Distance versus Live Education: Points of Compromise, Points of Synergy

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Even the most isolated educator in the ivory tower most removed from the mainstream is aware of the threat (or potential) of distance education to change the face of University education. On the positive side, there are comments like "The best online courses are better than classroom teaching" (Armstrong, 2000). On the other side we have statements like "learning is a social experience for which distance-education technology is a poor substitute (Brown & Duguid, 2000). There is, it would appear, precious little middle ground--we are either entering a new era of convenience and productivity in education or being set up to fail in a most spectacular fashion.

That distance education is having an impact is unquestioned. The University of Phoenix with 16,000 students has gained both fame and fortune providing distance education. Behind the obvious impact of online programs is the perhaps more instrumental notion that distance delivery of management education represents a "disruptive technology" (Christensen, 1997) that will radically transform it. USA Today (Jones, 2000) reports Christensen predicting the Harvard MBA as a likely victim of "disruptive technology." This sentiment was reinforced at a recent conference by a senior officer at Hewlett Packard (Caldwell, 2000).

Business school faculties may be easily drawn into a position on one side or the other of the distance "debate." Doing so risks losing the opportunity to make advantage of the best elements on either side of the issue. It is hard to argue "Online learning and research add value to campus learning, but they are no substitute where students gain more than 'information' from their social relationships with teachers and other students (Brown & Duguid, 2000). It is equally difficult to ignore the obvious success of the distance providers.

"Live" versus "Distance" should not be viewed as exclusive alternatives but instead as extremes of a spectrum that incorporates elements of both to varying degrees. Taking this perspective, the question becomes one of incrementally incorporating distance features into a live course or live features into distance with the objective of achieving a result superior to either extreme.

DEGREES OF DISTANCE

Proponents and opponents of distance education each make an extreme case, not acknowledging that an integrated or mixed approach might well prove superior to either taken alone. The two sides are not all that "pure," live education has used distance methodologies (web sites, email communication, and other technologies have been used from their earliest availability to support the classroom process) and distance delivery is often mitigated with meetings between faculty and students. Capella University (www.capella.edu), a leading provider of distance education for example, holds focused seminars in several states to support distance delivery of courses and programs.

A mix of live and distance methods in a course holds the potential for producing a result superior to either method taken singly. We adopt the term "Mixed Mode" to characterize courses that incorporate elements of both distance and live models. Mixed Mode instruction, in this context, is defined as partial delivery of course content by electronic means. This definition goes beyond supporting web sites for courses, text web sites, or delivery of enrichment materials electronically. For purposes of this exposition, Mixed Mode instruction is accomplished by presenting material that would otherwise be presented as lecture in a class setting, in electronic form. Other course attributes are largely unchanged.

A Mixed Mode course takes elements of distance and live instruction and combines them to produce a result superior to either taken singly. The basic notion is that the combination will ultimately produce a synergistic effect that offsets the disadvantages inherent in either mode alone. …