Distance Education's Best Kept Secrets


In a relatively short period of time, distance education has been transformed from a quaint irrelevancy to a lightning rod for change on many university campuses. The Web might prove most valuable as a standardized platform from which various technological solutions can be launched and not as a stand alone technology for instructional delivery. Nevertheless, those who think the Web is the ultimate solution to all instructional problems should review the research literature of the 1950's stating the same thing ... about the overhead projector! Understanding the reality of distance education can be accelerated by thoughtfully considering what could be labeled as "Distance Education's Best Kept Secrets":

1. Distance education is about increasing access, not making money.

Those who look to distance education as a revenue-generating machine resulting in financial windfalls are typically disappointed when they factor in the true costs of this endeavor. These costs include hardware/software, system maintenance/upgrading, telecommunication charges, technical support, faculty/program development and evaluation, student support ... and a myriad of personnel and infrastructure costs associated with these vital components and services. Even today, it is not unusual for faculty to drive 200 to 300 miles a week to meet with students located far from campus. The costs of such enterprises in terms of time, energy, and faculty goodwill are excessive.

This is not to say that distance education is without its financial benefits. Many Land Grant institutions, for example, provide statewide educational programs and services. A few years ago, this could entail chartering aircraft to fly faculty to remote outreach or extension centers in various locations served by the Land Grant institution.

2. There is no technological "silver bullet."

Every new technology is accompanied by its share of advocates proclaiming it to be the ultimate delivery tool promising to solve all instructional problems, even those yet to be identified. Even those at the forefront of technological innovation candidly admit that they are unsure where the future of technology will lead their companies.

For institutions that cannot invest in every potentially instructional delivery innovation that emerges (unlike companies that can afford to invest heavily), my best advice is to avoid technological solutions in search of instructional problems. Instead, focus on the requirements of the content being delivered, learner needs, tangible instructional opportunities (e.g., the need to provide computer training for teachers), and potential obstacles (e.g., limited bandwidth to the locations you serve). Attend to these requirements and the most appropriate technological solutions will become apparent.

3. The only constant in the world of instructional technology is change.

Anticipating change and technological directions is always challenging and filled with uncertainty. Move too fast and your technological upgrade will be obsolete before it is fully implemented. Move too slowly and your programmatic market share could slip before you can catch up. Just as damaging, failure to innovate will signal to your competition and potential markets that your program is no longer viable.

In a world of technological change, timing is everything. Those who learn to embrace technological innovation when the timing is right will be the big winners. The rest will be left to fight over the crumbs.

4. Lasting technological change is typically the result of evolution not revolution.

Over the past 30 years, technological innovation has evolved in a fairly consistent manner. Over time, the once proclaimed technological cure-all takes its place among other teaching tools and fades from the forefront of technological innovation and into the hands of those who can put the benefits of the technology to best use.

5. The emphasis of distance education should be in the quality of the academic program, not in the use of technology.

Selecting technology is easy compared to the focused attention and subtle insights needed to design, develop, and implement a truly effective academic program. Instructional delivery experiences that rely almost solely on technology (e.g., first-generation Web-based courses) with little apparent influence and day-to-day involvement of a thoughtful and skilled teacher may generate initial student interest. But without adequate course design, focused faculty attention, and student readiness, there may be little hope for the overall instructional program, or the promise it originally offered.

6. There is no glory in managing instructional technology.

You'd think there would be, but there isn't. Keeping up with technology is a never-ending battle filled with unmet expectations, too few resources, and the need to constantly plan ahead realizing that the technology that you are implementing today is likely already dated and on the road to obsolescence. Without exceptional management skills and a thick skin, those involved are at the mercy of technological innovations that don't exist today, but will be demanded tomorrow.

7. Learning is enhanced when technology is used to directly link students to other students.

The lack of effective and personalized student-student interaction and feedback is the potential "Achilles heel" of distance education. Conversely, the need for effective distant student-student interaction provides a great opportunity to creatively use technology. In my experience, effective instruction almost always requires that a fully engaged teacher establish the learning framework, even when the target audience consists of highly motivated adults. In fact, whether it is teacher-to-student or student-to-student interaction, learning is enhanced when technology is used to improve communication.

8. Face-to-face instruction is still a valid delivery method in support of distance delivered courses ... when possible.

Many assume that there is no need for face-to-face instruction in distance-delivered courses. Nevertheless, it is better to rule out personal contact as impractical or instructionally irrelevant than it is to fail considering it in the first place. Some of the best distance-delivered courses have well integrated components in which teachers meet directly with students, either individually, in small groups, or with the entire class. Experienced distance education faculty report that the student comfort level in using technology increases significantly if the students and instructor meet early in the course and develop a personal working relationship.

9. Many faculty are comfortable when distant students from other institutions take their classes, but don't like their students taking classes from faculty at other institutions.

This is a major stumbling block to cooperative distance education ventures and has limited the success of strategic partnerships. The best partnerships are forged when specific academic needs are identified and on-campus expertise is absent. In these cases, competition is not a factor and both sending and receiving institutions benefit. Despite being a major institutional and political motivator for the initial start-up of distance education efforts, true academic alliances have proven elusive and are the exception, not the rule.

In Summary

At its core, distance education is a changing process, not a delivery system, and higher education culture has historically proven resistant to change. Perhaps the greatest benefit of distance education is its potential role as a catalyst for adapting the way educational institutions do business. For institutions that are up to the challenge, the current interest and growth in distance learning presents a new opportunity.

Although the dangers of competing and failing in this new world of educational access may pose significant problems, the refusal to look ahead, take calculated risks, and move forward may be the greatest risk of all.