Distance Learning: Promise or Threat?

My Adventures in Distance Learning

Once the stepchild of the academy, distance learning is finally taken seriously. But not in precisely the way early innovators like myself had hoped. It is not faculty who are in the forefront of the movement to network education. Instead politicians, university administrations and computer and telecommunications companies have decided there is money in it. But proposals for a radical "retooling" of the university emanating from these sources are guaranteed to provoke instant faculty hostility.

In 1981 I worked on the design team that created the first online educational program. This was the School of Management and Strategic Studies at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California. At the time online education was essentially untried. The equipment was expensive and primitive.

We employed a variant of email called computer conferencing which was suited to our application since it facilitated the sort of many-to-many communication that goes on in the classroom. But no one knew how to use it for education. We soon discovered that computer conferencing was not very useful for delivering lectures, and this limitation led us to explore a Socratic pedagogy based on virtual classroom discussion that proved quite successful.

The school grew to include over 150 students in 26 countries around the world. It pioneered many of the features of online education taken for granted today. Other experiments soon benefited from our example and added their own contributions, however few administrations supported online education and its progress was slow throughout the 80's and 90's.

Consider, then, my surprise when I heard rumours last year that something called online education was coming to my university, San Diego State University, under the sponsorship of Microsoft, Hughes Aircraft, Fujitsu, and MCI! This initiative, called CETI, was supposed to build a $300 million information infrastructure to support virtual learning on our multi-campus system.

Our new systemwide Chancellor, Dr. Charles Reed, was due for a get acquainted visit. As he was leaving I finally had a chance to ask him the question that most bothered me: What is the pedagogical model that has guided CETI? The Chancellor looked at me as though I'd laid an egg, and said, "We've got the engineering plan. It's up to you faculty to figure out what to do with it." And off he went: subject closed!

But in the case of online education, the choice of infrastructure will largely determine the applications. If corporations rather than faculty are consulted about this choice, the outcome will be entirely different from the ideal of educational community to which faculty are attached by their culture and traditions. The ambition of CETI to make and market pre-packaged computer and video based courses illustrated that difference.

The CETI initiative soon collapsed under the weight of public opposition and doubts about its financial viability. It will now be replaced by a more modest plan paid for out of public monies, as is proper.

Education and Economics

CETI illustrates the unfortunate fact that for too many administrators the big issues in online education are not educational. Aministrators hope to use new technology to finesse the coming crisis in higher education spending, and to accomodate exploding enrollments of young people and returning students. Innovations like video conferencing and automated online education will make it possible to improve quality through the use of "star" professors while cutting costs of delivery. Students in virtual classrooms need no new parking structures. What is more, courses can be packaged and marketed, generating a continuous revenue stream without further investment.

It's quite a vision, but few faculty buy it. Faculty ask how one can duplicate the learning experience of a highly interactive classroom on an electronic network, and reproduce the wealth of informal human contacts that add so much to education on a campus.

What makes faculty still more suspicious is the continuity they perceive in administration enthusiasm for cost-cutting at the expense of traditional educational roles and values. Between 1970 and 1995, the number of full-time faculty increased by about half, while over the same period part-time faculty grew by two and one half times. If the trend continues, part-timers will overtake full-timers on college campuses in three years.

A straight route down the information superhighway leads from the deprofessionalization to the deskilling of higher education. The replacement of full time by part-time faculty is merely the opening act in the plan to replace the faculty as such by CD ROMs. A new economic model of education is being sold under the guise of a new technological model. This is the route to what David Noble calls "digital diploma mills."

The Question of Distance Learning Technology

The good news for faculty is the difficulty administrations have actually implementing the systems. The failures are due to fundamental misunderstanding of the technology.

When they actually engage with the new technology, faculty sense immediately that it is not mature, nor can courses be easily transferred from the face-to-face to the online setting. The virtual classroom does not reproduce the familiar experience of teaching but merely offers an environment, an empty space faculty must learn to inhabit and enliven.

This is very different from the understanding of the technology purveyed by sellers, who present it as a ready-made substitute for the classroom. Live video, with its complicated and unreliable apparatus, holds little attraction for either teachers or students, but it can be marketed as an online equivalent of what faculty already do. Automated learning is a gamble but technology suppliers play up the big profits awaiting daring innovators. Sadly, these come-ons seem to be working.

Meanwhile, the fact remains that even after all these years the exciting online pedagogical experiences still involve human interactions and for the most part these continue to be text based, just as they were for us in the early '80s. The availability of fancy new technology has not made much difference.

But here is the rub: interactive text based applications lack the pizazz of video alternatives and cannot promise automation, nor can they be packaged and sold. On the contrary, they are labor intensive and will probably not cut costs very much. Hence the lack of interest from corporations and administrators, and the gradual eclipse of these technological options by far more expensive ones. But unlike the fancy alternatives, interactive text based systems actually accomplish legitimate pedagogical objectives.

The basic fact about computer networks is scarcity of bandwidth and we have a well established method for communicating under precisely these conditions. It's called writing. And we have a rich experience of using writing to overcome the limitations of bandwidth. Writing is thus not a poor substitute for physical presence and speech, but another fundamental medium of expression with its own properties and powers.

While interactive writing is the basic medium of expression on networks, in recent years we have learned to enhance the network experience with sound and image, and that is a good thing. But writing is the basic medium of online expression, the skeleton around which other technologies and experiences must be organized to build a viable learning environment.

In online education as in the classroom, we must be careful to distinguish the basic medium from the enhancements and not to confuse their roles. Speech is the basic medium in the classroom, and we supplement it with labs, movies, slides, text books, computer demonstrations, and so on. Similar, enhancements to the written medium are possible on networks. But confusing the medium with the supplementary enhancements leads to the pedagogical absurdity of teacherless education.

To replace online written interaction with the enhancements makes no more sense than to replace the teacher in the face-to-face classroom with labs, movies, slides, text books, and computer demonstrations. That was tried with educational television and computer-aided instruction long ago with no success. Prepackaged materials can be seen to replace not the teacher as a mentor and guide but the lecture and the textbook. Interaction with the professor will continue to be the centerpiece of education, no matter what the medium. The sooner college administrators wake up to this fact, the less money they will waste on illustory substitutes for the college experience.

Critical Reviews


I like this article and the way it is written. However, I wonder if "Virtual Universities" is the right slot. It is not really about that topic, but distance learning, which is not necessarily the same thing. I think the Comment section would be more appropriate.

However, the opening sentence appears to ignore the well-established use of distance learning by open universities (as opposed to virtual universities) worldwide, which have produced hundreds of thousands of graduates. This is certainly not the step-child of the academy. One could argue that since the invention of the printing press, books have enabled distance learning! Open Universities are taken seriously, even if the odd academic can get snobbish about them. I think the sentence should be "Once the stepchild of the academy, *online* distance learning is finally taken seriously."

One or two of the comments are a bit over the top. Broadcast television has not failed--it is used very heavily in the Chinese OU, which I think is called the Television University of China (or something similar), and in the UKOU,  which has broadcasts every day in off-peak hours and programs that are extensively used by the other 187 UK higher education institutions (on paid license). However, the main point of the paper still applies--print is still the main medium of delivery with TV in support (substantial support or less-substantial). In some of these courses contact with tutors is minimal, usually only being written feedback on written assignments through the mail. So interaction may be the centerpiece, but massively less in quantity (and better in quality) than in conventional campus education. But the tutors on distance learning courses know that they cannot just use "final language" like "good," "fair effort," "B+," but need to provide detailed formative assessment. It would be good if conventional faculty had to tutor on a conventional dl course--their feedback skills would surely improve. My point is that dl has flourished without the use of cmc in the past, and the issue of how much cmc is needed in online dl concerns many as much research reports an *increase* in tutor effort on such programs. Time will eventually tell us what is a good balance as it did in paper-based dl, and it will surely not be more than in ftf delivery!

So I think the paper glosses over some obvious objections. The author may want to address those I have mentioned, but as the paper is so obviously experiential/polemical I would not insist. With the change to the first sentence, this article is publishable now as legitimate Comment on the current scene worldwide.

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