Cover Story:

At the Union Institute, learning is as easy as the touch of a mouse

When you say "online classroom" in Cincinnati, you're really talking the Union Institute. Yes, most local colleges and universities — the Art Academy, Cincinnati Bible College, Cincinnati State, Mount St. Joseph, Hebrew Union, Miami, Northern Kentucky, Thomas More, UC, Wilmington College and Xavier — have some sort of Web site or e-mail capability. (We list their sites and e-mail addresses in the directory of colleges on page 29.)

Some schools even offer limited Internet coursework or other high-tech methods of learning. UC's branch campus at Clermont College in Batavia, for instance, provides a Telecourse program that allows students to study such topics as Child Care Administration and Effective Oral Communication in their homes via cable television.

But few local colleges have as active an online studies program as the Union Institute, located in a historic Tudor building in Walnut Hills. Talk about getting "wired" for exams.

At the Union Institute — a private university that offers bachelor's degrees and Ph.D.s — most of the 2,200 students are in their 30s and 40s (the typical undergraduate is 38 years old). The flexible "university without walls" offers these busy working professionals the chance to complete a degree while maintaining a career. Students from all 50 states are currently enrolled, including educators, law enforcement officers, health care administrators, substance abuse counselors, government officials, corporate managers and more.

The most frequently chosen majors? Psychology, business, education and criminal justice.

Students, who are as likely to be from across the world as across town, work one-on-one with faculty, primarily by phone and computer modem. Notable grads include author Rita Mae Brown (Rubyfruit Jungle), pioneer child care author Grace Mitchell (who's also the mother of attorney F. Lee Bailey) and Clarissa Estes, author of the bestselling Women Who Run With Wolves.

The Union Institute Center for Distance Learning is a pioneer in the virtual classroom, using computer technology to deliver the professor into the student's home. Students are provided access to faculty on their own schedule — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — from virtually anywhere.

"We serve those who are working full-time or have families and don't have the luxury of stopping by our offices to see faculty," says Dr. Tim Mott, Dean of the College of Undergraduate Studies and director of the Institute's Center for Distance Learning. About 50 long-distance learners are enrolled for degrees entirely online, "though there are lots of our learners who are doing some part of their coursework through distance learning.

"We blend distance learning strategies with all of our learners throughout the system," adds Mott. "We were already ideally set up for distance learning because we were already based on individualized tutorial instruction, one on one. We also have group computer conferencing on our Web site. It keeps our learners from around the country from being isolated from their learner peers."

The program's flexibility provides more than mere convenience. Most larger, traditional universities aren't wired for quick responsive changes that business and industry often require.

The Union Institute itself was founded by 10 college presidents in 1964 as a vehicle for educational research and experimentation and has focused its efforts on programs for the highly motivated adult learner. The institute uses the word "learner" rather than "student" to emphasize its objective of active rather than passive learning.

The curriculum and students alike are nontraditional, with an emphasis on self-directed study. In fact, when U.S. News & World Report compiled a list of schools with the highest proportion of classes with less than 20 students, The Union Institute ranked No. 1 (99 percent of its classes), beating out Yale and Harvard.

The Graduate College in Cincinnati confers only doctorate degrees. Undergraduate programs for Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees are also offered here and in Miami, Sacramento, San Diego and Los Angeles. Both graduate and undergraduate students generally enter as mature adults. Admission for graduate school, in fact, is conditional upon demonstration of extensive prior learning from work or other experience or study. A learner's committee might grant credit for that prior learning.

For undergraduates, programs in 50 areas of concentration are individually designed with the help of a full-time professor who serves as academic advisor. Courses emphasize active problem solving in a seminar rather than passive note-taking in class. "Learning Agreements," which include group agreements and individual agreements, outline specific academic goals and objectives. Students have the option to choose letter grades or receive narrative evaluations of work performed under these agreements. An undergraduate's entire degree plan culminates in completion of a senior project that can take many forms but is expected to include an oral presentation to a final review committee.

The Graduate College likewise requires individually tailored plans. Each learner's program is developed in consultation with faculty and advisers. A faculty committee helps evaluate learners' past and present learning to ensure the work is of doctoral quality.

No credits are counted. Instead, learners move through a series of stages, with faculty members serving as facilitators.

THE UNION INSTITUTE CENTER FOR DISTANCE LEARNING can be reached by e-mail, of course ([email protected]). Or you can contact the center via the old-fashioned way: 861-6400 or 800-486-3116. The Web site is undergrad/distant.html