Delegate Cox outlines expanded vision for Online Virginia Network


May 14, 2020

COLONIAL HEIGHTS — Delegate Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) on Thursday outlined an expanded vision for the Online Virginia Network, citing lessons learned from and a need to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cox, speaking at his last meeting as Chair of the OVN Board, said OVN should broaden its target population to spur the economic recovery from COVID-19, take further steps to lower the cost of online programs, and use federal coronavirus relief dollars to fully-fund OVN and virtual higher education programs.

Cox’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:

Before I begin I want to acknowledge the efforts of several individuals who were integral in bringing us to the point we are at today with OVN.

  •  Dr. Michelle Marks from GMU – Thank you Michelle for the innovative spirit you brought to this initiative from the outset. Michelle will soon become the new Chancellor of the University of Colorado’s Denver Campus.
  • Dr. Ellen Neufeldt – Ellen brought that same energy to OVN. She went on to become the President of Cal State San Marcos. I’m sorry you are not here in person but thank you Ellen.
  • Dr. Sharon Morrissey from the VCCS was key when we expanded OVN and has been a driving force in workforce.
  • And I would be remiss if I also didn’t thank Dr Bo Ram Yi for all the time and effort in keeping OVN on track.
  • And thank you to our longtime OVN Board members for your hard work and dedication. We also welcome our new Board members today. I look forward to working with you.

As a lifelong educator, ensuring that every Virginian—regardless of circumstances—has access to quality education is a passion of mine I was proud to carry the legislation in 2017 establishing OVN, and I have been honored to serve on the Board and serve as Chairman since its inception.

Even before the COVID crisis became apparent, there was the need for all of higher education to start to think much more broadly and holistically about the role of online education in creating affordable and efficient new pathways from education and training to jobs.

The path blazed several years ago by OVN started that process as it looked to initially serve adult learners and non-traditional students seeking access to affordable higher education programs.

To this point, OVN has several key accomplishments.

  • We have increased fully online student enrollments to 3,247 over the past three years—that’s 123% above projections.
  • We have welcomed the Virginia Community College System as a strategic partner. James Madison University officially joins July 1st.
  • We have expanded course and program offerings to meet business and industry trends in the Commonwealth.
  • We have increased awareness of OVN through data driven marketing campaigns and collaborations with NCI and other higher education centers across Virginia.
  • We have ensured dedicated, wrap-around support to guarantee each student is provided individualized assistance at each point in their path, including advising, financial aid, disability services, and career services.

And while we have made great strides, the current crisis has brought the need to expanded online higher education into focus even more, broadening the target population.

With many Virginians now suddenly unemployed, and with the possibility of continuing economic uncertainty as we reopen and the economy adjusts, we know that some sizeable number of them will need new skills to get re-employed, and it will be that way for a while.

For many Virginians, affordable online programs that quickly provide new skills matched to emerging job opportunities quickly are going to be their only practical option.

So, to better serve all Virginians, how should we move forward? What should be our next steps? Here are some practical ideas…

First, in terms of access to programs, we are very fortunate to have four institutions under the OVN umbrella that offer a wide array of programs. However, if I look at the OVN portal from the viewpoint of a prospective student, it seems more focused on being institution-centric versus program-centric. It takes a few clicks before finding a particular degree program and even then the programs are categorized by institution. I believe OVN needs to be more collaborative and less competitive. Otherwise, we are heading down a very similar current brick and mortar pathway where institutions appear to be battling for every student.

In the same vein, we need to have our OVN institutions work with SCHEV to determine how much duplication needs to be offered via online. Some may be necessary, but we also need OVN to deliver programs efficiently.

Second, early in the creation of OVN, one of the main goals was to reduce the cost of a traditional degree and the unit cost of providing online education. The first part of this should be easy since we have the VCCS as an OVN partner. If it is not currently in place, then the Authority needs to make sure that the first two years of an online degree program are provided through the VCCS. That by itself will lower the cost for all students.

It’s the second part of the goal, lowering the “unit cost of providing online education” that still needs some work. Some of this is the responsibility of the Commonwealth to provide adequate resources. However, at a minimum, the online cost per credit hour should be less than that for an on-campus student. And it certainly should reflect tuition only and not non-E&G fee costs. To that end, it may be useful for legislative staff, SCHEV staff and the OVN institution staff to convene a workgroup and bring some recommendations to OVN and the General Assembly.

Third, along the same line, we may want to start thinking about the possibility of a common cost for OVN programs as opposed to what right now will be four different costs. Perhaps, there is an opportunity to develop a revenue sharing model similar to what is being done in the VCCS. Again, the idea is more collaboration among the OVN partners. The workgroup can include that as a task as well.

Fourth, we need to bring the business community on board to create better linkages to job opportunities. Thus, moving forward, OVN should start to proactively reach out to business organizations and businesses who need trained employees to begin that partnership.

To assist with that process, OVN can also take advantage of the relationships with the business community that already exist on a regional basis through GO Virginia. Such outreach will also ensure that we are working to get people trained and placed in industry sectors our regions have already identified as holding the most promise for growth and diversification.

The linkage to the business community with a clear pathway from education / training to a job may require OVN to scale up within the basic principles we have previously outlined of efficient access to affordable programs.

The higher ed business model must change in fundamental ways as a result of the new social and economic circumstances. We cannot simply mark time and return to the same old brick-and-mortar model with its double digit tuition increases.

The ability to access high-quality online courses “off the shelf” may become a much more attractive feature, especially as higher institutions work with business to create affordable pathways from education to employment and begin to market the institutions based on their success at getting students placed in internships and full/time jobs.

To implement this, we should consider appointing an ad hoc committee to explore these opportunities, with a particular focus on two things: first, exploring creative applications and strategies for OVN to help meet the needs of unemployed Virginians who need new education, training and skills in order to find good work; and, second, exploring partnerships with GO Virginia and businesses and more higher education institutions to address not only that near-term unemployed re-skilling need but also to explore how online education and a platform like OVN can be part of a new higher ed business model that is focused on pathways that move students affordably and efficiently from an education or training program to a good Virginia based job.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that the Commonwealth needs to provide the necessary resources for OVN. The legislative budget included one million for the addition of JMU to OVN which was in legislation that passed in the 2020 Session (HB1660 / SB 1041). Those monies were unfortunately part of the unallotment actions proposed by the Governor and adopted by the General Assembly at the reconvened session. However, there is an opportunity for Virginia to prioritize this key initiative through funds provided under the CARES Act. Virginia was allocated $66 million for education in, what was termed by the federal guidance memo, an “extraordinarily flexible emergency block grant”. That memo went on to encourage the Governor by stating “at a time when so many school boards, superintendents, and institutions of higher education have had to close their brick and mortar campuses for the balance of the school year, to focus these resources on ensuring that all students continue to learn most likely through some form of remote learning” so as “to ensure that they don’t fall behind”.

Considering the broad flexibility, the block grant offers, we should, if at all possible, request and use the federal dollars to fully fund the proposed budget for OVN.

I think the JMU piece is especially important; bringing a skilled nursing program online at a time when we see the need firsthand.

Hopefully the Governor and the General Assembly will be able to fund the $1 million as we move forward. However, if that does not occur then the budget for OVN would need to reflect the $3 million equitably allocated across the four partner institutions – ODU, GMU, the VCCS, and JMU. I would ask the institutions to bring those options to the Board for consideration.

It has been an honor to serve as OVN chair for the last several years. I look forward to continuing to work with you all to take OVN to the next level.

Thank you.

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