A South Texas University Turns to Online Courses to Help Commuters,...

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

A South Texas University Turns to Online Courses to Help Commuters, Students in Mexico

By Sydney Johnson     Oct 4, 2017

A South Texas University Turns to Online Courses to Help Commuters, Students in Mexico

For the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, geography is everything. Split into two satellite campuses in South Texas—one in Edinburgh and another nearly 60 miles away in Brownsville—students and professors may commute more than an hour to get to their next class. And that’s just for those who live who live in the United States.

In Brownsville, a fence dividing the U.S. and Mexico runs visibly through the far-side of campus, and some students live south of the border. Though the Brownsville campus is just one freeway exit away from the national entrypoint, faculty say crossing can take over an hour on a busy day. That, plus the threat of heightened border security, can make attending school challenging, and intimidating, for some students. Increasingly, the university is turning to online classes to alleviate the struggle.

Making a new university

UTRGV is one of Texas’ newest universities, but its physical campuses have been around much longer. Once the University of Texas–Pan American (in Edinburgh) and the University of Texas–Brownsville, the two distinct institutions had smaller student populations, along with limited access to state funding.

But administrators and officials had “an eye toward securing increased state funds and potentially building a medical school,” Inside Higher Ed reported back in 2012. And the University of Texas State Board of Regents voted that year to “close” the two separate colleges then re-open them in the fall of 2015 as one entirely new institution: UTRGV.

Not everyone was excited about the transition, however. “Everyone was freaking out because it was very sudden, and now our campuses are one hour apart,” says Cathryn Merla-Watson, an assistant professor in the department of Literatures and Cultural Studies at UTRGV. Among anxieties, she says staff were buzzing with questions like “logistically, how do you combine departments across two campuses?” and “will someone get fired?”

Faculty weren’t the only ones worried: “Students were concerned about availability of classes and having to commute,” she says. “That was a huge concern.”

Removing the distance

Merla-Watson is located at UTRGV’s Edinburgh campus, but some of her in-person students live near Brownsville and take a free shuttle offered by the university to travel between the campuses.

Kristin Croyle, vice president for student success at UTRGV, explains that the university’s region lacks local public transit options, and that “shuttle use has been increasing since [UTRGV’s] first semester in fall of 2015.” But some students say the shuttle isn’t always enough.

Judith Ruiz, a freshman at UTRGV, says she previously opted for online classes whenever she could as a dual-enrollment high-school student. Based in Brownsville, she says: “I don’t have my own car so I can’t drive” to Edinburgh. She also feels the shuttle isn’t an easy option, either. “You have to organize your schedule to fit the bus… A lot of my friends are in the same situations.”

Merla-Watson claims she anticipated the commuting challenges shortly after discovering her former university, UT Pan-American, would become part of UTRGV. So she turned to the university’s Center for Online Learning and Teaching Technology, which provides workshops and support for faculty teaching online courses. Since then, she has taught 10 courses online and now is currently teaching two online and one hybrid course.

For students commuting from Brownsville, she says there were “all kinds of reasons I noticed there was a real need” for the online options. UTRGV is a Hispanic-serving institution with 89 percent of the population “almost entirely Mexican-American national origin,” according to Croyle. Merla-Watson hears from her students that adjusting schedules to make the shuttle isn’t always easy, especially for those who are low-income, take up full-time jobs or support a family.

Beyond the border

After she started teaching online, Merla-Watson began to realize that students weren’t only living in Brownsville—some resided across the border in Mexico. Though an assignment for her course Intro to Mexican-American Literature, she asked students to write an autobiography to get to know them better in the online setting and help them write their own histories.

“I have students do border autobiographies, and a lot reveal they aren’t able to come over” to the U.S., she says. “It’s usually temporary, maybe there’s something happening with their citizenship status and they have to stay in Matamoros, which borders Brownsville.” The professor adds that for those students, crossing the border to get to class could take more than an hour on some days.

There are 35 students currently registered with F-1 border commuter visas at UTRGV. But Croyle suspects that undocumented students generally stay on the U.S. side. “Crossing the border is too risky for them in terms of being able to come back,” she adds.

The number of students with commuter visas pales in comparison to the campus’ population of about 27,500. But Merla-Watson thinks 35 might be shy of the reality. "On paper [35 border commuters] might be the case, but I suspect that there are students who are not documented. It's really complicated."

Regardless of the figure, Amy Fisher, a policy director with RAICES, a nonprofit that advocates for and provides services for immigrant children and students, says that the border isn’t the only place students might fear leaving home. Border-patrol checkpoints scatter the 100-mile border zone, which can threaten a student even when they are miles away from the border. For instance, in September, nine students who are part of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program were detained at a checkpoint in Falfurrias, about 70 miles away from Edinburgh.

In a political environment awash with anti-immigration rhetoric and threats to DACA, an Obama-era policy that protects young undocumented immigrants, Merla-Watson says now she feels a pressing need to support students who may struggle commuting. “Issues with immigration and documentation are always in flux in the Texas-Mexico borderlands—even before recent issues and before Trump,” she says. “But it’s of course heightened right now.”

Onboard for online

Ruiz and Merla-Watson both notice that online classes fill up fast: “The courses I offer online are core classes students need for degree plans,” says Merla-Watson “It's not only core class, but it’s also online, so students can live in Mexico or Brownsville or Edinburgh.”

Issues around commuting are well known by campus officials, and the university is pushing for online education to help ease those barriers. “Our campuses are about 60 miles away from each other, and we have to serve students at both,” Walter Diaz, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UTRGV, tells EdSurge. “Our response has been to expand online offerings and distance-based options.”

The professor says UTRGV has “really stepped it up in terms of support,” for faculty online-education efforts. However, teaching online is still completely optional for instructors at UTRGV. And although digital learning is “part of the regular student experience at UTRGV,” Croyle admits “the proportion of online courses is small.”

“The hope is faculty who are the most interested and most excited to embrace that kind of environment could be the ones to take us up on it,” she explains.

Not all faculty are eager to take a workshop or offer their courses online, however. “I think there is a fear that online education will take the place of the physical classroom and is doing a disservice,” says Merla-Watson. But, she adds, “I think in some ways you can have an even more democratic kind of classroom because everyone is forced to participate on discussion boards and tools like that.”

Teaching farther, thinking further

Fisher, the nonprofit policy director, supports the work that faculty at UTRGV are doing to serve students, no matter where they are. “I look at that as part of the legacy of colleges recognizing that access to education for marginalized groups is extremely important, and so we would applaud UTRGV or any other school in Texas coming to the needs of students who are being attacked by forces within the state and federal government.”

But online learning is not a be-all and end-all for the barriers students face getting to campus, Fisher says. “It’s no solution to tell students that they should just have to stay in their homes and never leave,” she says. A more-sustainable alternative that she hopes to see would be more colleges declaring themselves as “sanctuary campuses” and set up policies and protections for undocumented students.

“Campuses need to tell students ‘you can come to campus and we will ensure you are safe while you are here. We won't share your info if ICE comes knocking.’” says Fisher.

Nudged with that, Fisher believes that holding courses online can be one measure to help. “It means schools are stepping up and thinking creatively about how they can serve this population,” she says. “That is what we need.”


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