March/April 2000 // Virtual University
Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University:
A New Utility Company in Kentucky
by Mary Beth Susman, Gene Ranvier, Ling-yuh (Miko) W. Pattie, and Sue Patrick
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Mary Beth Susman, Gene Ranvier, Ling-yuh (Miko) W. Pattie, and Sue Patrick "Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University:
A New Utility Company in Kentucky" The Technology Source, March/April 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Is it a portal? Is it a clearinghouse? Is it a stand-alone institution? These are the questions we hear most often in reference to the new Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University. The answer is "none of the above," or "all of the above plus some."

The KCVU is best described as a new utility company for Kentucky citizens and higher education institutions, connecting customers easily and rationally to resource providers and vice versa. We envision potential students who want to plug in a laptop and turn on the power—power to make informed choices about potential colleges, view and understand certificate and degree program opportunities, read course descriptions and faculty bios, apply for admission, register, and attend class, perhaps at several different institutions simultaneously. Additionally, we provide online financial aid applications, academic advising, bookstores, library resources, and study groups. In other words, the students carry a college education in their laptops.

Students can apply for admission to KCVU, register and attend class, and go to the library or bookstore simply by logging on to the KCVU Web site. Reference librarians, a call center, and a helpdesk are also available at this site twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Created and funded by the Kentucky General Assembly, KCVU is an agency of the Council on Postsecondary Education. The council receives policy advice from a committee composed of institutional presidents, executive cabinet members, and corporate leaders.

KCVU is separate from other universities yet aims to consolidate the online efforts of Kentucky's postsecondary institutions through collaboration and shared resources. KCVU also conducts statewide faculty development and training programs in electronic learning (accessible on the KCVU Web site); manages statewide contracts for computer services such as platforms, databases, and Internet access; hosts courseware; provides one-stop customer services; and offers round-the-clock technical help. KCVU does not plan to be an accredited institution; accreditation resides with the Kentucky colleges providing the curriculum.

KCVU was created by Governor Paul Patton with successful legislation as an innovation in postsecondary education in Kentucky. Battling discouraging statistics on the number of baccalaureate degree-bearing citizens (Kentucky ranks 42nd out of 50 states) and citizens with high school diplomas (Kentucky ranks 46th) (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999), Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education embarked on a rigorous strategy to increase enrollment and retention, reflecting the Governor's and legislature’s efforts to stimulate the economy by providing educational access to working citizens.

The overriding question that drives all policies and procedures is "How does the customer make sense of that?" To that end, we have put all of the processes for matriculation as well as actual courses and faculty contacts at one Web site. We are available to all private, public, and proprietary colleges of Kentucky. The records of students registering at KCVU are electronically downloaded and synchronized with each participating institution's student information system so that enrollees become regular students of their chosen college(s). Students receive transcripts from the colleges in which they are enrolled.

Developing a statewide virtual university that seeks to connect individuals and colleges exposes the bureaucratic quagmires that higher education has developed. Higher education policies have traditionally employed a "restraint of trade" ideology. Differing application and registration procedures, courses lacking transferability, and complex tuition and fee policies were so difficult for KCVU to sort out that one wonders how a mobile student could manage them.

KCVU has simplified these concerns through its single application and registration process. Previously, students who wished to apply to four or five universities needed to complete many application forms and pay several fees. Now through KCVU, students need fill out only one application form, pay one application fee, and complete one registration form. Additionally, each institution now honors reciprocity agreements with the others. This recognition has created a situation in which there is no distinction between in-state and out-of-state tuition for parts of surrounding states and some non-contiguous states.

KCVU is attempting to eliminate trade barriers in the area of transferability as well. Kentucky has developed a transferability matrix that serves students well temporarily, but it requires students to complete whole sequences of courses for unspecified credit and does not allow for course by course transferability. We at KCVU are expanding student opportunities by signing articulation and transfer agreements with many online programs from out-of-state universities. We are discussing residency requirements and limits to the number of transfer credits, a necessary exercise for the future student who has national and international opportunities for education.

An orbital shift is taking place in the traditional practices of higher education. Rather than remaining institution-centered, the university is becoming student-centered. It is ironic that these programs are called "distance learning," for students enrolled in them experience the university at their fingertips.

Enrollment and Demographics

In its inaugural semester, fall 1999, KCVU enrolled 265 students (324 enrollments) in twenty-one courses. Each course was included in one of seven certificate and degree programs. In the spring semester of 2000, 1,732 students have registered in about 140 courses (2,029 enrollments).

KCVU has successfully reached its target market, nontraditional students in the 23-50 age range. These students make up more than 70% of the spring 2000 enrollment. The student gender ratio also reflects the significant appeal that KCVU has for women in the targeted age range; female registration has outpaced that of males by more than 2-to-1 for the spring 2000 term.

KCVU is also meeting its goal of providing all Kentuckians with access to higher education. In-state students registered in the spring of 2000 represent 116 of the state's 120 counties. Out-of-state registration has also increased from eight non-resident students from four states in the fall of 1999 to 122 students from eighteen states and seven foreign countries registered for classes currently.

Undergraduates make up 82% of KCVU's spring 2000 students. Graduate students represent 16%, and extended education students comprise 2%. Students are registered for a total of 5,890 credit hours.

Were These Students Already Enrolled on a Campus or Are They New Students?

Without the full data (statewide reports are not due from colleges until later in the spring), early assessment indicates that in the first semester, 80% of the 234 students were new to postsecondary education, while the reverse occurred in the spring. There are two speculative reasons for this abrupt shift. First, the fall semester was a pilot term, and only full degree or certificate programs were accepted by KCVU. In the spring, with faculty who were trained or in training, we wanted to provide as many Internet offerings as possible and permitted individual courses whether they were part of a full degree program or not. Full degree programs attract populations who are excluded from campus-based programs, and individual courses attract students already on campus trying to fill a schedule. We have not instituted a rigorous marketing campaign, but it is likely that the population most likely to have heard of KCVU opportunities were those already on campus.

What Do Kentucky Institutions Think of the Rapid Increase in KCVU Enrollments?

Feelings are mixed when it comes to the success of KCVU. Some believe online courses steal students away from traditional classrooms. But both on-campus and online students belong to institutions. More education is needed about the integration of electronic learning into traditional education.

Reports of estimated gross revenues from these enrollments have caused consternation. Some administrative leaders take exception to the reporting of college revenues, fearing such reports may be misconstrued as net revenues. But all revenue flows to the institutions; KCVU takes no part of tuition or fees. Our intention at KCVU is to show that there are prodigious and early revenues to offset development and release time costs that institutions incur.

KCVU Student Survey Reveals High Satisfaction

In December 1999, KCVU’s Director of Marketing posted an evaluation survey on the site for our charter class students to gauge student satisfaction levels and solicit input to help enhance the KCVU experience for students. Our most heartening reports were the ones in which 87% told us that KCVU met or exceeded their expectations and 82% said they would take another KCVU class. Over 80% of our respondents were positive with respect to instructor feedback time, ease of access, helpfulness of HelpDesk, and amount of work required. Our lowest satisfaction rate (78%) was in the amount of interaction with other students. In response, we will accelerate faculty training by creating group activities using Internet discussion and document sharing, journal sharing, and peer review to increase student interaction.

Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual Library

The Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual Library was officially launched November 1, 1999. KCVL is free to all Kentucky citizens, whether or not they are registered at KCVU. Since inauguration, KCVL has been inundated with users, an estimated eight million hits since November and twenty phone calls a day to reference librarians here at KCVU.

On behalf of all Kentucky libraries, KCVL successfully negotiated licensing agreements for thirty-two electronic databases with close to five thousand full-text journal and newspaper titles and eleven online library catalogs with close to ten million volumes. In addition to the licenses, KCVL has inaugurated the Ariel system, a feature which allows Internet faxing of journal articles held by Kentucky libraries, and is preparing to launch its statewide ground courier service in the summer of 2000. Furthermore, KCVL provides a self-paced online tutorial to assist students in accessing information housed in such areas as the Kentucky special collections and archives and provides a virtual reference desk for both library materials and online government information.

Kentucky Virtual High School

The Kentucky Virtual High School, whose inaugural semester was in the spring of 2000, offers fourteen courses in math, science, and foreign languages. Its first mission is to provide remote counties access to advanced courses. The model makes every high school virtual as well as land-based. All registration, grades, and server hosting data are electronically downloaded and sent to the appropriate high school so that the schools may monitor the virtual enrollment as well as on-site enrollment. In the fall of 2000, KVHS will provide educational access to adults seeking high school diplomas, incarcerated youth, home schoolers, and those in alternative education programs. The potential for increasing the high school completion rate is therefore enormous, and the virtual high school is immensely popular with the districts.

In Kentucky, the virtual university, library, and high school have been named "The Three Sisters." The integration of these virtual education programs and the significant support expressed by the legislature and citizens make this one of the most comprehensive state approaches to electronic learning in the U.S.

The Future of the Three Sisters

Electronic learning organizations are sprouting up throughout the U.S. as statewide systems. Because each is constructed differently, it is tempting to deem KCVU the first statewide virtual university of its kind. No one is sure, however, which educational model will be successful in meeting its goals. While we are optimistic about the Kentucky model and its early success, we strive to refine our operation to ensure its sustainability. Above all, we intend to maintain a small staff so that we can efficiently retain our flexibility. We uphold contact with our counterparts in the U.S. and abroad to learn about their approaches to challenges like ours, and we import, implement, or discard ideas, products, and services accordingly. Much like Internet companies, we at KCVU expect to evolve with customer demands.

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