous development foundations to the future of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Michael Lenox, executive director of the Batten Institute in the Darden School of Business, is teaching a MOOC this semester and said he sees them not as a way for the University to one day generate revenue, but rather as a potential avenue to refine best practices for online education, which the University could then use in its own offerings.

Other ideas floated by participants include crowd-funded research projects – where researchers use online tools to appeal directly to the masses for funding – as well as ways improve alumni engagement.

The working groups will incorporate the public forum feedback into their own deliberations, and a completed draft of the strategic plan is due to be presented to the Board of Visitors in the fall.

The public forums continue Thursday with the Technology Working Group at 2 p.m. in the South Meeting Room of Newcomb Hall and the Student Life Working Group at 4 p.m. in the same room.

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