Students at The University of Texas-Pan American will have easier access to their online courses, thanks to a grant from AT&T.
AT&T has donated $150,000 to The University of Texas-Pan American's Center for Online Learning, Teaching and Technology to help the center expand its capabilities in offering online courses.
The gift will allow the center to upgrade its Blackboard learning management system to provide access to online classes through mobile devices such as smartphones and personal digital assistants. The University also plans to expand its presence on Second Life, the three-dimensional virtual reality program.
Almost all the UT System schools and other universities as well have Blackboard or other systems, said Dr. Jane LeMaster, the center's executive director.
The upgrades will allow the University to offer students more flexibility in taking classes online, she said.
"That is what we must do, particularly here, because the majority of our students are commuter students," said LeMaster. "So what we have to do is make it easier for them."
Representatives from AT&T presented the check to UTPA President Dr. Robert S. Nelsen Friday, May 21 at the center. Joining Nelsen at the event were State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, State Rep. Aaron Peña, members of the UTPA Foundation, as well as the center's staff and UTPA administrators.
Nelsen praised the center for the work it has done to provide online learning opportunities to UTPA students and said the grant will help the University better serve its students and community.
"This office and this group of people are representing the future for UT Pan Am, for the Valley and for the nation," Nelsen said. "Distance education is part of the future. They understand that it is another step to help our students succeed and they're dedicated to those students."
Yno Gonzalez, AT&T senior vice president-network operations planning, said what set UTPA apart from other grant applications the company received was that the University's proposal shows it cares about its students.
"What you are doing here is such important work," Gonzalez said. "The difference is the difference you're making in the lives of these young people. And I need to applaud you because that is what sets your application and obviously the award above others."
The state legislators commended the University and AT&T for expanding educational opportunities for students.
"I've always said that education is the best equalizer we have in our society," said Hinojosa. "Education gives you knowledge and knowledge gives you power. And Pan American is so dedicated to this community in giving students the opportunity to get an education."
Peña said The University of Texas System helped him finish high school through distance learning programs and he sees many people in the area who have benefited from such opportunities.
"It's really important that we adapt to the new world and this is part of that adaptation," Peña said.
The University's enrollment has grown by 40 percent in the past decade.
Though UTPA has built new facilities to accommodate students, the population growth and the needs associated with it have outpaced the physical building space the University can offer. Plus, expanding online courses and features can better serve students, according to the center's grant proposal.
Though just 79 percent of UTPA students have broadband Internet access, most students and faculty have cell phones, the proposal states.
"We have to keep up with that demand," said Edgar Gonzalez, the center's assistant director of instructional technology.
About 16,000 students, or 90 percent of UTPA's student population, was enrolled in online courses, whether fully online or a hybrid of online and face-to-face classes, in Spring 2010. The University offers more than 100 courses that are completely online, 55 hybrid courses and 938 classes that use the Internet in some capacity, according to statistics provided by the center.
For more information about the Center for Online Learning, Teaching and Technology, visit http://portal.utpa.edu/utpa_main/daa_home.