Adams State's "Egregious, Unethical" Online Program Should Be Scrapped, Report Says

An outside consultant brought in to evaluate the distance learning program at Adams State University has recommended that the program in its current form be abolished, citing a range of problems — from poor supervision and a staggering rate of incomplete grades to professors collecting substantial extra pay for teaching online courses while providing little or no interaction with students.  

"The egregious, diverse, and arguably unethical nature of the findings" are serious enough to jeopardize the accreditation of the Alamosa-based university, consultant David Mathieu concludes in his report, which ASU has posted on its website. "There is, in fact, a culture of questionable academic practice that appears to have been in place for many years."

The report is the latest blow to ASU's reputation, following recent campus protests over the banning of a former film instructor, Danny Ledonne, who'd been critical of ASU hiring policies; in July that ban was lifted as part of a $100,000 settlement of a civil-rights lawsuit brought by the ACLU on Ledonne's behalf.

Last February the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits post-secondary educational institutions in the region, put ASU on probation because of concerns about its Office of Extended Studies, which offers a wide range of online and correspondence courses. Those concerns had been triggered largely by a 2014 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Confessions of a Fixer," which detailed how easy it was for a former coach to sign up for various ASU online courses, posing as athletes at other schools who needed the credits to maintain their eligibility. 

Mathieu, who visited the ASU campus last month and interviewed numerous individuals involved in the OES program, found that the problems pre-dated the current campus administration and were rooted in the program's "increasingly independent" status. The program's liberal use of open-enrollment policies encouraged students who needed quick credits to enroll near the end of semesters; alarmingly, nearly three-fourths of all students enrolled in distance courses ended up with grades of "incomplete," suggesting it was more important to many students to appear to be taking classes in the short run rather than to actually complete them.  

The report also found that faculty who eagerly pursued online course duties could more than double their pay: "Many members of the faculty and some members of the staff received in excess of $100,000 in total compensation, with several individuals in the $150,000 range."

The high pay didn't mean that the online students were getting much individualized attention, though; a review of "live" and recently completed courses and student evaluations found "virtually no evidence of student engagement by the faculty in terms of student discussions, regular course announcements, assignment feedback, or answering student email. The majority of courses appeared to be virtually self-taught."  

ASU officials are awaiting a comprehensive evaluation by the Higher Learning Commission; a final decision on the university's future accreditation status is not expected until 2018. "While the university is not bound by this report, the administration takes the findings of the report seriously and will be considering the findings and appropriate responses through the lens of full HLC compliance, our top academic priority," Chris Gilmer, ASU's vice-president for academic affairs, declared in a statement on the school's website. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast