Rare is today's institution of higher education that does not use some distributed learning technology -- e-mail, Web sites, chat rooms or the like -- in at least some of its courses or programs. Most have gone beyond this, perhaps planning how to use these technologies not only for their traditional students, but also to reach new audiences through distance learning. A growing number of colleges and universities, in fact, are launching distance learning programs delivered by a variety of new communications and information technologies.
The University of Pennsylvania has begun exploring this new electronic learning landscape in a variety of ways, including virtual classroom discussions among faculty and students, a new pre-freshman course that introduces students to Penn even before they arrive on campus and a variety of new professional continuing education initiatives. The new electronic tools allow us to extend learning beyond the traditional classroom and provide new options for how and when students can learn. They allow us to take advantage of some of the most up-to-date research results anywhere in the world, and they also allow us to reach new students anywhere in the world.
These notions were anticipated in Penn's 1995 strategic plan, Agenda for Excellence. One of the plan's nine goals states:
"The University will creatively deploy new technologies, recognizing that technology is revolutionizing the ways in which knowledge is acquired, created and disseminated."
Toward that end, in Fall of 1997 the Provost convened a Committee on Distributed Learning to assess the changing landscape of academic programs and delivery technologies and to recommend strategic directions. That Committee's April 1998 Report proposed that the basic objective in the area of distributed learning should be predicated on the institution's position as a premier teaching and research university:
"This new environment carries with it both enormous promise and considerable risk -- the …