Low Cost Options for Distance Learning: Delivering Maximum Learning at Minimum Cost

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A recent promotional mailer for Distance Education Review began: "Explosive… Highly Technical… Complex… Intriguing… Exciting… Controversial…" These are some of the words that have been used to describe the distance education revolution.  The words "at minimum expense" were not included in the list, most likely because this concept is rarely if ever associated with distance learning. However, at Technical College of the Lowcountry (TCL), located in Beaufort, South Carolina, distance learning has proved itself to be both highly effective and minimum in relative cost.

TCL’s four county service area in lower South Carolina between Charleston and the Savannah River is largely rural and disconnected by rivers, marshes, and sea islands. Population centers are widely separated. Thus, when the college attempted to offer traditional courses at its two off -campus sites, the Hilton Head College Center and the H. Mungin Center in Varnville, classes rarely achieved enrollment break-even status, and most had to be canceled or else taught at a loss. Faculty travel expenses and extended driving time over narrow two-lane roads to the Centers (what one faculty member called “windshield time”) were additional barriers.

Obviously, some form of distance learning was needed to meet student needs. The question was how to accomplish this within the limited financial means and resources of a small rural college.

The first such opportunity came in 1994,  when South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV) received funding from the State Legislature for a thirty-two channel  digital satellite system to support distance learning throughout the state, thereby providing an essentially “free” delivery system  for any college that wanted to use it. To develop and implement distance learning over the satellite system, TCL applied for and received a Title III Strengthening Institutions grant from the US Department of Education. These Title III funds provided for origination and receive site equipment, course development, and faculty training. WJWJ-TV, the local public television station, provided free technical assistance and expertise. By the fall semester of 1995, TCL was on the air, broadcasting twelve satellite teleclasses and serving off-campus class sizes as large as eight or nine students and as small as one or two students while still exceeding over-all class size requirements and incurring no substantial extra expenses.

As enrollment in distance learning grew, students requested more opportunities at the off-campus sites. However, SCETV had only one lower South Carolina microwave uplink leg available for satellite transmission. To expand its distance learning options, another equally affordable technology was needed.

In 1997, Midlands Technical College (MTC), located in Columbia, SC, offered to partner two allied health programs, a diploma program in Pharmacy Technology and a certificate program in Medical Record Coding, with TCL. Midlands Technical College would deliver program major courses via satellite and ISDN (digital telephone teleconferencing); TCL would provide related course work on site. To support the program, Midlands Technical College provided ISDN interactive distance learning equipment for the main TCL campus in Beaufort; South Carolina State University loaned ISDN equipment for the H. Mungin Center in Varnville. Using Title III finds, TCL purchased ISDN equipment for the Hilton Head College Center. By the fall of 1997, TCL had added the two new programs and doubled its distance learning offerings by filling in the available hours not used by the MTC programs.

Because the college has access to two somewhat different distance learning technologies, faculty members are able to select the best fit for teleclass broadcast. The SCETV satellite delivery system is one way video/ two way audio (telephone from the receive site.) Even though POTS video telephones are now used at the receive sites so that off-campus students can be seen as well as heard, the 1.9 second audio/video satellite delay does inhibit frequent interaction. Thus, modified “chalk and talk” lecture classes, enhanced by visual reinforcement through such media as PowerPoint, tend to be more successful via satellite transmission. Class sizes are limited in the satellite system – twenty-four students at the origination site and no more than nine students at each receive site – so that sufficient interactivity can be incorporated.

The ISDN system is highly interactive two way video/two way audio. Students at the off-campus site are almost life-size on the fifty-two inch monitor at the main campus. The instructor can move the off-campus camera and zoom in on specific students. Students at both sites can literally see themselves face-to-face. Because of this interactivity and control, class sizes are larger – up to forty-eight students at the main campus and twenty students at each off-campus site. (The ISDN system currently in use is a point-to-point system, allowing for connection to only one off-campus site at a time. It will be replaced by a multi-point system by spring semester 2000, allowing simultaneous connection among up to four sites.) Teleclasses taught via ISDN technology are those which need to be more interactive or larger in anticipated enrollment.

The most significant distance learning cost to TCL is ISDN toll service (long distance)  which is especially expensive in rural South Carolina where rates are often twice the national average. The cost of  a typical semester long ISDN teleclass is $410 in fixed monthly charges and per minute long distance. However, the inclusion of interactive ISDN-delivered teleclasses has allowed TCL to increase its average teleclass size to 26 students (compared to about 18 students in traditional classes), more than meeting the extra costs associated with ISDN. For example, one fall semester ISDN teleclass, Anatomy and Physiology, has forty students on  the Beaufort campus and four students at the Hilton Head College Center, a very cost effective class size.

TCL continues to expand its cost effective distance learning offerings and is now in the process of adding WEBCT Internet courses to the mix. In fact, the faculty now developing web based courses are using many of the visual materials and other resources they first developed for broadcast teleclasses, yet another cost saving. Using a digital nonlinear editing system, faculty are converting taped teleclasses into videocassette telecourses, again at significant cost saving over original production or purchased telecourses.

Evaluations and assessments conducted each semester tell us that there is “no significant difference” between achievement in traditional classes and teleclasses. Even more important, these evaluations also tell us how grateful students are that courses can be provided closer to home, saving them time and travel expenses. So, for all of us at Technical College of the Lowcountry, faculty and students alike, distance learning has provided maximum learning at minimum cost.

[Editor's Note: This article is derived from a presentation by the same title at the Distance 99 Conference at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.]

Critical Reviews

Critic LL

The article is nicely written and could be published as is. My only question is, can this be replicated elsewhere, and if so, HOW? Otherwise, it is hard to see the significance to the field/reader (albeit, not hard to see the benefit to SC students!)

Critic Q

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Critic WW

This is a well-organized, well-written article that should be of interest to your readers. Specifically, there are two very strong points in the TCL approach.

First, by increasing the average teleclass size from 18 to 26, TCL has realized true gains in productivity. I am acquainted with other institutions, K-12 and higher education, where instructors have insisted that the total number of students in a main campus/distance class not exceed the total number they would have taught in a class offered on the main campus only. Institutions that allow such policies to be established have drastically reduced their potential to realize productivity gains through the use of distance learning technologies.

Second, TCL has acknowledged the need to match the delivery mode with the characteristics of the course, e.g. class size and desired level of interactivity. As Catherine Fulford from the University of Hawaii has found in her research on distance learning features, it isn't always necessary to have full two-way audio and video, and cost effectiveness can be enhanced by tailoring the technology to the needs of the instructor and students.

I strongly recommend that this article be published so others can see this excellent example of the potential for cost effectiveness in distance learning.

Critic N

Good overview of the distance learning program at TCL. Would be helpful to review the overall costs of the program, including the costs deferred by virtue of the grants. This would give readers a better idea of the true cost of the solution for their institution. Would also be helpful to discuss the impetus for development of the web-based classes within the context of providing "low cost" solutions … the cost structure for these classes will be quite different.