WILL DISTANCE EDUCATION REALLY REVOLUTIONLIZE HIGHER EDUCATION?
[NB: The editorial comments in red have been submitted by editor M]
Of all social institutions, few resist change as tenaciously as universities. [Cut the remainder of this paragraph.] The idea of anything causing a "revolution" in higher education seems ludicrous for social institutions that in the course of hundreds of years have embraced only three educational technologies; the printing press, the chalkboard, and the overhead projector. I admit that the computer seems to be joining this select group. Another cardinal sign of resistance to change is that, Socrates nothwithstanding, the dominant form of university instruction remains the professorial lecture.
[A cardinal sign of resistance to change is that, Socrates notwithstanding, the dominant form of university instruction remains the professorial lecture.]
Universities were created at a time of book scarcity, and strategies revolving around the lecture were geared to that reality. Little change in that strategy has occurred since, even though books and multi-media instructional material have become ubiquitous.
The stultifying pedagogy at most universities is compellingly described by Mary Harrsch, at the University of Oregon, when she said: " have been extremely disenchanted with the medieval model of many University-level courses. I find sitting in a lecture hall listening to someone essentially summarize the main points of a textbook to be not only boring but a waste of my time. Furthermore, exams that are nothing more than a memorization exercise do not accurately reflect or encourage the understanding of key concepts, the development of critical thinking, or cognitive synthesis of new ideas or theories developed as a result of studying the content. Worst of all, I have found this type of educational experience to sometimes dampen interest in the subject rather than stimulate the student to explore the subject further" (Harrsch, 1998). [Cut the following sentence.] These problems only magnify when we attempt to duplicate this instructional delivery style in distance education.
[The idea of anything causing a "revolution" in higher education seems ludicrous for social institutions that in the course of hundreds of years have embraced only three educational technologies: the printing press, the chalkboard, and the overhead projector. I admit that the computer seems to be joining this select group.] But changes do occur; and one of them, distance education (DE), has been invigorated by the advent of new educational technologies. Foremost among these is the Internet, which is growing at unforeseen rates. As of January 1996, there were 9.5 million fileserver computers on the Internet that can be "pinged" (does not include fileservers hidden behind firewalls). This is more than seven times the number of servers in January of 1993 (www.mit.edu:8001/people/mkgray/net/internet-growth-raw-data.html).
Colleges and universities will never be the same again. They have discovered electronic distance education (DE). In my State of Texas alone, 98 of 116 Texas institutions of higher education are already using DE. Some 125 DE degree programs have been authorized by the state Coordinating Board for Higher Education. Among the state's public secondary schools, over 90% have Internet connections. For a summary of the role of the Internet in education, see the paper by Tripathi (www.gsh.org/wce/archives/tripathi.htm).
The state systems of the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, and the University of Houston have large two-way videoconferencing networks of high-speed digital telephone lines. The A&M network alone reaches 94 sites, including Mexico City, and taught 180 telecourses last year. Demand in the A&M network has saturated available "air time," and professors are being asked to cut-back on air-time contact hours. [Although not] much thought has been given to ways to compensate for reduced live air time with asynchronous on-line interactivity.
No one seems to know how many DE university courses there are. But in a survey taken four years ago by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that 1/3 of all higher education U.S. institutions offered DE courses and 25% more planned to do so in the next three years. Thus, probably the majority of U.S. universities now offer DE courses. The proportion is much higher in public than in private institutions (nces.ed.gov/pub98/distance/).
Many universities see DE as a way to increase enrollments (state schools are given "subvention" funds, based on a student head-count basis, to compensate for the costs of providing education). Other institutions see DE as a way to extend influence in other states and nations and enhance their prestige, influence, and research capabilities. Whatever the motivation, higher education faces major restructuring. Unfortunately, technology outstrips public policy and politics, and educational governing bodies are confused and ambivalent about how to proceed in this strange new world of "just-in-time" higher education. [State legislatures are typically unenthused about encouraging out-of-state students because of the drain on state resources (tuition and fees never cover the full cost of education). Delivery of education to out-of-staters will likewise be discouraged unless costs will be less than for on-site students.]
The confusion applies to a host of educational practices, such as admission criteria, registration mechanisms, fee structures, "residence" requirements, access to traditional universities resources and support services, providing "laboratory" experiences, integration of diverse technologies into instructional methods, reward systems for professors, intellectual property rights, course marketing, and "turf battles" among colleges and universities.
DE offerings make the educational market much freer than ever before. No longer constrained by time and place, students can sample a smorgasbord of courses and even degree plans offered by DE. On-line courses are developing at such an astonishing rate that merely cataloguing and indexing a world-wide list is a daunting task. See www.alx.org . In 1994, the number of distinct DE college courses was 25,730 (nces.ed.gov/pubs98/distance/).
DE now allows all institutions to compete directly with each other. This leads to political concerns in state legislatures that the weak schools may need protection from other state schools that have more resources or offer a superior product. Protectionist policies would give each school an inviolate "territory" that others could not invade with DE courses. Such protection is not easily provided against incursions from universities from outside the state or even private schools within the state.
What level of aggression will we see develop from ambitious universities wishing to expand their enrollments (and head-count revenues) by expanded DE? The University of Phoenix, a private DE institution wishes to invade the Texas market. Notably, they have asked permission, although I don't see why that is required. The temptation to expand is irresistible for some schools, especially those with low enrollments. Universities are already raiding other schools in other states for more than football players. Some of these schools are mainstream research universities, such as Penn State U., the U. of Wisconsin, and the U. of Colorado. At least four schools are private, for-profit, corporations - probably the best known is the U. of Phoenix and the British Open University.
Universities that are already overcrowded have little incentive to get in a hectic DE game. Yet, perhaps those are our best universities and thus the ones that ought to dominate DE. [Cut the rest of this paragraph (replaced above).] State legislatures are typically unenthused about encouraging out-of-state students because of the drain on state resources (tuition and fees never cover the full cost of education). Delivery of education to out-of-staters will likewise be discouraged unless costs will be less than for on-site students.
DE appeals to administrators because of the perceived savings in brick-and-mortar infrastructure. The campus can expand without expensive new buildings and dorms. There is also a prevailing myth among administrators that DE provides more efficient use of professor time. Why lecture to 200 students when the same materials can be delivered to thousands via VCR tapes, CDs, or Web sites, for example? What administrators miss in their calculations is that modern DE engages professors in more one-on-one interactions, via e-mail, than ever occur in on-campus instruction. Such interaction can be arbitrarily prohibited, in the interests of efficiency, but the quality of instruction and learning will certainly suffer. Also, to have a powerful educational communication tool and not to use it is tantamount to mal-practice.
The old "correspondence course" modality has little appeal in the age of VCRs, CDs, computers, interactive digital TV, and the Internet. These technologies are not only central to modern-day DE, but are also changing the way on-campus instruction is provided. Witness the rapid trend for colleges to link dorm rooms to computer networks.
Personal computers are so commonplace they are akin to furniture. We now have a world-wide store of information on the Internet available at the click of a mouse. As of last October, the Internet had 28,876,019 World Wide Web sites, growing at the rate of 2-3 million per month. Desk-top televideo conferencing, although technically primitive, does work and is available to anyone who buys an inexpensive camera that plugs into the personal computer. So-called Direct (digital) PC is cost-comparable to cable TV and provides very high speed downloads of Internet information. At least four companies, including one involving Microsoft's Bill Gates, are planning to blanket the globe with coverage from low earth-orbit satellites that will provide very high speed televideo transmission in both uplink and downlink directions.
DE forces educators to re-assess how instruction is done. If we simply extend the lecture hall model to mass distribution of content via tapes, CDs, and the Web, the quality of education suffers. In on-site instruction, even in large lecture classes, at least some dialog occurs among students, teaching assistants, and professors. Students certainly learn from each other in laboratories, hallways, dorm rooms, and even beer halls.
[But the internet now provides] DE students [with] many opportunities to interact with each other and with the professor via e-mail and computer conferencing software (Klemm, 1998a). Some of us use computer conferencing to complement lectures to on-campus students (see www.cvm.tamu.edu/wklemm/contents.htm ) or use a mix of DE technologies for content delviery and student interaction (Klemm, 1998b). [However,] this high degree of interactivity increases the professor work load. DE, properly done, is NOT efficient. Efficient education occurs when you pack several hundred students into a lecture hall. Efficiency in education, however, does not equate with effectiveness and quality. Those who look to DE as a way to get each professor to teach more students (and generate more revenue for their schools) will discover that the students will be taught less well. If that is our vision of DE, we would probably be better off insisting on on-site instruction in ever larger lecture halls. We could resurrect "educational TV;" some DE programs already rely heavily on distributing content via VCR tape. Whatever our vision, we need to get it clarified soon.
Unlike educational fads in the past, this one has legs, as they say. Multiple forces converge to create a strong sense of inevitability that DE will transform state colleges and universities. One force is the high and growing cost of attending any university. Students who can not satisfy educational needs in their local community find it increasingly difficult to leave their job and home to go away to college. Similar problems exist for mid-career workers who need to upgrade skills or change careers.
Another force is the increasing financial pressure on universities, which causes them to expand their revenue base by recruiting more DE students. [Cut the following sentence (replaced below).] For example, in Australia, where I recently toured to give lectures on DE, some of their universities hire sales representatives in various Asian countries and pay them a commission for each new DE recruit.
Major research universities in the Texas get only 1/3 to 1/2 of their funding from the state of Texas. Similar situations exist at other large research universities; they are now euphemistically called "state-assisted" instead of "state supported." For them, recruiting more undergraduate students may not make economic sense[, but they] might perceive that expanded graduate education [via distance education] could be cost effective, because the subvention rates are much higher for graduate students. But how many more PhDs can the marketplace sustain? In the sciences, we already have many more PhD scientists than can be supported by research grants. Typically, only 5 to 20% of competitive research grant proposals get funded, even for the sacred cow of medical research. Unfortunately, universities seem to have few ethical qualms about turning out more PhD scientists than society is willing to support, especially when the state subvention formula provides such large incentives to do so.
Corporate on-line universities have a huge advantage over the currently dominant state universities, which are burdened with multiple social roles, huge costs for infrastructure, and a preoccupation with research, which is deemed irrelevant by most students. [But some traditional universities are beginning to use corporate-style marketing tools to meet the challenge. For example, in Australia, where I recently toured to give lectures on DE, some of their universities hire sales representatives in various Asian countries and pay them a commission for each new DE recruit.]
Universities traditionally evolved to complete the maturation process of teenagers. No amount of DE will ever displace the value of the college campus as a socially acceptable place to accommodate the rebellious teenagers that parents want to kick out of the house. At least in U.S. universities, the athletic and social events of college life are central to the student view of the college experience. Those professors who feel a threat to job security by DE forget that there can be no DE equivalent to football games or fraternity parties. Face-to-face interaction and print-based media still dominate higher education and are likely to continue to do so for many decades.
Another limitation is that Implementing DE is not as straight-forward as it might seem. There is no single or even a set of models for implementing DE. Nor is there likely to be, given the existence of many technical and pedagogical options. A standard, universally accepted approach to a DE revolution does not seem likely.
One set of models that is catching on in on-site education involves such practices as problem based learning, collaborative learning, and more 'authentic' forms of assessment -- all backed by research showing advantages for motivation and learning outcomes. Although software technology to support these models does exist, they have not been generally accepted into the mainstream of on-line educational practice.
Rather than a revolution, I see DE as another component in the expanding role of the modern universities. Since World War II, universities have evolved at a comparatively rapid clip, moving from a socio-educational playground for elite youngsters to a similar playground for the masses. Then, in the decades of the 70s and 80s governments and corporations discovered the economic value of universities, making research a primary mission of those universities equipped to do it. Now, similar economic forces compel universities to have a new emphasis on adult education.
Who is going to pay for all these expanded university activities? We all know that tuitions increase each year at rates that exceed inflation. As mentioned, many state universities no longer receive the major portion of their budget from the state. Universities cannot be expected to take on new roles without proportional increases in financial support without deterioration of educational quality. From my vantage point of 33 years of college teaching, I think quality has already declined. DE may only make it worse.
Are professors ready for the change? Many are not. Few incentives exist for them to acquire the new teaching skills needed for DE. Why go out of your way to recruit new students, via DE, when the on-site workload is already excessive, at least as perceived by professors who are also expected to publish world-class research, serve on committees, act as consultants for governments and corporations, and generate revenue for the university through grants, contracts, patents, copyrights, and the spin-off of new companies.
The die does seem to be cast. At least some universities will use DE to cater more to adults, especially professionals needing credentialing updates and training for career changes. The question is which universities will be able to sustain quality DE programs? Can such DE programs co-exist within the same institution? Although the programs are housed inside different walls, many of the same resources (professors, libraries, administrative support, etc.) must be provided for on-site and DE programs. The drain on resources is inevitable. Without new resources, we can expect educational quality of both on-site and DE efforts to degrade. Some vision!
Harrsch, M. 1998. E-mail posting on the ifets-digest V1 #46 firstname.lastname@example.org, 10 Nov.
Klemm, W. R. 1998a. Using computer conferencing in teaching. Community College Journal of Research and Practice. 22: 507-518.
Klemm, W. R. 1998b. New ways to teach neuroscience: integrating two teaching styles with two instructional technologies. Medical Teacher. 20: 364-370.
This article needs to be reordered to improve the "flow" of the piece (suggestions to come).