- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Two new online learning initiatives are hoping to recruit Arkansans who began college careers but fell short of earning a degree.

Arkansas Tech University this month launched a new college, the eTech College, to streamline services for students who take classes online. The University of Arkansas System will begin taking applications Sept. 1 for “eVersity,” a separate university that offers lower cost classes for students who complete degrees entirely online.

Organizers of both programs hope to serve the estimated 350,000 Arkansans who started college but never earned a bachelor’s degree. They also hope to overcome anticipated hurdles in a state with a large rural population that ranks low for high-speed Internet access.

Hanna Norton, the dean of the eTech College at Russellville’s Arkansas Tech, said the initiative is consolidating existing resources and hoping to offer a streamlined experience for online learners.

“My goal is to help students through this, to hold their hand from the moment they contact us, all the way through graduation,” she said.

Arkansas Tech has already helped 1,071 students with previous college experience finish degrees through its Bachelor of Professional Studies program since 2010.

Norton said the university trains professors to design engaging course material that stays below a certain size: large files take longer to download and increase the likelihood that students will have computer problems.

The university also suggests what kinds of computers and Internet access students should have before enrolling. Norton said only a few of the students who have dropped out of the courses have cited technology problems as the reason.

“We did surveys of those people … it wasn’t a matter of connectivity, it was life stepping in the way,” she said. “It was a ‘Hallelujah’ moment for us to say, ‘OK, it’s not the technology. We’re OK.’”

Michael Moore, the vice president for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas System, said his staff has been working to ensure technological issues, “life” or poverty don’t get in the way.

For starters, Moore said, the university will charge $495 per course but under a waiver from the Arkansas Legislature the eVersity won’t charge fees for health centers, materials or other facilities not used by online students.

The eVersity program is also designed in small increments- one course every six weeks with a one-week break between. A person with a job, children and other responsibilities can focus on learning one subject area at a time and not spend hours every day with course work, Moore said.

Students will also go through a free orientation to assess how they learn and what challenges they’re facing.

“We want to learn what kinds of messages or encouragements will prompt individual students to continue the work,” Moore said.

Students who attend classes on a campus use the state’s high-capacity Internet infrastructure shared by universities. But according to the U.S. Census, about 38 percent of Arkansans don’t have access to high speed Internet because of cost or availability.

“This is where motivation to get the degree is going to come in to play,” Moore said. “There will be literally a map of every county in the state, where we’ll show free points of Internet access whether it’s a church, a hotel, a restaurant.”

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