The Changing Contexts of Higher Education and Four Possible Futures
for Distance Education
University of Minnesota
The context in which higher education functions is changing dramatically;
consideration of the current and potential role of distance education in
MinnesotaUs higher education community should take into account these
changes. In particular, policy makers need to examine the distance education
futures available, evaluate and select a preferred future or futures, and
sure that public policy and regulatory considerations enable rather than
inhibit achievement of this future.
For the purposes of discussion, this document adopts Michael Moore's 1990
definition of distance education. "Distance education consists of all
arrangements for providing instruction through print or electronic
communications media to persons engaged in planned learning in a place or
different from that of the instructor or instructors." Note that this
definition incorporates the concept of "transactional distance" as well
traditional notion of geographic distance. Thus, on-campus instruction in
which the act of teaching is separate from the act of learning, as in,
computer-based language instruction or individualized tutorials and
in any number of disciplines, is included in this definition.
This document has two parts; the first part provides a brief overview of
factors changing higher education. These factors are primarily external
education, but some are internal. These can be thought of as the drivers of
change and potential change. Not every higher education institution will be
affected to the same degree by the drivers. Educational institutions cannot
choose whether or not to be affected by these drivers; they can, however,
choose how they will respond.
The second part of the document offers descriptions of four possible futures.
These are not preferred futures, nor even the most likely futures;
futures described here represent several points along a continuum of possible
change. It is probable that the next decade will find higher education
institutions situated at many points on that continuum, but the drivers,
with current institutional mission and characteristics, as well as
institutional responses to the drivers, will be significant in
determining that placement.
Changing Opportunities and Constraints: External and Internal
In higher education, globalization is leading to increased emphasis on
internationalization of the curriculum; it is also contributing to
opportunities for new partnerships for research and teaching with
agencies and institutions
across the globe. Another aspect of globalization, especially in light
evolution of communications technology, is the increased permeability of
Globalization may be a source of new students or may contribute to loss
of the international students whom we have traditionally attracted.
B. Changing demographics
Longer lives, longer work days, larger urban areas, more diverse populations,
more frequent moves -- all of these affect higher education. Despite the
bust" with its decrease in what has been thought of as the college-aged
higher education has continued to see increases in those seeking its
The continued expansion of major metropolitan areas with corresponding
increases in vehicle traffic has been coupled with decreased spending on
construction leaving many urban dwellers with only theoretical proximity
nearest educational institutions.
Higher education will have to find ways of dealing with, responding to, and,
ideally, benefitting from these trends. Those institutions which are
satisfy needs created or exacerbated by demographic change will almost
certainly find a large market for their programs and services.
C. Restructuring of employment
ItUs been predicted that the average worklife in the future will consist
or seven different careers carried out sequentially. Life-long learning is
becoming a necessity rather than the enrichment opportunity it may have
the past. More students who already possess a degree are looking for
vocational courses (that is, courses expected to improve job or career
employers continue to reduce the number of core (ie. benefitted) employees,
more of these students may be paying directly for the education they need
or remain employable.
Some of these students may be interested in accumulating degree credits
(perhaps for M.A. or M.S.) but over a relatively long period of time.
Another aspect of restructuring in the workplace, telecommuting, may
significantly influence the delivery of higher education. Communities in
Europe, in Hawaii and in Fredericksburg, VA. are creating telecommuting
facilities to allow their residents to work for distant employers. The
of people working from home will continue to increase.
Will these facilities also be designed to accommodate and even encourage
D. Technological change
There is little reason to believe that the rate of technology change will
decrease. Likewise, the rate at which new technologies are penetrating
businesses and especially homes can be expected to increase. One possible
impact of changing technologies is a move away from site-based delivery of
education to more flexible, learner-selected options.
Whether access to and pricing of these new technologies will advantage or
disadvantage educational users is an issue that should be of intense interest
to the educational community.
E. Demand for accountability
Educational institutions will continue to feel this pressure. Control of
costs, elimination of duplication (and in some cases, unique options
perceived to be
too costly) and evidence of other efficiencies receive a lot of attention
legislatures and higher education regulating agencies. Similarly demands for
greater productivity in higher education will continue to be heard with
frequency than anytime in the past.
Along with the focus on accountability comes pressure to adopt "the
businessmodel" with its greater emphasis on "the bottom line."
So far, many would argue, we have seen more rhetoric than results.
Certainly, faculty productivity is part of the issue, but increasingly
concern for student productivity and with it attention to such measures as
contact hours and seat time.
Higher educationUs consumers have become much more sophisticated. They too
look for accountability, but they also seek quality. They are more
likely to define
quality in the language of the quality improvement movement, that is,
satisfaction of customer needs, than in the traditional measures of quality
used in higher education, that is, rich resources as represented by the
libraries, staff to student ratios, and the number and size of grants and
contracts won by the faculties. They look to increased competition among
education providers to work to their advantage as consumers. They expect a
market bounded by competitive pricing (tuition) and differentiation
G. Expectations by employers and business
There is increased interest in partnerships -- between the business world and
the academy and among education entities. Distance education consortia
example, so are K-12 and university partnerships.
Where some businesses have been unable to achieve appropriate
educators, they have formed their own, degree-granting or credentialing
some of which serve non-employees as well. Higher education institutions are
being called upon to more clearly define their roles in training and
credentialing as well as education and learning.
H. Rate of knowledge growth
Our response to the growth in knowledge has been to expand our
more disciplines, more departments, more faculty specialization, more courses
and, of course, ever larger faculties, libraries and facilities. Given the
constrained resources we now face and likely to be available to education for
the foreseeable future, it is clear the era of growth has ended. What is not
clear, is how our campuses will adapt to this condition.
I. New ideas about teaching and learning
Lots of exciting discussions are taking place: about the curriculum;
we teach and learn; about what experiences are essential to the educated
person; about the appropriate balance between education for a career and
its own sake; about "time to degree" and about a myriad other aspects of what
constitutes higher education. Some of the more stimulating ideas are those
that look at the coherence of curricula and at the ways in which we can
students in becoming active learners, teaching students how to learn as
specific subject matter. We have also discovered much more about individual
learning styles and are adjusting our teaching practices to reflect this
Technologies and other factors will contribute to dramatic changes in faculty
and learner roles.
Distance education programs have a head start in these arenas and ought
able to find ways to capitalize on it.
J. Campus demographics
Our faculties as well as our students are getting older. As faculty retire,
resource limitations will drive institutions to smaller faculties, at least
smaller tenured faculties, supplemented with itinerant faculty and other
instructional staff. We may even see an increase in the outsourcing of
instructional functions, comparable to what has taken place in
non-instructional services. Preserving or enhancing the diversity of our
faculties will be a
challenge in this environment.
Diverse student populations are a given, but how we respond to them is not.
Having sought and attained students of color, older students, and others who
have been traditionally underrepresented on our campuses, how will we create
communities that truly include them without losing the uniqueness that they
bring? Do distance education and telecommunications technologies give us
K. Concern for community
There is a growing interest in campuses as communities, particularly in how
large institutions can recapture the sense of belonging that some
been lost. Most of the writing on this topic focuses on students.
Faculty question the fragmentation that seems to have come with greater
specialization; it looks to interdisciplinary research and teaching and
of faculty teams to create a new sense of community. However, teams have
largely ignored by our reward systems.
One of the problems faced in distance education is the need for collaboration
in the development of courses and programs that has made distance education
notably different from other academic effort.
L. Restructuring and new patterns of decision making in higher education
As higher education has encountered a more competitive era,
boards are examining administrative structures and decision making
see if changes would provide a competitive advantage. TQM, consolidated
colleges and departments, and new approaches to literally hundreds of
are some of the ways in which these concerns are being addressed within our
Outside the U.S. there have been experiments with academic credit banks,
agencies which offer no courses or student services but provide a repository
for students to deposit credits and, when certain requirements have been
RaccreditedS degree. Institutions without campuses but with a discrete
faculty, institutions without either campus or faculty, for example the
Technological University, have been tried on a limited scale, and some have
It would be foolish to try here to assume the full impact of all of these
drivers on any specific higher education institution or system; individual
institutions should do this as part of their ongoing planning. But, it is
possible to make educated guesses about the relative direction and degree of
impact of combined drivers on the overall system of higher education. Higher
education is, however, unlikely to produce timely, effective and appropriate
responses if it does not first acknowledge these drivers as potent forces for
Four Possible Futures for Distance Education
The four futures which follow are not exhaustive; they do not represent the
most likely or most preferred futures. They do represent a continuum from
relatively modest change as it might be reflected in distance education
institutional change played out across many dimensions including distance
Although quality is often the issue raised first in academic discussions of
distance education, for the purposes of examining and selecting distance
education futures it is useful to recall that decades of research on a
of distance education delivery options show that well-designed distance
education is as good as or better than classroom delivery of comparable
in terms of student learning. This finding holds across student populations,
technologies, and subject matters.
Finally, it is important to state that none of the futures offered here
the complete disappearance of other options. If there is one thing we
about change, it is that more flexibility, rather than less, is apt to be one
of our greatest resources. Traditional, residential undergraduate and
education will continue to be the options of choice for many students at some
time during their educational career, but they need no longer be the only
Future 1: Higher Education Continues To Be Campus- and Classroom-Based
Post-secondary institutions continue to function as they do today. The
use of distance education is to allow the faculty member to be in two
one time, usually two RcampusesS or other educational sites. The primary
of instruction is faculty directed (lecture, discussion, etc.), and
is used to reinforce or support the instructor.
Influence of Drivers
Institutions will respond to a greater or lesser extent to any of the drivers
noted, but the primary drivers are likely to be: Changing Demographics (on
campus and off), and the pressures of Consumerism.
The role of the faculty member is largely unchanged from current practice,
although he or she may receive support from technical staff in the
of supporting materials for use in instruction, especially for use with
The student is expected to attend classes at a set time and locale, although
the site may be distant from the instructor; students continue to learn
(classroom) settings with a stable cohort. Some instructional support
materials may be available via technology -- library catalog access,
etc. Progress is tied to contact hours and academic terms.
Institutional Role and Requirements
The role of the college or university is unchanged. Distance education
exception rather than the norm and is marginal to the RrealS mission of the
institution. As a result issues related to distance education are dealt with
on an ad hoc basis. No new requirements are placed on the institution.
Public Policy/Regulatory Interests
The approach to public policy is one of accommodation in current policies to
ensure that the relatively small numbers of distance learners are not
disadvantaged by existing rules and regulations. Questions concerning
financial aid, for example, will need to be addressed when students are
through other than their home institution.
Future 2: Delivery Of Higher Education Begins To Move Away From Fixed
Sites And Times
While higher education institutions continue to exist in a manner much
see today, learners are able to access instruction in a richer delivery
environment. In addition to the traditional classroom instruction, students
can easily take courses from other "approved" institutions in real time or
asynchronously through the use of various mediating technologies. Whole
courses or course modules designed to work well for students with
styles have become widely available. It is possible that a few national (or
even international) higher education institutions may begin to emerge with
highly specialized curricula delivered to narrowly targeted students over a
wide geographic area.
Influence of Drivers
The primary drivers are likely to be Accountability and New Ideas About
Teaching and Learning with secondary influences coming from Technological
Restructured Employment; however, individual campuses may be influenced
of the drivers.
Faculty members still spend the bulk of their teaching time in the classroom,
but recognition and rewards for the development of technology-mediated
and/or courses are available. Faculty have access to technical support
work in course development teams with other faculty and non-faculty. Most
faculty will be expected to teach at a distance on at least an occasional
basis. Revisions to the curriculum will take into account the
availability of courses
and course resources from other institutions.
While students are still functioning within a system based on contact
terms, they have access to a broader array of courses and delivery options.
Most students will experience some distance learning -- courses delivered
remote sites and/or faculty in other institutions, courses delivered via
technology to the individual learner in the home or workplace.
used regularly to enhance the quality of classroom instruction. Some
may receive a significant part of their instruction via alternative
sites, but most students will continue to have a more traditional experience.
Institutional Role and Requirements
Higher education institutions use their human and other resources in slightly
different ways. Distance education and other uses of instructional
require that technical staff work more closely with faculty to address
instructional issues. Rather than deal on an ad hoc basis with issues
to distance education, institutions establish new practices and
for example, identifying and approving courses from other sites that may be
used to supplement their own offerings. Campuses find that some resources
previously expended for faculty must be redirected to support technical
assistance and the
purchase of instructional materials.
Public Policy/Regulatory Interests
Legislatures, governing boards and higher education agencies may develop new
policies but are likely to continue to make adjustments in existing
necessary to accommodate expanded use of distance education. Emergent
institutions may decide to operate without state approval.
Future 3: Higher Education Institutions Are Differentiated By
of Distance Education and Instructional Technologies
In this scenario, post-secondary institutions are likely to move in two
divergent directions. Minnesota may find itself with representatives of
Description - A
Traditional post-secondary institutions function in a more collaborative
offer courses, programs and degrees to MinnesotaUs learners. While most
students still spend time on campus, institutions are sharing faculty
and courseware to enrich the educational experience and avoid duplication of
expensive, low-demand courses and programs. Few students will leave
Minnesota's post-secondary institutions without having taken
technology-mediated courses as
well as courses taught by distant faculty. For example, language majors will
take courses/seminars offered by collaborating institutions in foreign
countries. Unique programs and resources housed in Minnesota are
learners nationally and internationally.
Even in the most traditional institutions, the research functions of higher
education are becoming clearly separated from the instructional functions.
This trend is driven in part by changes in patterns of federal funding
Description - B
Some students are able to earn degrees and other credentials without
attend (physically) a campus. Some campuses that existed in 1994 have been
retrofitted to function primarily or exclusively as independent learning
facilities or "campuses without faculty." A small but significant
MinnesotaUs learner population is served by institutions having no physical
presence in Minnesota; these institutions may be premier, traditional
universities with renowned programs (such as MIT or Stanford) or emergent,
specialized institutions which may operate with or without program approvals.
Influence of Drivers - A
While all drivers have some influence, RAS institutions are particularly
responsive to Globalization, Technological Change, and interest in Community.
Influence of Drivers - B
Again, all drivers exert influence, but RBS institutions have been most
affected by Expectations by Employers and Business, Campus Demographics
Structures and Patterns of Decision Making in Higher Education.
Faculty Perspective - A
Most faculty have experience in designing and delivering distance learning
opportunities; often they are members of relatively stable course development
teams which include instructional support personnel, assessment specialists,
and technical staff. Teaching effort is measured in course development
progress of individual students as well as classroom contact hours.
Faculty Perspective - B
Faculty have students, especially at the undergraduate level, whom they see
infrequently (or never). This necessitates new approaches to assessment and
academic feedback. Other faculty find that although they have significant
face-to-face contact with students, they function primarily as
learning (advising, counseling, directing to intellectual resources,
and rarely "teach" or develop a course.
Student Perspective - A
Students find that they are encouraged to choose from multiple options for
completing specific courses based on learning style and educational
Career- or vocationally-oriented students may be mentored in their last terms
by practitioners from outside the campus community, while students
extend their educational experience may have access to disciplinary experts
from throughout the nation or world.
Student Perspective - B
Because students do not RattendS courses on campus, students are grouped in
cohorts based on their learning styles and academic interests. Ongoing
interaction among members of a cohort enriches and extends the learning
experience; faculty participate in these groups and/or serve as facilitators.
Student progress is based on skill and concept mastery rather than contact
hours or fixed terms, although most students continue to use the academic
term as a
tool for managing their time and gauging their progress.
resources, mentoring) and rarely RteachS or develop a course.
Institutional Role and Requirements - A and B
Institutions develop and maintain programs through a continuous process of
market research, follow-up with previous students/graduates, and interaction
with employers and graduate schools. Clearly articulated missions and
demonstrated success in carrying out those missions are the bases for funding
new programs and continuing support for existing programs to serve Minnesota
residents. Unique, high-quality offerings are marketed to a wide range of
other institutions and individuals in the U.S. and elsewhere. Institutional
partnerships that provide seamless transitions for learners from K - 12 to
post-secondary to continuing education encourage commitment and continuity.
The move away from contact hours and fixed-term courses requires new
tuition; the move away from site-based educational delivery requires
kinds of capital investment for infrastructure.
In RAS institutions, there is an emphasis on partnerships with other higher
education providers in the U.S. and elsewhere. These partnerships include
shared faculty and shared courses as well as other resources, ie.
In RBS institutions, resources are expended on course materials,
technologies and academic support. Some or all of these may be purchased
other higher education institutions.
Public Policy/Regulatory Interests - A and B
In addition to modifications in existing policies, policy makers must develop
new policies and new methods of measuring success. For example, competition
could lead to institutions only attending to those special interests/needs
which would ensure high student enrollments. To protect societyUs
will require mechanisms that encourage the availability of a wide array of
educational programs and learner options. Policy makers will have to
whether market forces can adequately and fairly shape the higher education
sector, whether intervention is required, and, if so, how that
be provided efficiently and effectively.
Future 4: Higher Education: Consortia Versus
The focus in higher education has moved from the institutions that deliver
learning opportunities to learners and meet broad social interests. While
longstanding higher education institutions continue to meet the needs of many
learners, many such institutions have disappeared. In response to
funding which follows the learner rather than the institution,
providers abound; many of them from the for-profit sectors. The successful
higher education institutions have formed consortia (cartels) which
to work collectively to meet a wide range of student needs and control costs;
however, credentials -- including degrees -- can be obtained through a
of mechanisms and institutions.
The research functions which have traditionally been a part of American
universities are now clearly separate from the educational functions of those
A range of specialized national (and international) higher education
institutions are actively seeking students from Minnesota. For example,
undergraduates studying Latin America take all their courses from world
in that area. Core and collateral courses, including lab sciences and
meeting distribution requirements, are taught in Spanish.
Influence of Drivers
Depending on their strategic niche, higher education institutions may
capitalize on any combination of the drivers.
Faculty function as entrepreneurs with loose institutional ties, if any, or
within a single institution as learning facilitators. Individual faculty,
especially those who excell in the teaching role, may be on the faculties
technology and independent course packets) of any number of institutions or
marketing their courses and programs directly to learners. Some of the best
teaching faculty have been hired by the for-profit education providers, who
provide them with highly competent teams of instructional support staff.
The many roles combined in 1994-style higher education in a single faculty
member are now discrete. Faculty may specialize as developers of courses and
courseware, presenters of that material, expert assessors of learning and
competencies, advisors or in other, still evolving, roles.
Individual learners decide whether to affiliate with a specific higher
education institution or function as independent students buying courses
from a long list
of providers. In the later case, the learner banks credits with a public
learning agency or a for-profit organization providing credentialing
The agency or organization determines whether students have met the criteria
necessary to receive a specific credential (certificate, degree or other)
if warranted, awards it. The economics of supply and demand keep the
basic courses and programs low, while unique offerings garner higher incomes
for their providers.
Institutional Role and Requirements
A considerable number of higher education institutions have disappeared.
that remain have worked hard to deliver high-quality programs to well-defined
markets. Hiring practices have changed to ensure that those hired to
extremely well qualified to do so. Faculties are much smaller, but
teachers (including the facilitator role) are well compensated. Resources
previously expended to build and maintain campuses are, in large measure,
redeployed to instructional activities.
Public Policy/Regulatory Interests
The challenge to policy makers has been to determine what interests are not
well served by allowing market forces to operate freely. With the stream of
financial resources for higher education following the student rather
institution, legislatures have developed a new level of sophistication about
learning (as opposed to education), and regulatory agencies have had to
completely revamp their approaches to financial aid, program approval, and
assessment. In order to adequately protect consumer (student) interests,
rigorous outcome measures have been implemented. Some states have eliminated
agencies which formerly regulated higher education. Credit banks,
the public or private sector, have in some instances begun to serve as de
regulatory agencies and have accepted the role of protecting the
the student record (consumer protection focus).
Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) and the State Higher Education Executive
This document and the four futures contained in it have been prepared as part
of a multi-state research project supported by the Fund for the
Officers (SHEEO) organization. The goal of the research overall is to
possible redesign efforts that would help to create a more
cost-effective system for higher education. MinnesotaUs portion of the
has been structured to examine issues related to the current and potential
roles of distance education and instructional technologies in the
reshaping of higher
As noted at the beginning of the document, the futures presented in it
intended to represent the best or most preferred options; they are
describe a range of more and less extreme possibilities reflecting those
which are expected to have the greatest effect on higher education over the
Based on feedback from a sample of students, faculty, administrators, student
support personnel and policy makers the futures will be revised and the
implications of each examined in greater detail.