Distance Education
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1992, 1(4), 5-6. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Audio teleconferencing, interactive or two-way video, and other electronic delivery systems are being used more and more frequently to reach distance-learners. The three components to be considered in selecting delivery systems are programming, faculty competence in dealing with non-traditional education, and evaluation of the success of student learning. The University of Wyoming has utilized distance learning for several years and contends that the success of the program depends on faculty development, class-by-class feedback forms, midterm feedback session, and end-of-term evaluations by both faculty and students.

With respect to faculty development, teaching via technology is different from face-to-face teaching. Much additional effort must go into recruitment of and pre-course discussions with faculty, workshops and seminars that teach instructional design and facilitation of distance learning programs, and on-going coaching sessions for instructors.

Systematic formative evaluation feedback must be gathered to monitor the distance learning progress of students early in the course and throughout the course in order to make necessary adjustments. Small groups at distance learning sites provide assessments at the beginning of each session, with a more extensive midterm session, to keep learning on track.

Summative end-of-term evaluations by faculty and students are used to help them become more comfortable with the technology and improve the course in the future. [Shaeffer, J. M. & Farr, C. W. (1993, April). Evaluation: A key piece in the distance education puzzle. Technological Horizons in Education, 20 (9), pp. 79-82. Submitted by Sylvia Pierce, Fayetteville (NC) Technical Community College]


Two trends, the virtual corporation and distance learning, are inevitably going to converge in a number of possible combinations. One of the most obvious is the virtual university. If the campus is an electronic metaphor rather than a physical place, then its various classrooms and learning resource facilities need not be those of a single institution. In many respects, when students sit in a library on campus or at home and search the catalogs of the National Library of Medicine, Ben Gurion University and a commercially provided news service, they have already entered a virtual library. When they download, over the Internet, self-study software developed by faculty at another university, they are even closer to the virtual university. The challenge for universities, as it is for any other institution, will be whether they can approach virtuality with the required skills and commitments. Among these are:

  • Task specific communication and coordination: This is the ability collectively and rapidly to establish a vision of the task at hand, to understand the abilities and limitations of all participating individuals and institutions, and to establish responsibilities in such a way that each set of strengths is used best.
  • Trust and autonomy: Bureaucracy and the unwillingness to delegate authority will sink any virtual arrangement, because decision times will increase exponentially with respect to the number of participating institutions.
  • Customer centeredness: Once the virtual institution is a commonplace for the user, competitiveness will dictate that all participants make the user's satisfaction uppermost. The student or customer will no longer be a captive audience/market.
  • Rapid, credible evaluation: This is as important to the virtual corporation as it is to the distance learning program. For both, it is the measure of quality and of customer satisfaction, and it is the most effective basis for continued cooperation and coordination.

In general, the more effectively we create the virtual university, the more prepared our students will be for the virtual corporation.

We should, however, recognize several questions. If campuses become electronic metaphors housed in multiple institutions, who sets the standards? Who grants the degree? What kind of degree?

Other implications: in the virtual university students can tap into the ongoing discussion of senior researchers and scholars, and may contribute to these discussions. Will this clarify or further cloud the research versus teaching controversy? Too, in virtual universities boundaries are even more permeable; small research teams unconnected (or barely connected via adjunct appointments) and therefore unencumbered by bureaucratic regulations, may function more innovatively and efficiently than senior research staffs within the university. How will established institutions respond to, take advantage of, or react against, these trends.

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