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Mississippi University for Women Bets on Online Education

COLUMBUS, Miss. – Mississippi University for Women’s turnaround is about to begin, but it won’t happen on campus. It will happen online.

Dr. Bill Mayfield, dean of the School of Professional Studies at MUW and director of its new e-college, says plans are in motion to make MUW a major player in the burgeoning online education movement, beating state schools like Mississippi State University, University of Mississippi and University of Southern Mississippi to the well.

MUW’s yet-to-be-named e-college is the product of Mayfield’s business experience—he’s the former dean of the business college at the Indiana Institute of Technology—and the vision of outgoing MUW president Claudia Limbert to expand the school’s reach beyond its geographic area.

“This is something we’ve been wanting to do for the eight years I’ve been here. With Dr. Mayfield coming (in July 2009), we were able to form an e-college under his direction,”’ Limbert said.

The plug was nearly pulled on the project in 2009 as state budget cuts forced MUW to cut all nonessential programs. Limbert and Mayfield fought to keep the project alive, and now Mayfield believes it may defray the effects of those cuts in the near future.

Through recent partnerships with Mississippi Delta Community College and East Mississippi Community College, Mayfield has managed to recruit 50 students to enroll in the e-college’s first round of six-week courses in August. And that’s with no marketing budget. If the e-college can attract 120 students by next year, Mayfield says their tuition could defray hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mayfield has some experience in this field. In just six months at Indiana Tech, he grew the school’s e-college from 300 students to 1,600. His grassroots approach now includes reaching out to the community colleges whose students will be able to take immediate advantage of the e-courses.

It works like this: Any student with an associate’s degree in a technological field from a junior college can transfer 43 hours of credit to MUW’s e-college and complete a bachelor’s of technology degree in just 18 months. All from home.

Mayfield is well aware of the stigma associated with many online universities, such as the University of Phoenix, as substandard educational organizations. But he points to the University of Phoenix’s enrollment—more than 420,000 a year ago—as proof of the paradigm shift from on-campus learning to web-based learning.

“The University of Phoenix is as good as a lot of our state institutions in this country,” Mayfield said.

MUW intends to defeat the stigma by hiring online instructors with impeccable credentials. The school’s reputation has long rested with the quality of its professors, and Mayfield says the e-college will be no different. He’s still sifting through a stack of 175 resumes, which includes graduates from Harvard University and the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania.

The foothold with community colleges serves two purposes. Not only are students with an associate’s degree in technology the most likely candidates to jump at a short path to a bachelor’s or even online master’s degree, but they’re more likely to be tied to their home communities through work and family and unable to attend conventional classes.

“The people that graduate from MDCC are anchored in the Delta. They can’t get a degree unless they pick up, suck down a serious load of debt, and come here,” Mayfield said.

The e-college will be more than online reading assignments and timed multiple choice tests. Most aspects of conventional classes will be replicated, whether through cooperative online group-work akin to video-gamers playing “Halo,” or posting presentations to YouTube, or auditory learners listening to lectures via Mp3s.

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