In a May 3 memo, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan laid out an academic strategy to the leader of the Board of Visitors, Helen Dragas. In that document, she described a plan to eventually convert many general-education courses at U-Va. to “hybrids,” offered partly online.

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan addresses supporters outside the Rotunda after her June 26 reinstatement. (Steve Helber/AP)

John Simon, the provost, told me in early June that Sullivan planned radical changes, particularly for the 100-level courses many students now complete via Advanced Placement while still in high school. The hybrid courses would use technology to replace some human labor, freeing faculty to focus on third- and fourth-year students.

Nancy N. Rooker, a U-Va. alumna and parent, wrote a letter to Sullivan and members of the Board of Visitors responding to that plan. Her letter, after the jump.

Dear Friends at UVA,

I am an alumna of the University, and my two sons are current undergraduate students. With such a personal investment in UVA, I was relieved when President Sullivan was reinstated but still felt apprehensive about Rector Dragas’s “ten points” and where they would lead us.
My apprehension grew into alarm when I read in today’s Washington Post about the plans to make many introductory courses hybrid. Have any of these people ever tried to take an online course? I think we would all agree, if choosing between small or large classes, that small classes provide better learning with more personal interaction between professors and students and with a greater sense of accountability felt by students for their work. Although I have felt unhappy about some of the larger classes at UVA, I have comforted myself with the knowledge that students also had weekly discussion groups and the opportunity to seek out their professors outside of class. But online classes discourage interaction between students and professors and make the issue of accountability a laughable matter. My sons never liked online classes; it is BORING to watch a lecture online and too easy to get a sandwich in the middle of everything because, after all, who is watching? Can you imagine students, who are already having a hard time attending to lectures in person actually making the effort to sit through an online lecture in their rooms or at the library with all of the attendant distractions of computer activity, friends, music, etc.?
How does this possibly fit with Mr. Jefferson’s idea of having students and professors living side by side in his academical village? What is really going on here? The Post article referenced the success Virginia Tech has experienced with online learning in their introductory math classes, stating that, for “the most part,” student performance has improved. But I teach math and I know that not every student is a computer geek, not every student would prefer staring at a screen and responding to software prompts to discover his weaknesses in math; in fact students need interaction of a human sort to like a subject, much less learn it.

My younger son, at least, benefited enormously from the presence and influence of his favorite math professor his last two years in high school. My older son even persuaded his geology professor at NVCC to use the old chalkboard instead of PowerPoint to accompany his lectures because my son and one of his classmates agreed the former helped them to attend to lectures better. Anyone should realize this. With the old chalk talk, the student’s brain is in suspense, linking the lecture with the writing at the board as it appears, and thus staying on task. But given a PowerPoint with the outline in full view, a student is more easily distracted — copying the words from the screen, perhaps while his mind wanders to his evening plans, without feeling the need to engage his mind with the lecture since he will, after all, have the PowerPoint copied in full. But, of course, copying mindlessly does not induce learning, and the optimum moment for combining auditory, kinesthetic and visual means to learn (aided by the opportunity to ask questions) has been squandered by inattentiveness.

But this is nothing compared to the inattentiveness that online classes will invite from students.

Yet another trend in American education, and everyone is ready to jump on the bandwagon. The question should be, “Which methods of teaching and learning have proven to be successful over the ages?” From the University’s own interactive guide to the Rotunda:

“The academical village is based on the assumption that the life of the mind is the pursuit of all participants in the University, that learning is a lifelong and shared process, and that interaction between scholars and students enlivens the pursuit of knowledge.”

Why must you diminish the interaction between scholars and students in this way? I understand; it’s financial, right? Will you become a university that serves only its graduate students? Must you diminish the value of a UVA undergraduate degree even further after this summer’s fiasco? I beg you to reconsider. I, for one, feel as if my son’s undergraduate education has been hijacked and we are still expected to pay for the ride.


Nancy N. Rooker