Distance Education

By Neal, Ed | National Forum, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Distance Education


Neal, Ed, National Forum


When radio (and later, television) was introduced, almost immediately the new technology was used to supplement traditional correspondence courses (the first educational radio license was issued in 1921, the first educational television license in 1945).

Following the same pattern, two-way video and networked computing are rapidly being adapted to the needs of distance education. The power and flexibility of the new technology make it a natural choice for delivery of these courses, and most postsecondary institutions are developing distance programs using various combinations of audio, video, and computer technology. Western Governor's University is probably the most widely publicized "virtual university" in the United States, created by pooling resources from various colleges, universities, and corporations, and the Open University in England has also expanded vigorously into the Internet. Many (perhaps most) post-secondary institutions in the United States have joined consortia to provide distance-education courses. For example, the Southern Regional Electronic Campus spans 15 states and includes almost 200 institutions, from community colleges to research universities.

Although Internet-based courses have received the most attention in the popular press, their expansion has not meant the abandonment of traditional distance-education formats. Both the Open University and Western Governor's University use a variety of formats and technologies, including mail, television, video and audio tape, videoconferencing, satellite broadcasts, and email. Indeed, the Open University defines itself as a "multiple-media distance learning system," and many of its courses are taught in traditional classrooms. The University of Phoenix, a rapidly expanding proprietary school, subscribes to the same philosophy, although its offerings are still primarily residential. Clearly, the expansion of these "alternative institutions" is based less on advanced technology than on a reconceptualization of the entire enterprise of postsecondary education. Their motto seems to be "Education - anytime, anywhere, at reasonable rates."

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME?

Some of the people involved in developing these alternative institutions believe that all education in the future will be delivered via distance learning. Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant, expressed this view two years ago, confidently predicting the end of the university:

Thirty years from now the

big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive. It's as large a change as when we first got the printed book. Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? . . . Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, mean that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis.... Already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost. The college won't survive as a residential institution (Forbes 10 Mar 97).

Predictions of this sort are, of course, very unsettling to academics and administrators at traditional institutions, but I believe that fundamental forces are at work that will ensure the survival of traditional educational institutions. Although some of these factors are economic or demographic, most are based on pedagogical principles - what we know about how people learn.

Traditional residential institutions are said to be pricing themselves out of the market because the cost of tuition is rising faster than inflation. One set of statistics that seems to support this case is the percentage of median family income that is required to send a child to college. The cost of sending a student to a public university has risen from 9 percent of median family income fifteen years ago to 15 percent of median family income today (for private universities, the figure has increased from 20 percent to 40 percent). …

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