Distance Education: Faculty Concerns and Sound Solutions

Article excerpt

While higher education has largely been successful in America with relatively little change and innovation, the new millennium has brought with it a renewed sense of urgency regarding the need for higher education to remake itself. Accrediting bodies, the US Department of Education, and corporate America are all reflecting the public's demands that higher education become more innovative and accountable. The greatest challenges to innovation are to be found inside our own institutions. (Palmer-Noone, 2002)

INTRODUCTION

New technologies are shaping and reshaping a unique and different educational environment in today's academic institutions for distance education. The decision to embrace or reject these new and emerging technologies will affect market opportunities for all types of institutions. "Distance education is now often defined as institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated geographically, and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources and instructors" (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2003, p. 7). In higher education, distance education is moving from optional to requisite status for institutions to remain competitive and for the students to be able to complete their courses and degree programs.

As demand increases for this type of educational alternative a variety of challenges for faculty, administration and staff have emerged. Faculty, in particular, have tended to feel the impact and at many institutions they are voicing their concerns. The more effectively an institution understands the factors that are motivating this resistance, the better able they will be to implement strategies to overcome this resistance, to change the way faculty view their role in distance education. An underlying commitment to providing the students with the best possible learning environment is the goal of any distance education program.

The best way to move ahead is to recognize and address the legitimate concerns that faculty are raising. This article presents six potential objections and ways in which administrators and decision makers may help alleviate their concerns before assuming that distance education will transition smoothly from the traditional classroom.

CONCERN 1 : IS DISTANCE EDUCATION LIKELY TO DECREASE THE SIZE OF THE FACULTY AND THREATEN JOB SECURITY?

A primary fear of the faculty is that distance education will decrease an institutions need for them. The faculty are one of the primary stakeholders in distance education. According to Rogers' (1995), "diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system." Rogers (1995) defines a social system as "a set of interrelated units that are engaged in joint problem solving to accomplish a goal." In order for a distance education program to be fully incorporated and effective, the institution must identify the early adopters. The impetus for innovation often comes from individual users of the technology. They grow in number as they communicate to each other the benefits of usage and a body of support begins to emerge. It can, in some instances, be a grass roots effort. When this happens, the chances of selling an innovation to the majority goes up. Once early adopters are identified, they must be included in the planning process and at every stage thereafter. Information must flow freely and willingly throughout the institution. As part of this process, the benefits to faculty, students, and the institution of distance education must be communicated in both verbal and written manner.

The research literature documents many advantages and disadvantages of distance education. Some of the points offered by Berge (1998) are that:

* Distance education provides an exciting infrastructure that can be used for course delivery.

* The technology being used for distance education is cross-platform. …