Saturday, December 17, 2011

Convergence or Transformation: Optional Futures for Distance Education

Note:  This is a reposting of a speech that I gave on June 11, 2008, at the National University Telecommunications Network conference in Park City, Utah, where I received a distinguished service award.  

In 1992, I was invited by the American Center for the Study of Distance Education to project long-term trends in the field.  It was an interesting time to be looking forward.   We were about a decade into the rise of video in distance education—the movement from correspondence study to broadcast telecourses and satellite-delivered live interactive courses (the latter of which had spurred creation of NUTN in the early 1980s), but it was clear that the Internet was on the horizon.   I identified four trends:
·      The simultaneous diversification and convergence of technologies.
·      Changing relationships with students
·      Changing relationships among institutions
·      The emergence of a new mainstream
            On the technology side—this was a year before the first web browser I hasten to note—there were already multiple ways to deliver video, audio, and print and to facilitate interaction through all three media.   It was clear, however, that, amid this diversity, institutions needed to think in terms of convergence.   We could not afford to have video, audio, print, and computer all in separate organizational silos.  My prediction was that “organizational structures that do not facilitate a mixing of technologies will find it difficult to reach their full potential in this new environment.”   This, in turn, would create a “new institutional infrastructure” where use of technology for instruction would be considered alongside its use for administrative and research applications, creating a “broader community of interest.” 
            If that was true for the technologies of the early 1990s, it is true in spades today as we consider how the Internet has changed the university infrastructure and created new communities (or, in the absence of these communities, has paralyzed innovation) at our institutions.   
            The second trend was a changing relationship between our institutions and our students and, particularly, the rise of synchronous and asynchronous “learning communities” as a critical pedagogical issue.   I also mentioned another relationship issue: the rise of the “empowered student” or “community of scholars” as a result of students having better direct access to large databases, video and textual materials—what we now call “learning objects.”   This trend, I suggested, “will require that we rethink our definition of instruction, our assessment of learning, and our ideas about curriculum.”
            Today, we are still experimenting in this area, but with much higher stakes as the Web moves from a publishing environment to a collaboration environment and we enter what some are calling a “conversation economy.”    Blogs, wikis, Facebook, You-Tube, social bookmarking—all of these Web 2.0 applications are creating a demand for a new, more collaborative, more inquiry-oriented approach to learning—on campus and off—that reflects how people use technology at work and at home.   The goal posts have moved a long way ahead of us on this issue, but there are some great things happening around the world as educators experiment with these new tools and as institutions and governments begin to set new policies on sharing content.
             The third trend area was a forecast that the use of new technologies would also change relationships among institutions.   The examples I cited in 1992—the University of Mid-America, the International University Consortium, the National Universities Degree Consortium and the Mind Extension University—have long since passed from the scene, but we are seeing new forms of collaboration.  Two examples point to the scope of change that is now gathering momentum:  the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance (IDEA) and its mission of offering collaborative online degree programs for adults that no single institution can offer alone, and the CourseShare initiative in the CIC—the academic counterpart of the Big Ten—which uses online learning to share rarely-taught language across institutions to regular, full-time undergraduates on campus.    When you look internationally, you can begin to see potential that is just now being explored.   In the international sphere, collaboration takes many forms.  Almost every regional association for open and distance education has an initiative to develop quality standards that will facilitate sharing, for instance.  There are individual examples of institutions sharing courses at the graduate level, such as Penn State, the Universities of Leeds and Southampton in the UK allowing their graduate students to take online courses in Geographic Information Systems from each other’s programs.  Perhaps the most dramatic collaborative initiative internationally is the Open Educational Resources movement.   Here, the potential was articulated by a leadership group that met in Cape Town, South Africa, and issues the “Cape Town Declaration:”
…we call on educators, authors and institutions to release their resources openly. These open educational resources should be licensed to facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone, ideally imposing no legal constraints other than a requirement by the creator for appropriate attribution or the sharing of derivative works. Resources should be published in formats that facilitate both use and editing, and that accommodate a diversity of technical platforms. Whenever possible, they should also be available in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities and people who do not yet have access to the Internet.

            I projected one other trend back in 1992:  The emergence of a new mainstream in American higher education in which distance education is fully integrated into a broader institutional strategy to respond to what I called the “currents of social change.”    This has been a little less easy to track, but I suspect each institution represented here has seen some evidence of this kind of convergence.  At Penn State, for instance, our online distance education program, the World Campus—which offered its first fully online courses a decade ago—is now a leading part of a broader institution-wide consortium called Penn State Online that tries to coordinate among the many different applications of online learning for students on campus and inter-campus, as well as at a distance.   Several degree programs developed for distance education are now being offered as “blended” programs at some of our smaller campuses; some academic colleges have created their own online services to support on-campus instruction and then make these courses available to World Campus students.  We an also point to project like the National enter for Academic Transformation and the CIC CourseShare initiative as examples of distance education techniques being used to improve instruction on campus. 
            Another evidence of convergence—of the mainstreaming of distance education—is the incredible growth in the number of institutions that now offer degree programs online to off-campus students and, equally important, a commitment not just to courses, but to complete degree programs.   As far back as 2004, the annual Sloan survey, Growing by Degrees, reported that 44 percent of all institutions that offered Master’s degree programs offered at least one program online.  Sixty-five percent of institutions were using primarily core faculty to teach their online courses—a rate comparable to face-to-face courses.    In short, online distance education is emerging as an ongoing commitment of academic units, reflected in the long-term commitment to degree programs and to the assignment of core faculty to serve both on-campus and distant students.
            The most recent Sloan report—Online Nation—notes that the number of students taking at least one online course has growth to 3.48 million in 2006, more than double the number reported four years earlier (p.7).   While the Sloan surveys do not distinguish between truly distant students, full-time commuter students, and resident on-campus students, I think it is safe to assume that this dramatic growth is the result not just of increases in adult students at a distance but also increases in the number of commuter students taking online courses for convenience and scheduling flexibility, and the number of full-time on-campus students taking online course as part of their campus curriculum.   In fact, a Penn State undergraduate student told me last year that he has not had one semester in which he did not have at least one course that had a significant online component.
             However, online learning is not having an equal effect at all institutions.  Online Nation reported that the greatest impact is in public colleges and universities, with community colleges leading, followed by public universities.  The impact has been least felt on private, baccalaureate institutions (p. 12).   In other words, those institutions that have a mission to serve off-campus or commuter students are more likely to fully embrace online distance education than those whose mission is more campus-centric.   Interestingly, a clear majority--59.1 percent--of academic leaders now see online learning as “critical to the long-term strategy” of their institutions (p.16).
            Clearly distance education and the mainstream have converged and, in the process, the mainstream has been changed and distance education—at least in some cases—has been more fully embraced—or is being re-invented—as a strategy for the total institution.   This has been driven partly by market forces—the rising importance of continuing education for adults who are already in the workforce, by the need for local institutions to more effectively compete for commuter students, and by the growing willingness of traditional-age students to study online.  Last, but certainly not least, the convergence has been driven by economics—the need to cut costs and improve efficiency on campus and the need to generate new tuition revenues from nontraditional students in light of reduced government funding and increased competition. 
            All that said, today, we are working in a vastly different environment—both inside and outside our institutions—than when distance educators began experimenting with online 15 years ago.   People have begun to notice that the Information Revolution is not so much about how quickly information is broadcast, but about how it brings people and ideas together in new ways.  We are beginning to realize that the Knowledge Society, in reality, is a “Skills Society.”  Providing access, convenience, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness will continue to be important issues, but the emerging question for the next decade or so is:  how can we help individuals learn how to build and sustain new communities built around collaboration and sharing of knowledge to solve both local and, increasingly, global problems?  For those of us in distance education, the challenge is more focused:  How can we use what we’ve learned about online distance education to help transform our institutions to meet the needs of this emerging society?
            We can envision a broader strategic horizon in which distance education is a key part of a more complex picture, one that includes fully online courses offered to students both on campus and at a distance, hybrid courses offered on campus and through continuing education, blended programs that mix distance education and site-based experiences, and, more generally, an academic environment in which e-learning is seen as a utility available to all faculty and students.  Access will continue to be a critical strategic issues, along with efficiency on campus and, perhaps most important, continuing to evolve a new pedagogy that responds to the new needs of individuals and their communities.  A generation into the Information Revolution, some new trends are emerging that may signal where we need to go.   All of them have something to do with the idea of building community, so let me use that as an organizing metaphor.
            Traditionally, we tend to think of communities as local.  A community is a village or a neighborhood of people who live inter-dependent lives.  You may own the town bank, but my son teaches your daughter in the local school.  The kids we went to school with grow the food we eat, work, run the shops where we buy what we need, attend the same churches, etc.   In a globalized economy that kind of highly localized interdependence is harder to find.  Online learning removes geographic and time as defining characteristics of interaction.   We need to re-perceive the whole idea of community to understand how we are inter-dependent in today’s world and to develop the skills needed to work together in a new environment.  For higher education, this has implications at several levels:
            At the institutional level, we need to re-define the communities we serve and re-articulate our mission in those communities.   For most of us, distance education has meant reaching very far beyond our local campus community in order to aggregate markets for specialized programs or serve widely dispersed professional groups.     The very first Penn State teleconference through NUTN, as an example, allowed our Nuclear Engineering faculty to share with their colleagues around the country what they had learned from analyzing videotape of the core at the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant after the accent there.   Today, we are starting to see institutions use online distance education as a way of more effective serving local commuting students who cannot always come to campus.  In addition, the movement toward blended programs is allowing institutions to more easily develop programs that respond to local needs by mixing on campus and online activities. Online dual enrollment courses—which allow high school students to simultaneously earn high school graduation credit and college undergraduate credit—signal another new relationship between higher education and the schools that is another trend in this area.  These are starting points for rethinking how our institutions relate to our local communities. 
            At the faculty level, new kinds of academic communities are emerging that may redefine the relationship between faculty members and their institutions in the long run.  Projects like the CIC’s CourseShare, the Great Plains IDEA, and the Worldwide University Network’s shared programs—all of which I mentioned earlier—bring faculty from multiple institutions into an inter-institutional community where they can expand the impact of their specialized research.  And, of course, the Open Educational Resources movement—something that began outside the distance education community but that presents great opportunities for it—allows faculties to retain control of their intellectual property so that they can share it with colleagues around the world.
            Central to this transformation is the student.  Here, “community” has two meanings.  The first is the need to prepare students—of all ages—to become effective citizens and professionals in this new society—call it a conversation economy, an age of cognition, a knowledge society, a global information society, etc.  Today’s world demands that people have the skill to work collaboratively across boundaries and to participate in communities that are not defined by geography and time.   This, in turn, calls for a new pedagogy that redefines what we mean by a “learning community.”   For most public colleges and universities—which need to be responsive to workforce and community needs—the new environment demands a curriculum that not only ensures that students gain discipline-based core knowledge but that also emphasizes active and collaborative learning, inquiry-based approaches that help students create useable knowledge out of information and apply that to solving problems.   One can envision this as a new general education—not an introduction to the disciplines, but the development of general skills and attitudes that cut across all disciplines.   Recent innovations with Web 2.0 innovations—blogs, wikis, etc.—point the way, but there is much to do before a new pedagogy is fully understood, accepted, and integrated into a new curriculum.
            Finally, we can apply the “community” metaphor to new relationships that are beginning to emerge between institutions.   We can anticipate more collaborative degree programs, especially at the graduate level.  We can also anticipate that Open Educational Resources movement will stimulate new partnerships among institutions that have related specialties and between universities in developed countries and those in developing or transitional countries.  These new partnerships most likely will be highly variable.  Some may focus on undergraduate curricula, others on graduate programs or collaborative research that builds institutional capacity, or assistance to industries served by multiple institutions.    Later this month, for example, the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education is holding a meeting in Ecuador to explore the idea of collaborative doctoral programs—what the organizers are calling “sandwich” programs—in which faculty members from Latin American institutions can earn their doctorates from Northern institutions while building a research capacity at their home university.  The programs would use online elements to reduce the amount of time Latin American faculty members would spend away from their home institutions, in an attempt to reduce the academic brain drain.
            The international dimension of distance education in a transformed university was brought into focus by Stemenka Uvalic from UNESCO, at a distance education conference sponsored by CREAD in Ecuador in May 2008.  She painted this picture in her keynote:  There are now 132 million postsecondary students worldwide; China and India have doubled their enrollments in the past decade.  However, countries are having trouble funding capacity to handle demand.  This has stimulated three trends: (1) new private (profit and nonprofit) institutions that do not receive government funds (she noted that 80% of postsecondary students in Japan are now in private institutions); (2) student mobility-2.4 million students went abroad in 2004, with 1 in 16 postsecondary students from Africa going abroad; and (3) the growth in open and distance learning (ODL).  The number of open universities has doubled in Commonwealth countries; the number of for-profit online providers is growing globally.  This has an impact on student mobility.  Fully a third of all international students enrolled in Australian institutions studied from their home country in 2004.  Uvalic projected that “cross-border distance education may become the most significant development” in the years ahead. 
            Clearly, distance education has converged with the mainstream of higher education over the past decade.  The challenge for the future is for us to help stimulate a broader transformation that will allow higher education to meet the emerging needs of a maturing knowledge society in which very local communities are affected by global events.  This is a momentous year on several fronts.  On December 10, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.  Distance education organizations around the world are collaborating to produce special issues of their journal to recognize the unique role of distance education in providing equitable access to education.  But this is also the 40th anniversary year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, both of whom died in the process of trying to make real the ideals of the Declaration.  It is a reminder to us that these rights are not “natural laws” but need to be claimed and made new in every generation.  Higher education is a unique institution when it comes to helping our communities and individuals in them fulfill the promise of the Declaration.   Our generations are lucky to be working at a time when distance education has the potential to help our institutions realize the mission of public education in a new and more complete way than has ever before been possible as our institutions adapt themselves to the needs of the Information Age. We can’t do this on our own, but I think the distance education community—all of us in this room—have the experience and, as a result, the perspective, that can help stimulate and guide change in each of our institutions.  It is an important challenge and a wonderful opportunity at the same time.
            Thank you again for the Distinguished Service Award and for allowing me to share these ideas with you today.

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