The Role of the Traditional Research University in the Face of the Distance Education Onslaught

A Measured Response Must Replace Dire Predictions

Currently there are many predictions of doom for traditional "brick and mortar" institutions of higher education, including research universities. However, it is my belief that these predictions are premature and may be creating a sense of panic where a more measured response is required. While virtual and corporate universities that emphasize distance learning may represent the wave of the future for many, it is my belief that they do not directly compete with or threaten the research university. I believe that these entities have a role to play in society, and so do research universities. Overall, when I see dire predictions for traditional universities, I also recall Mark Twain's comment that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

[Good intro and supposition; however, the author may want to comment at this point that to compete with those research universities who are changing, all universities should consider how to broaden their portfolio of pedagogical styles to accommodate an increasingly diverse student population, streamline their processes, and be more responsive to students. - T]

[I would make minor mechanical changes so that the first paragraph would read as follows. - P Currently there are many predictions of doom for traditional "brick and mortar" institutions of higher education, including research universities. I believe, however, that these predictions are premature and may be creating a sense of panic where a more measured response is required. While virtual and corporate universities that emphasize distance learning may represent the wave of the future for many, they do not directly compete with or threaten the research university. These new entities have a role to play in society, but so do research universities. When I see dire predictions for traditional universities, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s comment that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."]

Sample Trends and Demographic Data May Cause Concern

At first glance, many trends and demographic data can help to instill panic at traditional institutions of higher education. We read, for example, that: the distance-learning market is growing at a 25% annual rate in the U.S.vii, and driving one of the hottest emerging growth sectors in the U.S. economy—the $3.5 billion per year "business" of post-secondary educationi; in the last 10 years over 200 institutions of higher education have closed i; and fewer than 1 in 6 undergraduates fit the traditional stereotype of the American college student, specifically the student who attends college full time, is 18-22 years of age, and lives on campus ii. [These quotations need to be separted and stated more compellingly.  The paragraph is too long - P] Indeed, almost half of all freshmen and sophomores in the United States attend community colleges which have no residential facilitiesi. The data also tell us that the proportion of college students who are "adult learners" (over 25 years old) has been increasing steadily: from 30% in 1970, to 40% in 1980, to almost 50% in 1990, with projections of over 50% by the millennium. Approximately 85% of these people work, most full-time, and juggle jobs, families, and studies to attend college part-timeiii. They are "unabashed vocationalists"i who want to be treated like valued customers. They want convenience, low cost, around-the-clock access, accessible parking (preferably at the classroom door), no lines, and polite, helpful, and efficient staff ii. Note also that in 1993, 57% of undergraduates surveyed believed that the chief benefit of going to college was increased earning power, an 11 percentage point increase from 1976ii. In addition, corporations have come to accept the notion that to remain competitive they must embrace the notion of "lifelong learning" and continually upgrade the knowledge and skills of their employeesiii. And finally, personal computer prices are dropping, sales are enjoying a 20% annual growth rate, and in 1997, for the first time, computers outsold televisions in the U.S.i, iii. In short, our growing student body is increasingly ready for what technology, including distance learning, has to offer.

[Yes! - T]

[So what? These are old arguments, summarized in a long paragraph. Moreover, the author is somewhat selective in the choice of supporting data: for example, 200 colleges may have closed, but another 600 opened between 1980 and 1996, according to NCES data. Also, the numbers for undergraduate perceptions of the value of college look like Astin's freshman survey data (all first-time, full-time students, and not numbers for all undergraduates). - J]

But It’s Not All Gloom and Doom

Some trends, including those that show enrollment in higher education increasing from approximately 14 million in 1995 to 20 million by 2010i, are showing up as increased interest in traditional universities. For example, in 1997, the U-M [Which U-M: Michigan? Minnesota? Missouri? Mississippi? - J] received just under 19,000 applications for admission; in 1998, we received over 21,000 applications, a record number.

[Can this conclusion be supported other than by this example? - T]

[Again, selected data: how much of the rising numbers reflect the buy-down among upper- and upper-middle-income students who, along with their parents, increasingly recognize public research universities as an incredible educational value, despite rising tuition. - J]

Further, research from last spring suggests that a "large proportion" of students already enrolled in "regular" classes seem eager to ease their schedules, or perhaps speed up their education, by taking courses onlinexvii. This seems particularly true for universities with "large populations of commuter students." For example, last spring:

Some suggest that this amounts to a blending of "distance learning with face-to-face methods so that the markets are not as distinct as they were originally envisioned to be"xviii. [And/or not all the classes that they need are offered in Distance Learning courses of study - T]

[Yes, much is being made of the CO data cited above. But this market is a young one, which has yet to take shape. Convenience, as the author notes, has become a factor for growing numbers of traditional as well as non-traditional students. - J]

The Future of Traditional Research Universities

Research universities that will flourish in the face of the distance education onslaught will take the best of their activities and traditions, build upon their strengths, and grow from there. They will address the role of distance education at their institutions within the broader context of their overall use of information technology for teaching, learning, and administration. In particular, they will find ways to use information technology and distance learning to help fulfill their traditional role of fostering Knowledge Communities.[Yes! - T]

[Only research universities? What about selective liberal arts colleges, especially the group known (among the NSF-types) as research colleges? Won't these institutions also benefit from distributed learning and digital knowledge resources? In their own way, these campuses will generate a unique version of "high tech - high touch" that builds on their mission, curriculum, and tradition of sustained student contact / student-faculty interaction. - J]

Knowledge Communities are groups of individuals of common or complementary interests, joined together as they pursue common or complementary goals around the creation, enhancement or sharing of information. A Knowledge Community may be formally linked and identified, as in a discipline-specific organization with a governing structure, clearly identified members and activities. Or it may be informal, with loose or constantly changing structure, membership and activities.

Historically, educational institutions have been the most easily identifiable Knowledge Communities in our society, and institutions of higher education perhaps the most formally so. Many of our colleges and universities began as very specific Knowledge Communities: groups of people pursuing common understandings around the creation, enhancement or sharing of certain bodies of knowledge. This included seminaries for the study of religion and the training of ministers, teacher colleges for the study of education and the training of teachers, and medical schools for the study of medicine and the preparation of physicians.

In the age of the information technology revolution, Knowledge Communities have undergone rapid, radical changes. Communications technologies have created the potential for Knowledge Communities where none existed before. Individuals who were part of a Knowledge Community for a limited amount of time, say the three or four years they were on a college campus to earn their undergraduate degree, now find themselves members of a life-long virtual Knowledge Community via the computer in their home or office. And, freed from the requirements of being physically present to participate, individuals suddenly have the opportunity to be members of many different Knowledge Communities, constrained only by their interests and available time. Further, technology is helping to make widely distributed resources, such as library collections and research data, available to all individuals and Knowledge Communities, thereby helping to reduce the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots."

[This note about library collections and research data caught my attention. This is somewhat true, but I'm not sure that it should automatically be assumed that the 'have nots' are benefitting. It CAN benefit them, depending upon the cooperation of institutions and funding agencies. For example, in Mississippi all citizens are benefitting from the formation of a consortium to purchase periodical database access for the entire state, available to every citizen through their academic, school, or public library. Being the poorest state in the country, this is a marvelous benefit for MS citizens, and also a boon to financially strapped libraries of all sizes. The point the author may want to address is how much it will cost an individual to remain a part of a learning community, and who will be funding this. For most of our electronic resources, non-students are not allowed off-campus access as part of our site licenses.

Another funding issue is how much it will cost universities to process people who may be taking just one class a semester, something that is unusual at the undergraduate level. Currently schools can be fairly certain of getting a certain amount of money per student per semester. Although the author notes that students are currently using online courses to speed up degree programs, isn't it possible future students will string out degrees or want to take non-degree track courses due to the convenience? Also, what sort of financial aid would be available to
individuals not pursuing a degree program, and not sponsored by their employer? - L]

To ensure the impacts of this information technology revolution are positive, we in higher education must consider the basic traditions of Knowledge Communities, and ensure that technology supports and enhances those endeavors. The future is not about technology per se; it’s about what we do with technology. [Yes! - T] [Need a transition here. All of a sudden you begin discussing the processes of knowledge communities. How does this relate to what went before? Also, the paragraphs are a bit short and choppy.- P]

Knowledge Communities engage in a number of key interdependent processes. These processes are the pillars that support the activity of any Knowledge Community, especially our large research universities. As people engage in these processes, they are pulled into the community of others who are similarly involved. [This seems awkward somehow. I'm not sure the paragraph is necessary. - L]

Knowledge Communities join to experience our world, through their own efforts and the efforts of others. For centuries communities of interest have formed around the experience of physical development and competition through athletics and sports, as well as through artistic performance and other forms of experiential learning. [I wonder if the word "participate" isn't a better choice than "experience." We all experience the world, whether alone or in a group, but the author seems to mean active participation and the sharing of knowledge or skills. - L]

Knowledge Communities analyze information to develop new understandings. From sorting through enormous databases of information to identify trends and patterns, to the meticulous counting of cells under a microscope to assess the virulence of an infection, analyzing information creates new knowledge and challenges.

Knowledge Communities discover. They discover new knowledge and rediscover old. In psychology, this discovery process may involve interviews of people to discover the common thread that connects their experience of the world. In archeology, this discovery process may be a painstaking examination of a dig site, weaving together small fragments of history to create an understanding of life centuries ago.

Many Knowledge Communities are pulled together to create—art, music, dance, and literature. The human experience is revealed and celebrated, as it is framed and translated into various media.

Knowledge communities invent new tools, techniques, and approaches to activities. From building airplanes to capturing antibodies, people join together to propel their ideas and insights from imagination to invention.

Knowledge Communities innovate, finding new ways of exploring and presenting knowledge domains. Ways of doing things are refined, streamlined, clarified.

Finally, people join together to express their individual and shared perceptions, feelings and understandings. That expression may come intellectually, artistically, socially or physically.

[I'm not sure that the long section detailing the activities of knowledge communities contributes much to the piece. A one paragraph summary would suffice. I think what would be of more interest would be detailing the ways ordinary citizens might participate in Knowledge Communities in ways that don't involve a formal degree program. I get the impression this is what the author is driving at, and would be a real revolution in terms of lifelong learning and education for all. - L]

The U-M participates in many forms of distance education. But for the U-M and similar institutions, distance education will never be an end in itself. We don't "sell" distance education. Our challenge is to discover ways that we can use technology to help integrate adult learners and part-time students into the educational experience of a Research University, including the experiences of knowledge communities, not to transform the U-M into a "virtual" university.

[OK: JUST HOW does the U-M do all this stuff? The potential utility of this paper really depends on more than WWW site rhetoric. Examples, please!??? - J]

A Closing Metaphor

Clearly, all responses to the trends and demographics noted above, including those by virtual, corporate, and research universities, address the characteristics of Knowledge Communities in a variety of ways and to varying degrees. But a metaphor might help to explain how the response of the Research University needs to differ from all other responses. Picture all responses as falling along a spectrum that has "fast food" (i.e., 'packaged' information about known subjects, la some virtual and corporate universities) at one end, and an unique, gourmet meal prepared by a master chef at the other. Along the spectrum, you have home cooking from recipes that have been handed down through the family, cooking classes from local community groups, and other varieties of meal preparation (and learning). I’m suggesting what was also suggested by the Stanford Forum on Higher Educationi, namely that the traditional University, and in my case the traditional Research University, is the home of the "Master Chefs and Apprentices." Unlike all others who cook and prepare food, Master Chefs, and the Apprentices who eventually become Master Chefs, take an active part in moving the community forward. They design and create new recipes and design new utensils because they have in depth knowledge of their subject and experience with the materials and environments in which they work. They know what questions to ask and how to frame them. They are enculturated, if you will, into what it means to think and work like a Master Chef. At the U-M, we are looking to technology to enhance the master chef/apprentice experience, and to the extent possible and desired, make the on-campus experience possible at off-campus locations. However, it's important to note that not everyone wants or needs to be a Master Chef. Sometimes home cooking, or a cooking class or two, is all that's desired.

[The metaphor works. - T]

[This closing metaphor does not work well for me, even if wrapped in the veneer of a Stanford Forum Report. It suggests, in part, that traditional research universities are the only place that "have in-depth knowledge of their subject and experience with the materials and environments in which they work. They know what questions to ask and how to frame them." It just ain't so. And I think much of the OTH/TS audience would agree. Let me confess my bias: I'm not convinced that the "knowledge community" metaphor works very well. While it offers a nice package for attempting to describe the convergence of organizational mission, products, and services, I’m not sure it provides a compelling, substantive model for colleges and universities. - J]

[The author identifies and provides good supportive data for the issue (trend toward distance education based upon student's requirements). The introduction leads the reader to think that the article will be about how and why the university won't need to fully embrace distance learning. To make the transition to knowledge communities, which provides some good defnitions of knowledge communities, the author might want to introduce the metaphor currently at the end of the article toward the beginning of the article, following the discussion of the issue. Then the author could move into the discussion of knowledge communities as one of the ways in which the university will meet some of the distance learning needs of its students while continuing its traditional role of Master Chef and apprentices. The author could even describe knowledge communities as customers who are providing feedback regarding the recipes and generating ideas for new recipes. - T]

[Not sure I really like the ending meatphor. It smacks a bit of elitism, a charge that’s been leveled at research universities before. More importantly, it doesn’t really illuminate their role clearly. I guess I’d ask, "why are the research universities uniquely suited to developing knowledge communities and how does that relate to their role in distance education?" – P]

[The closing paragraph makes a good point, but for some reason it seems an abrupt transition. I've suggested some changes. (see below)

"Clearly, all responses to the trends and demographics noted above, including those by virtual, corporate, and Research universities, address the characteristics of Knowledge Communities in a variety of ways and to varying degrees. But a metaphor might help to explain how the response of the Research University needs to differ from other responses.

Pictur(E) all (SCHOOL) responses as falling along a spectrum that has "fast food" (i.e., packaged information about known subjects, a(l DELETE) la some virtual and corporate universities) at one end, and an unique, gourmet meal prepared by a master chef at the other. Along the spectrum, you have home cooking from recipes that have been handed down through the family, cooking classes from local community groups, and other varieties of meal preparation (and learning). AS the Stanford Forum on Higher Education SUGGESTED, the traditional Research University is the home of the "Master Chefs and Apprentices." THESE INDIVIDUALS take an active part in moving the community forward. They design and create new recipes and design new utensils because they have in depth knowledge of their subject and experience with the materials and environments in which they work. They know what questions to ask and how to frame them. They are enculturated, if you will, into what it means to think and work like a Master Chef.

It IS important to note that not everyone wants or needs to be a Master Chef. Sometimes home cooking, or a cooking class or two, is all that IS desired. At the U-M, we are looking to technology to enhance the master chef/apprentice experience, and to the extent possible and desired, make the on-campus experience possible at off-campus locations. " - L]