Back to the Future of Education: Real Teaching, Real Learning
by James Perley

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Only some 500 years after the introduction of the printed text, higher education has encountered a revolutionary new teaching and learning tool. Through the computer, it is now possible for teachers and students to be separated by both distance and time. Although technology-assisted education is a familiar feature in the higher education systems of several other countries, its rapid development in the U.S. is a more recent phenomenon.

Distance education—and online instruction in particular—offer exciting possibilities for higher education faculty because new technologies make possible new approaches to effective teaching. Many dedicated faculty are rethinking traditional pedagogy, learning new technical and communication skills, and exploring ways to reach students through technology. Distance education also creates new opportunities to reach students, especially those who cannot attend classes on a college campus. Working adults who want to improve or update their skills and people who do not live near an institution of higher education may appreciate the flexibility of learning at a distance.

It is the job of contemporary scholars to analyze the ways in which distance education can advance teaching and learning and facilitate intellectual discovery. But it is also the job of scholars to address the concerns that distance education raises and to identify the limitations and disadvantages of this tool. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) believes that active debate and discussion about distance education will inform decisions about its appropriate use. Due to the strong interest of members, the AAUP established a Special Committee on Distance Education and Intellectual Property Issues in June 1998. The Committee's (1999) statement on distance education was adopted as AAUP policy in June 1999.

The policy development process prompted the special committee to reconsider basic pedagogical issues and to affirm that:

Online Education: Does it Measure Up?

After endorsing the above principles, the committee examined in particular the use of computer-based technologies as: (1) supplemental teaching tools within a traditionally taught course; and (2) the media for entire courses. The committee's critical questions included the following: How can educators ensure that the content of courses offered via this new medium is as rigorous as the content offered face-to-face in a classroom? How do we know if the quality of learning online is less than, equivalent to, or an improvement on learning in a traditional setting? Is it possible to have one-on-one interactions with and among students in an online course? In this age of restricted budgets, does the financial investment needed to fund online technologies detract from support for existing educational needs?

The AAUP consensus is that high-quality online education courses can be incorporated successfully into regular academic programs under the oversight of a college or university faculty. The faculty governance body at each institution is responsible for determining the appropriate balance of courses to be taught online and on-campus and for overseeing the general content, depth, and range of all courses (regardless of how they are taught).

Totally Online Institutions

AAUP members are less confident, however, about the success of exclusively online colleges and universities. Jones International University (JIU), the first such university accredited by the North Central Accreditation Association, is an early U.S. version of the "modularized" university. (It is similar in some ways to modularized institutions in the U.K.) In this model, a decentralized university "delivers" courses online or in many remote locations. Content experts—often faculty who are employed at other institutions—design the course materials that someone else teaches. Examinations are standardized, and yet another faculty member may grade them. Curriculum decisions about course content, course levels, requirements for a degree, and other important issues are handled by a small committee of academics and administrators or by administrators alone.

Faculty members working through online universities still have roles to play; for some, those roles are fulfilling and challenging. However, the decentralization of higher education raises fundamental concerns about the quality of the education offered to students at modularized institutions. The AAUP's greatest concern is the protection of academic freedom. Traditionally, university faculty members work together to establish and coordinate courses and to set major and degree requirements. Individual faculty members define the content of their courses and decide, on a day-to-day basis, how to teach them. At modularized institutions, course materials are pre-written by consultants and taught by others; this system introduces elements of rigidity and homogeneity that interfere with the more interesting elements of learning. Is higher education best served by a predetermined curriculum that does not change from site to site or from teacher to teacher? Does such a curriculum encourage excellence and creativity, or does it foster a decline in standards toward a mediocre mean? The AAUP believes that higher education flourishes when faculty members are free to design and teach their own courses and to set standards and degree requirements in on-going consultation with their academic colleagues.

The AAUP is strongly committed to the principle of shared faculty governance. The contributions made by all segments of an academic institution—including the board of trustees, administrators, and faculty—are essential to maintaining excellence in higher education. Each of these groups has a different primary responsibility, but it is the interaction among them that proves beneficial to the institution. At a modularized university, the faculty does not meet as a body, and it does not have a recognized responsibility for governance in matters of curriculum and academics.

Modularized institutions raise serious concerns when they create a structure that eliminates two of the essential elements of higher education: academic freedom and shared faculty governance. Are online institutions like JIU, which currently has the full-time services of just two faculty members, able to ensure adequate curriculum development in all disciplines, oversee the level of education in each department, and assure students that they will receive a high-quality education? Does the absence of a scholarly community impede the kind of faculty interaction that leads to curricular innovation and creative insight? Do students have the opportunity to interact with faculty and with each other, and are students actively engaged in the learning process? Is it possible to alter the direction of a software-delivered course for students with different learning styles? AAUP members worry about the effects of online institutions on the concept of a cohesive curriculum that is created, taught, and supervised by a fully engaged faculty group.

Most faculty members understand that the real product of an academic degree program is an individual who can engage real-life situations, seek out relevant information, critically analyze that information, and seek ways to address perceived problems. Are exclusively online programs, which necessarily confine human interaction to the virtual dimension, able to meet these primary goals of education? Interaction with a keyboard and a computer screen simply does not give a student the same experience as face-to-face interaction with a group of live individuals. Unless the student's entire future is to be based in a virtual world, the student must gain some of his or her educational experience in the real world, dealing with other real human beings.

Most faculty members also understand the importance of research and of a scholarly community. Students who interact with faculty members engaged with the unknown experience a different level of education than those students who simply absorb what is already known. If students do not have direct contact with the faculty members who advance knowledge in their respective fields, how will the students learn that their own questions are valid and worthy of research and resolution?


Higher education, as we now know and value it in the United States, is enriched as much by chaos and debate as it is by settled knowledge. We have come to expect that an educated person in this society is more than just a learned person. Education enables and prepares people to entertain new ideas; to critique information; to ask useful and interesting questions; and to synthesize, juxtapose, and apply experiences that arise out of varied academic experiences. Our traditional system of higher education allows for the engagement of the unknown, for curricula that can grow and change when faced with new circumstances and students with different needs, and for new scholarship that directly informs the content of courses. It would take a truly remarkable online institution to match those capabilities.

Academic freedom and shared governance are the foundations on which our colleges and universities were built and have flourished for centuries. It is, ironically, these solid principles that promote the chaos and excitement of learning in a community of scholars. As aficionados and unashamed advocates of that excitement, members of the AAUP feel a professional obligation to caution students about the vital elements they could lose if they take their education only as far as their computers.


Special Committee on Distance Education and Intellectual Property Issues, American Association of University Professors. (1999, May/June). Statement on distance education. Academe, 85(3). Retrieved 3 August 1999 from the World Wide Web:


Back to the Future or Back to the Past?
by Mary Harrsch

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I would like to thank James Perley for bringing his concerns about distance education—and, in particular, online education—to the attention of Technology Source readers. His comments remind us that the education community is comprised of many different voices, and that students benefit when those voices engage in constructive debate. In the spirit of such debate, I offer here a rebuttal to Mr. Perley's article. My hope is that both of our opinions will stimulate educators to take an active role in determining what educational venues will serve the students of the future. 

Faculty Control: The Real Issue is Faculty Competency

According to Mr. Perley, members of the AAUP believe that high-quality distance education courses "can be incorporated successfully into regular academic programs under the oversight of a college or university faculty." He emphasizes that faculty should maintain local control over individual curriculum elements.

Although this approach perpetuates the existing institutional structures of most universities, it does not ensure that students are exposed universally to key concepts. Faculty at higher education institutions in the United States are not required to obtain any form of teaching certification. In most cases, obtaining a Ph.D. is the only prerequisite for teaching. The Ph.D. indicates that the scholar has demonstrated his/her ability to understand specific concepts and to analyze empirical evidence; it does not, however, signify an ability to explain key concepts to a classroom of uninformed students or to integrate instructional design principles into course delivery or the development of course materials.

With the exception of Education majors, most new faculty have never studied the science of teaching and learning. This results in levels of quality which vary from faculty member to faculty member, since the ability to teach is dependent on each person's innate ability to communicate ideas, explain complex theories, assess student understanding, learn from actual classroom experiences, and apply past experience to future efforts. The pool of truly qualified individuals is diminished even further if technology skills—important elements of distance education—are considered.

The Viability of Academic Freedom in Virtual Environments

Mr. Perley points to the importance of academic freedom. He raises the specter of a slide toward mediocrity with the introduction of elements of homogeneity, and he warns that faculty may be shackled by the rigidity of a system that relies on course materials designed by content experts. Most faculty now rely on textbooks written by recognized content experts and support materials provided by the publishers. How is development of interactive media used in a distance education environment significantly different? The instructor’s role does not change; he/she still must ensure that students understand key concepts through discourse and evaluate student responses to the material presented. The forum simply changes from a physical classroom to a virtual discussion list.

Virtual learning does have advantages. Some faculty members have found that students share their thoughts more openly in a virtual environment—where they are not hampered by gender roles, differences in communication style, or language barriers—than in a physical classroom. Moreover, when the instructor poses questions to a virtual classroom, each student can evaluate them without the pressure of formulating a speaker's agenda or worrying about time constraints. Students can formulate their responses carefully and submit them for equal consideration with the responses of other discussion participants.

The Truth About Faculty Governance

Mr. Perley also emphasizes the importance of the principle of faculty governance. Theoretically, faculty governance sounds like an excellent tool to monitor the quality of education. In reality, faculty governance often is applied across the entire organization. This means that faculty members actually vote (without so much as a pamphlet to help them understand the issues at stake) on major curriculum changes for programs about which they know very little. Depending on an institution’s organizational structure, a physicist may be asked to vote on curriculum decisions for a foreign language program. In practice, votes are treated as routine housekeeping issues. This exercise, then, does little to ensure the quality of programs that a university develops and offers.

Many institutions require their instructors to collect course reaction inventories from their students to assess the quality of the material presented. But negative responses have no impact on the retention of tenured faculty. Furthermore, administration may give such responses little weight if the faculty member is successful at obtaining large research grants. On the other hand, distance education programs are often subject to far greater scrutiny than conventional course offerings. Still, they have been successful at achieving both quality instruction and revenue. The United Kingdom's Open University has achieved some of the best Teaching Quality Assessment results in the UK, and its Institute for Educational Technology wins over 5m a year funding for its research.

Scholarly Communities and Real-Life Learning Opportunities Online

Mr. Perley expresses concern about the quality of education in the absence of a scholarly community. Learning relies on the sharing of ideas—abstract intangible concepts that do not require a physical presence to be exchanged. Why is a community of scholars sharing ideas in the virtual realm less valuable than a "captive" community of scholars congregated in a physical environment?

Mr. Perley identifies the real product of an academic degree as an individual who can "engage with real-life situations, seek out relevant information, critically analyze that information, and seek ways to address perceived problems." The present campus experience does not provide real-life situations, except in the case of practicum exercises which take place in external environments and usually are supervised by adjuncts or contracted supervisors (not full-time faculty). The truth is that most higher education is delivered at a theoretical level; in fact, that is the primary complaint of corporate employers. In an online environment, however, virtual simulations can provide lifelike situations. Students can replay these simulations, examine the results of them, and question instructors about their observed outcomes.

The Benefits of Distance Education: Constant Contact, Professional Input

Mr. Perley mentions again and again the absence of student contact with faculty, as if distance education were delivered like a canned presentation. Distance education in the 21st century will not be limited to providing the solitary experience of 20th century correspondence courses. Supporters of technology-enhanced distance education do not envision a system without instructors or facilitators. In fact, faculty who have stepped into the arena of distance learning often complain about the significant increase in time they spend interacting with students (e.g., monitoring online discussions and answering e-mail questions). A faculty member is always available in a virtual environment, even if not real time. Students are not left juggling their class schedules with posted office hours.

Furthermore, virtual environments can include professional participants that could not participate in physical classroom exercises. Adult learners, the target of many distance education programs, value the insight of other practicing professionals. These professionals face the unknown every day. Their livelihood depends on their ability to develop new ideas, critique information, and synthesize and apply the lessons they learn in the forge of experience. Their contributions are not theoretical or offered from the relative safety of a tenured position.


Mr. Perley states that the current system of higher education allows for the engagement of the unknown and for curricula that can grow and change when faced with new circumstances and students with different needs. But institutions that merely provide online course syllabi and web-enabled admissions and registration procedures do not truly embrace the opportunity to develop human potential that new technologies offer. The needs of students of the new century—who increasingly are adult learners that require lifelong learning experiences—have not been met by the existing system. Adults who are engaged in careers and family life cannot afford, in most cases, to quit their jobs and uproot their families to pursue education at a traditional campus-bound institution. This is especially true in vast, sparsely populated areas like Canada, Australia, and northeast Asia and for geographically isolated populations such as Pacific islanders. The fact that individuals now need continuing education throughout their lifetimes effectively means that the traditional model of education may, for many, serve only as a preparatory exercise for adulthood. Furthermore, as tuitions climb in response to dwindling public subsidies of higher education, this exercise is rapidly becoming the purview of the wealthy few. Distance education provides a more cost-effective way to extend a quality scholastic experience to literally millions. However, if the faculty of traditional institutions of higher education are unwilling to meet the new challenge of providing lifelong education to a global community, then adult learners will be deprived of the "excitement of learning in a community of scholars" and must settle for a corporate substitute.