Partnering to Establish a Distance Learning Program That Is Responsive to Needs

Article excerpt

Grambling University, a nearly 100-year old historically black university in the rural deep south, found itself facing changing demographics, a globalizing economy and an advancing information age. Grambling needed to find new ways to respond: import information to its students and faculty, better serve its rural business and industry, contribute to changes occurring in Louisiana and the middle south, and serve niches in national and international markets.

However, these initiatives needed to occur in a very short time span, in one of the most impoverished areas of the U.S., and in an era of dwindling state and federal resources to higher education. This article explains how Grambling is doing what seemed an impossible task--readying itself for the 21st century.

Administrators were led to examine distance education's potential to help meet Grambling's needs. Distance education practitioners apply singularly and in combination various types of media (print, audio, video, computer) and formats (satellite TV, ITFS microwave, compressed video, VSAT, e-mail, WANs, etc.).

Given the myriad of technological possibilities, distance education seemed a plausible solution. It could possibly extend the university's market base; enable it to deliver its programs to isolated populations, including rural industry; and provide faculty and students access to outside educational experiences that would transcend the university's geographical isolation.

Having decided to move forward with distance education, the problems then became how to select the most appropriate mix of technologies to meet the university's diverse needs, and, perhaps more importantly, how to finance such an ambitious plan.

In 1989, Grambling had few technological resources and virtually no mechanisms to accommodate any sort of distance learning program. But, the campus visionaries had expansive aspirations and set about identifying the specifics involved in getting where they wanted to be. It was obvious that in addition to major acquisitions in physical infrastructure, the programmatic structure within the university to receive third-party programs and deliver Grambling-originated programs also needed to be addressed.

The following programmatic and administrative areas were considered crucial to the success of a distance education program at Grambling: 1) technical and support staff, 2) policies and procedures, 3) instructor and facilitator training, 4) program identification procedures and marketing processes, and 5) instructional design and development systems.

To establish a distance education program, Grambling needed a simultaneous two-pronged approach: 1) acquire the necessary equipment and facilities, and 2) implement the programmatic changes needed to make it all work.

* Partnering Builds Physical Infrastructure

For almost 90 years, researchers have reported a "no panacea" effect for each new educational technology--teaching machines, programmed instruction, educational TV, computers, and telecommunications.[1] Not wanting to repeat mistakes of depending exclusively on one innovation, Grambling opted instead to integrate technologies to achieve an appropriate mix of distance learning approaches that could be combined to meet unique needs. To procure the necessary multitude of technological resources, an ambitious plan was developed that included aggressively going after federal and state funds; dedicating some very scarce operating funds; and finding new, creative ways to attain the technology.

Administrators knew that Grambling could not garner the necessary expertise, political clout and fiscal resources by itself. Their plan called for establishing a series of collaborative efforts that benefited both partners.

The first such partnership began in 1988 when Grambling collaborated with the Black College Satellite Network (BCSN) in writing a grant proposal under the federal Star Schools program. …