Magazine article University Business

Not So Distant: When Distance Educators Talk Shop, They Remind Us: In Higher Ed, the Future Is Now. (Viewpoint)

Magazine article University Business

Not So Distant: When Distance Educators Talk Shop, They Remind Us: In Higher Ed, the Future Is Now. (Viewpoint)

Article excerpt

Have you looked at your institution's "mediamix" lately? How's your progress on transforming educational content to platform-neutral, XML-tagged electronic files that permit rapid publication in a variety of forms? Are you looking seriously at replacing the course model with online "learning spaces" students can enter again and again for true lifelong learning? No? It's no surprise. We all know that issues of this sort are potentially important for higher education but, at the moment, they're not high on the agenda at virtually any traditional college or university.

At nontraditional institutions, it's quite another story. I learned this a few weeks ago at an invitation-only conference on technology and international education hosted by UNED (Spain's National Distance Education University) and the University of Maryland University College (a leading U.S. force in distance and international education). For the participants--representing academic institutions, government, and corporations in more than 30 nations--the meeting was a chance to compare notes and explore emerging issues in moving instruction across national borders. (You can hear what they said at www.umuc.edu/distance/odell/cvu/uned/proceedings.html.) For me, the day was an opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of one of higher education's most adventurous and technologically advanced subcultures, the open universities and internationally oriented institutions.

Here's what struck me:

Distance ed isn't new anymore, at least not on the level of major global players. Many institutions on the program were 20 or 30 years old, and they serve enormous student bodies. Two institutions alone, Britain's Open University and Spain's UNED, each enroll approximately 200,000 students. And size matters. Nontraditional students are an increasingly significant part of higher education; they need substantial institutions to look out for their interests.

Technology looks different to the established distance ed institutions. These schools aren't asking whether Internet instruction is possible or desirable. Instead, they've moved on to how to control costs, how to manage personal interaction with and among their students, and how to achieve the optimal "mediamix" of print, electronic, and face-to-face (or "f2f," in their jargon). The sense of sophistication was especially obvious in a talk by Alan Tait of The Open University. In his discussion, he took a frank, revealing look at the challenges facing his institution: costs, of course, but also persistence, a gender gap in completion rates, shifting government policies, and difficulties in managing online conferences. …

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