Exclusive Interview with Dr. Darcy W. Hardy, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director, UT TeleCampus, The University of Texas System

September 19, 2004

Dr. Saba:
You have been involved with distance education for a long time. Could you tell us how did you become interested in the field and what were some of your earlier accomplishments?

Dr. Hardy:
In all honesty, I stumbled into this field just like so many of my colleagues. My bachelors and masters degrees are in industrial arts and technology, although I also received my K-12 teaching certification (I wonder where that certificate is these days…). When I began my doctoral program in Instructional Technology at The University of Texas at Austin, I clearly assumed I would eventually teach. I was already teaching a full load as an Instructor at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University–San Marcos), so it seemed natural for me to earn my degree and move into an assistant professorship somewhere in Texas. But fate jumped in, and while I was completing my required internship in 1989 at UT developing curriculum, I was asked if I’d like to stay on and take over a fledgling distance learning program. Now, remember, at that time most people had no idea what distance learning was, and if they did many saw it as something similar to extension but with satellite or interactive video technologies. No one was “trained” to do this, but as luck would have it, I had taken a course on instructional telecommunications during my academic program. This of course made me qualified to take over the program :). I had no idea what I was doing the first two or three months!

It didn’t take long, though, for me to “get the bug.” I think I knew within the next six months that this was what I wanted to do. I saw distance learning as something that would change education in a big way — and this is even before the web. I had colleagues and friends question my decision. Some thought I was going to waste my career on a flash in the pan. Others just didn’t really understand what I would do.

That fledgling distance learning program was an audio-based (via live telephone) program that taught Health Occupations Education to rural high school students. The teacher lived in the Dallas area, and the students were scattered across Texas, in cities like Dime Box and Big Spring. It was a small program but it served a wonderful purpose. These kids had an opportunity to learn about the health field and possibly remain in their community as a health care worker. They didn’t have that opportunity until this program came along.

We expanded the course offerings over the next several years to include more high school courses and by adding college level courses as well. The biggest accomplishment for me during that period was to convince a middle school math teacher that we could build and deliver an Algebra I course over the telephone to migrant students during the summer months! The teacher developed a “study guide” that we mailed to the students, but unlike a traditional correspondence course, this guide was designed to provide the visuals while the students were on the phone system with the teacher. The guide became the “blackboard” of the course. The teacher “worked” problems in the guide the same way he would in the classroom, one step at a time. The best part about that course was the byproduct. The students really learned the material, many of whom had previously failed the course. And they learned it better because they had to verbalize their answers – they had to explain in words how they solved a problem. Retention of the knowledge gained soared. During that same time period math teacher organizations began to tout the importance of more verbalization in the math classroom. To this day, besides the TeleCampus, that Algebra Across the Wire program is the one of which I’m most proud

Dr. Saba:
You have seen the development and growth of the Texas Telecampus from its inception. What is the main objective of the institution, and what are some of your immediate goals

Dr. Hardy:
The TeleCampus is not really an institution. Within the UT System, there are 15 independent member insitutions. The TeleCampus sits (literally) in the center of the System, and serves as a centralized utility for online courses, programs, services, training, etc. In a nutshell, the mission of the TeleCampus is to extend the educational reach of the UT System via our online programs. Since our courses are taught by campus faculty, and because we do not award credit or confer degrees, we are not viewed as a competitive entity within the System. Rather, we are considered a support unit that allows our institutions greater opportunities to reach more students, and that helps them move quality online programs out the door faster.

You know, I think there are two issues related to goals for the TeleCampus. I think that two of our goals will always be “immediate” and probably never completed: to increase access and to foster collaborations for online program development. Increasing access to higher education opportunities is why we show up at work everyday. The TeleCampus staff is very passionate about this part of our mission and it reflects in how we do business. Collaboration has been a key to our success in that we have brought faculty and staff together from across the UT System in a way that was unprecedented. So, those two goals will always be on our list

As far as new goals, we see an immediate need to help our campus faculty understand hybrid courses. Right now we have faculty who want to use the online environment to reduce seat time in the classroom, but many have never received any training on how best to use the tools. We feel that the TeleCampus can provide training for hybrid course development for these faculty and have set that as one of our goals for the year. Taking them beyond just using a discussion board or slapping a few PowerPoint slides into their instance of Blackboard or WebCT would be a great improvement. I’m not saying that’s a bad way to get started, but without training those faculty will never really unleash the power they have on their desktop and online.

Another immediate goal is to continue redesigning courses in our programs. This summer we launched our first redesign project with six of the MBA Online courses. These courses were designed and produced in 1997 and 1998, back in the days where we couldn’t imagine having more than 25 students in an online course. Today, the reality is that we are at capacity in the MBA program (and several others), and 25 is no longer the magic number. At the same time, however, we don’t expect our faculty to handle the level of interaction we demand in our courses, maintain the quality of the content in those courses, and increase the class size without making some big changes. We took at long look at the work Carol Twigg has done with the Pew-funded projects, and at other research on redesign, and came up with our own model to help faculty take their class size to 50+ by creating new strategies for content delivery, interaction and assessment. As a result of this first project, our goal for the next few years is to help faculty across all of our programs redesign their courses. Some might say, “Just hire some adjuncts and create multiple sections.” And, in some cases, adding adjuncts or teachign assistants does help — but in our minds that’s only a band-aid, or short-term solution. We’re trying to jump ahead and establish longer-term solutions for our courses. In addition, accreditation standards frown on having too many adjuncts. Again, we’re looking for that long-term solution. Redesign seems to work.

Dr. Saba:
Distance teaching is still new to many faculty, although it has a long history. How have you been able to motivate some of the faculty to become interested and involved in distance teaching?

Dr. Hardy:
That’s a really good question. I’ll tell you how we got faculty motivated — we offered them something even better (for most faculty anyway) than money. We offered them time. When we started the TeleCampus, we knew we had to do something to get the faculty involved. So, we provided funding for course development. The funding was sent to the participating campus and then used to offset course release time or a summer salary while the faculty member developed his or her course. We also provided funding for course production. It was a hard lesson we learned that first year when some of the faculty insisted on handling their own production. Eight months into the development, we had faculty who had not written anything, but who had enjoyed a great time playing with the course platform. From that point forward, we deliberately separated course development from course production. The portion of the funding for production is now channeled to our “partner” course production units on the campuses. Staff there work directly with the faculty member to help put the course online, and the faculty member focuses on content, strategies and pedagogy — as they should.

We also provide a great deal of hand-holding and support before, during and after the course is complete. And we do everything we can to ensure that their courses function and look the very best they can. For example, once a faculty member has “finished” a course, we print every page of the course and provide that to professional copy-editors who we work with under contract. These editors go through the course just as they would a book or manuscript, complete with red marks and questions. Those pages are then returned to the faculty member who then determines which edits to accept and which to reject — again, just like they would a to-be-published text. In addition, the TeleCampus and our campus partners conduct a full technology review on every course every semester it is offered. This means that every page is viewed, every link is checked, every test is taken, and every interactive element of the course is engaged. Both of these services give faculty the confidence that when their course goes up, it’s clean (grammatically) and that everything works.

So, I guess that while providing a level of funding to give them time to develop a course motivates them to get involved, our services around the entire process keeps them here.

Dr. Saba:
Distance education has grown and developed in recent years, perhaps even beyond the expectation of some its most creative advocates, such as you. What are some of the difficulties that you see in its progress in the next few years?

Dr. Hardy:
Yes, I agree, the growth of DE has amazed me, and I suppose we can thank the Internet for the explosion. But that exploding growth has had its own issues. I think that one of the difficulties we will see in the next few years (we’re already seeing it) is the assumption that we can mass produce. There is still a huge learning curve for administrators who look at online education (in particular) as something anyone can develop, and develop well. They don’t seem to value the importance of quality design within a course, and many look only at the number of students you can now enroll since the course in on the Internet. Expectations that faculty can work with 100 graduate students in an online course just because it’s delivered electronically is absurd. But, when it comes to dollars and cents, strange things can happen on a campus. Here at the TeleCampus, we have been fairly successful in convincing our stakeholders that we are more about quality courses and programs, not just numbers. However, the question is still raised, “Why don’t we have more students?” We’re running approximately 10,000 to 12,000 enrollments this year, and we could enroll more — IF we changed our quality standards. We grow enrollments every year, just maybe not as fast as some other organizations. But we have high course and program completion rates, and that’s a direct result of the quality factor. We just have to continue to educate folks.

The other area of difficulty (as I see it) will have to do with the roles of distance education professionals, particularly in higher education. Last month in Madison I touched on this as well, and I bring it up here because it does worry me. We in this field have always been on the outside looking in when it came to being “accepted” by the traditionalists. So, we did everything we could to prove that distance education can be high quality and that there is value in using technology appropriately to reach students outside the classroom. Distance education for the most part has now become mainstream on many campuses. Sure, there may still be a DE office, but all of the face-to-face faculty are using the same course management systems to create hybrid courses, and they’re using the web to enhance their classes. They are using more and more technology in the classroom than they ever have in the past. No longer are any of these things solely part of distance education. There’s a huge convergence happening, and it’s certainly not a bad thing. But I worry about those in our field who have always been distance education managers or directors — experts if you will — who are no longer recognized as the people who really know what is going on. And because some administrators think all of this is just “magic,” they fail to recognize the value in the distance education professionals on staff. I think it will be critical for the real experts to make themselves more visible so when a convergence takes place on their campuses, their names are at the top of the leadership lists

Dr. Saba:
what are some of the prospects and opportunities that you see in the immediate future for the Texas Telecampus in particular, and for the field in general?

Dr. Hardy:
Recently, we have been looking more and more toward certificates and other credentialing types of courses. The TeleCampus has focused primarily on degree programs and tracks of courses in speciality areas.

Dr. Saba:
Thank you for your time. I am sure our readers will find your remarks very interesting and informative.

Darcy Walsh Hardy, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director, UT TeleCampus
The University of Texas System

Dr. Darcy W. Hardy is Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of the UT TeleCampus, the virtual university of The University of Texas System that supports online delivery of System-wide collaborative academic programs from UT institutions. The UT TeleCampus(www.telecampus.utsystem.edu) serves as a portal for students and faculty to access courses, programs and virtually all services necessary for success when teaching and learning online.

Darcy received her PhD in Instructional Technology from The University of Texas at Austin in 1992. She was a founding member and is a past president of the Texas Distance Learning Association (TxDLA) and has served two separate terms on the TxDLA Board of Directors. Currently, she serves as President of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), where she has been a member of the Board of Directors since 1999. She is the immediate past-chair of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Distance Education Advisory Council and has previously served on the Texas Association for Educational Technology Board of Directors. She is a past chair of the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) Division of Educational Telecommunications. From 2001-2003, Dr. Hardy served as the onsite host for the Institute for Managing and Developing e-Learning (MDE), presented annually by the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET). She is also a member of the WCET Steering Committee, representing the Southern Caucus.

Recently, Darcy received the 2003 Gayle B. Childs Award from UCEA for exemplary long-term leadership, scholarship, and applied contributions to the field of continuing and distance learning. In 1998, she received the UCEA Nofflet Williams Up-and-Coming Leadership Award and the TxDLA Don Foshee Leadership Award. Other honors include the 2000 UCEA Charles Wedemeyer Publication Award as a co-author of Teaching at a Distance: A Handbook for Instructors. Under her direction, the UT TeleCampus has been honored with over a dozen regional and national awards from such organizations as USDLA, UCEA, and the International Association of Business Communicators for courses, programming, communications, and faculty excellence. The UT TeleCampus has been recognized nationally as a model for multi-campus, collaborative online programming.

Dr. Hardy serves on several editorial boards and has delivered hundreds of presentations, keynotes and workshops on distance education. As a result, she is nationally recognized as a leader in distance education management, virtual university issues and collaborative program development. She resides in the Texas Hill Country city of San Marcos with her husband, two teenage daughters, and a host of pets.