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Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants 25 percent of all credits earned through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to come from online courses by 2015. David Olson, MnSCU's board chairman, joined Pawlenty at news conferences Thursday announcing the plan. (Scott Wente/St. Paul Bureau)

Pawlenty pushes online classes

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ST. PAUL - Students increasingly want Internet-based classes, so Minnesota colleges should expand those opportunities, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said.

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The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has agreed to work toward a Pawlenty goal that by 2015, 25 percent of all credits earned at MnSCU campuses will come from online courses.

Students are encouraged to take more online courses, and the MnSCU system will be asked to make additional online classes available.

Classes connecting students and instructors via the Internet are attractive because they offer convenience, new educational opportunities and greater access, Pawlenty said.

Many college students are savvy with computers and technology.

"They are thirsting for more opportunity" to apply that technology toward education, Pawlenty said in announcing the goal Thursday. "This revolution is coming, particularly in higher education, and the question for Minnesota is, Are we going to lead it or are we going to follow? We choose to lead."

Each of the system's 30 colleges and seven universities is asked to increase its online credits, but the goal applies to the system average. Last academic year, 9 percent of the system's registered credits were through online courses.

The governor also wants the University of Minnesota to meet the goal. University spokesman Dan Wolter said the system is expanding its online learning, but was not familiar with the details of Pawlenty's goal.

The University of Minnesota must balance demand for expanded Internet-based learning with traditional classroom and laboratory experiences that make it a leading research institution, Wolter said.

"We're not an online degree mill," he said.

Pawlenty said campuses' online course growth should be considered when they seek state money for their operating budgets and public funds for new buildings.

Two-thirds of MnSCU students who take online courses are women, and 62 percent of students enrolled in Internet-based classes live outside the Twin Cities.

Spotty residential broadband Internet service in some rural areas remains a concern, Pawlenty said, but it should not stunt online-course growth because that Internet service typically is available at local universities and libraries.

"So where does that save them the time and money and the mileage?" asked Rep. Tom Rukavina, D-Virginia, the Minnesota House higher education chairman.

MnSCU board Chairman David Olson said he does not expect the initiative will save the system money in the short term, but it could trim future costs.

"If the students demand it, we feel we need to deliver it," Olson said.

Rukavina said online learning will grow, but it is not a cheaper alternative to traditional learning, in part because of required technology upgrades.

"These bells and whistles cost money," Rukavina said.

Additionally, Pawlenty proposes that Minnesota's high school graduation requirements be changed to mandate students take an online class. Doing so could net them an additional $150 toward a scholarship program, if lawmakers agree with Pawlenty's plan.

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The percentage of online credits taken varies greatly among MnSCU campuses, and some institutions already meet the goal.

For instance, nearly 28 percent of the credits taken at Northwest Technical College in Bemidji were through online courses. But at Pine Technology College in Pine City, credits earned through online courses make up only 1.4 percent of total credits.

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