The end of the bricks and mortar era

If you know that using Blackboard doesn't involve chalk, congratulations. With good grades, you're ready to attend UNCO.

You haven't heard of Blackboard? And does UNCO sound like the latest satellite campus of North Carolina's university system, the one located in Ocracoke? (Meet me after class at Howard's Pub!)


Blackboard is the format of choice to deliver distance learning.

UNCO stands for the University of North Carolina online. It's located at (alas, nowhere near Ocracoke, but available everywhere in the world). And since its launch in July 2007, it has grown into the 7th largest of 17 state campuses.

There's a quiet sea change under way in higher education, and North Carolina is in the thick of it. It will change the way learning occurs and alter the way systems of higher education are organized.

Broadband, not bricks

Most important, it can shift costs away from bricks and mortar and toward technology – a fundamental change for asset-heavy public systems such as UNC.

To be precise, the 13,500 full-time equivalent students enrolled online at North Carolina's public universities are dispersed among the campuses, not literally attending a separate university. Yet the larger point stands.

Those numbers represent a significant increase in enrollment for the UNC system, the equivalent of adding a medium-sized campus.

The bricks and mortar would have cost an estimated $450 million, says the UNC system.

That's nearly a half-billion dollars that didn't have to pay for classrooms, for example.

Since 2000, North Carolinians spent $2.5 billion constructing new buildings and renovating outdated ones on its campuses. That unprecedented investment – the second such infusion of cash in two decades – changed the face of the state's university system.

At UNC Charlotte, $200 million of that money has built, among other things, a health and human sciences building, a performing arts hall and the new Lee College of Engineering.

The question is, can the state keep making that kind of investment? Significant growth in enrollment is forecast to continue.

“The needs are unlimited,” said Hannah Gage, chair of the UNC Board of Governors, which governs the system. “The resources are not.”

Distance learning will not replace the campus experience, especially for 18- and 19-yeard-olds. But many of the students enrolling online are mature students seeking higher degrees, second degrees or specialized courses. New thinking

The plan for UNCO is ambitious. Eventually, students attending college on one campus will be able to enroll online at another to take a class they need . There will be support centers for online students at community colleges. That kind of thinking can change things.

“One of our goals is to hold down bricks and mortar, and this is the way to do it,” said UNC President Erskine Bowles.

Expect other changes, too, as UNCO grows.

The development of campus communities nowhere near campuses – communities defined by interest, not place.

The breakdown of the traditional territorial lines that divide the state's campuses.

But the biggest impact may be a shift from big-ticket investments in construction to constant investments in technology.

In the past, providing North Carolina's citizens ready access to a college education has meant building campuses and buildings, an expensive undertaking for a not-so-wealthy state.

In the future, ready access will rest increasingly on building relationships and connections.