I got started in distance education—although I didn’t know it at the time—when I was an undergraduate student. When I moved to Penn State’s University Park Campus as a junior in 1968, I needed a job. I was a journalism student at the time, and a fellow student suggested that I go across the street to the University’s public TV station and ask for a job writing press releases. As it turned out, there were no openings for writers, but I did get hired to work as a part-time production assistant, helping to produce programs. For the next two years, I learned all about television production. I worked camera, operated (not very well) the audio board, painted and lit sets—all the front-line details of television production. In the process, I got to watch the directors and on-camera talent at work and learned a lot from them.
In those days—indeed, throughout the 1970s and 1980s—much of our local production focused on working with Penn State faculty to create series that we would then broadcast for use in primary and secondary education classrooms, both locally and beyond. Some examples: Investigative Science in Elementary Education, a series of short programs to help K-3 teachers demonstrate fundamental science principles; Pennsylvania History and Art for the Day. By far the most popular “in-school” series was In the News, a weekly news/social studies series for grades 4-6, which eventually went into national distribution.
These productions were part of a complex system by which the station—and, by extension, the university—engaged with Central Pennsylvania school districts. At the core was a nonprofit corporation—the Allegheny Educational Broadcast Council (AEBC)—that contracted with WPSX-TV for services. Upwards of 30 school districts paid an annual per-student fee to join the AEBC. Each assigned a representative who worked with WPSX-TV to identify programs for the in-school schedule and to advise on related activities, such as teacher in-service training. The Pennsylvania Department of Education funded acquisition of programs to be broadcast into the schools and, in some cases, supported our in-school productions. In turn, WPSX-TV devoted its daytime schedule from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to programs designed for teachers to use in their classrooms.
This engagement with the schools was fundamental to the mission and identify of public broadcasting at the time. By the 1990s, it had become a victim of changing technology, which made some types of educational resources more readily available in an asynchronous way. However, as the focal point for instructional technology shifted away from its roots in public television, nothing arose to replace this important engagement between the university and the schools. Today, however, online learning and open educational resources (OERS) may offer a way to renew that relationship. More on that later.
After a few years in the studio, I took an opportunity to move from the studio into the offices upstairs. Initially, I was responsible for on-air promotion and continuity, but within the year, I was promoted to Information Specialist: I became the station’s public information and marketing director. Marlowe Froke, who founded the station, saw public information as the first step in engagement—creating an informed viewer. He also envisioned three other levels of engagement:
· Use of Supplementary Materials to Enhance the Value of Broadcasts We regularly developed or acquired printed materials to accompany series that we broadcast. For instance, to support TV Quarterbacks in the 1970s, I worked with sports broadcaster Fran Fisher to develop a two-sided poster about Penn State football. Free materials like this were not only a gauge of viewership, but added depth to what we were able to cover on-air.
· Organizing Community Groups For several years, the Pennsylvania Public Television Network funded special “community service” activities around special public service programs on topics like aging and family nutrition. A special office was created, led by Rick Wolfe and Jerry Sawyer, that worked with academic units to create materials and with a variety of community organizations to bring people together to watch the programs and to learn more about what they could do locally. Often, we coordinated with the continuing education offices at Penn State campuses to hold local group discussion sessions.
· Formal Adult Education Early on, WPSX offered a “University of the Air” program that offered mostly noncredit courses that combined broadcasts with classroom sessions at selected Penn State campuses.
In this view, public media was not just a “delivery system” for content, but a means to engage the public in several different levels of education.
The Satellite Era
In the 1970s and early 1980s, satellite communications and the blossoming of cable television revolutionized educational television. It started with the Appalachian Educational Satellite Program (AESP). Funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission and headquartered at the University of Kentucky, AESP used the experimental ATS-6 communications satellite to deliver professional education—for teachers, nurses, firefighters, and others—to rural communities throughout the Appalachian region,. In the process, it established a network of universities and regional public education offices to support local reception and utilization.
At the same time, WPSX had begun working with Pennsylvania cable operators to create PENNARAMA, which was conceived as a potentially statewide channel for educational programming, using a network that the cable operators themselves were creating. We saw AESP and PENNARAMA as complementary innovations that would greatly increase our ability to reach adults with adult education opportunities.
As it turned out, however, these innovations would be overshadowed by the big change—what today would be called a disruptive change—that came in 1978, when PBS announced that it was moving to satellite to deliver its national programs to local stations. I organized the ceremony when WPSX-TV installed its satellite uplink/downlink facility. All of a sudden, we—and every other public television station—had immediate access to a national network. We had the technology now to originate a signal to any or all stations throughout the country. The reality of a national, multi-point satellite-based network stimulated many new partnerships and raised several older collaborations to a new level. Some examples:
· The Telecourse People – This was a marketing partnership among community colleges that were major producers of 30-program telecourses: Coast, Dallas Miami-Dade, etc.
· The “To Educate the People” Consortium—This consortium brought together Wayne State University and the United Auto Workers to create courses that allowed workers to gain a college degree.
· The University of Mid-America—This collaboration of state universities in the mid-west produced courses that extended the academic resources and encouraged interdisciplinary courses with faculty from multiple institutions.
It also generated four national initiatives that dominated distance education over much of the next two decades:
· The PBS Adult Learning Service PBS created this service to aggregate the distribution market for telecourses. PBS/ALS acquired rights to telecourses from individual institutions and consortia and then made them available to local institutions through local PBS affiliates. This gave many institutions the critical mass of telecourses to allow them to offer degree programs. In the early 1980s, the Annenberg Foundation granted $150 Million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create new courses, driving the both the diversity and quality of courses available for licensing over the next decade.
· The National University Teleconference Network (NUTN) Founded by the Oklahoma State University, this consortium consisted primarily of continuing education units at larger public universities. The idea was to use satellite to create national networks for continuing education workshops. One institution would originate a workshop; other institutions around the country would downlink the signal to a local conference room where local audiences would watch and participate by phone. WPSX-TV were a founding member of NUTN. The first teleconference that we originated gave nuclear engineers around the country their first opportunity to view video of the damage that had been done to the nuclear facilities at Three Mile Island. Our participation in NUTN gave us a closer relationship with continuing education units at University Park and other university campuses around the state and, since we reported to the Vice President for Continuing Education, helped to bring us closer to the mainstream of the administrative unit of which WPSX-TV was a part.
· AG*SAT (later the American Distance Education Consortium—ADEC) This consortium, founded at the University of Nebraska, originally used satellite to extend the knowledge and research of Cooperative Extension Service units and Colleges of Agriculture across the country. The result was that specialized knowledge could be shared more broadly. Eventually, the mission was broadened, and ADEC became a distance education meeting ground for land grant universities, historically Black colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving universities.
· The International University Consortium (IUC) This consortium was founded by the University of Maryland University College. Its original purpose was to adapt to North American curriculum environment multi-media courses developed by the British Open University and then to license the use of these materials by member institutions.
Administering Course Development and Delivery
As the national supply of course materials grew, one major step at Penn State was to re-structure how courses were administered. Originally, the University of the Air had been handled as a fairly typical continuing education program, with evening classes complementing on-air programs. NUTN teleconferences involved continuing education offices at campuses that held on-site sessions around satellite downlinks. However, as we ramped up delivery of credit courses on both WPSX-TV and PENNARAMA, responsibility for course delivery moved to Independent Study by Correspondence. Penn State (along with the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin) had pioneered university-based correspondence study as early as 1892. Independent Study by Correspondence—which later was re-named Independent Learning to reflect its more diverse use delivery media—had emerged as a national leader in this arena.
For many, correspondence study was distance education until the 1980s. The National University Extension Association (now the University Continuing and Professional Education Association) served as the professional association for university-based correspondence study among land-grant universities. It even published a catalog of all correspondence courses offered by its member institutions. Universities often shared courses that they had developed with other correspondence programs. It was, in short, an active professional community that took pride in giving students control over the time, place, and pace of study. Initially, telecourses were seen by some in correspondence study programs as restricting, rather than extending, access, because (1) access was limited to areas where the television/cable signal could be seen, (2) students needed to be available when the programs were broadcast and (3) students needed to follow the schedule rather than study at their own pace. It was not an easy match, but it was the best solution available.
Course Development Innovations
While this change was taking place, Penn State also decided that it was time to bring together its two educational media production units: WPSX-TV and the University Division of Instructional Services, which worked with faculty to create video and other media materials for on-campus use. UDIS included an on-campus network that connected 24 classrooms with a central studio. I was asked take on a new role as Director of Instructional Media, with responsibility for all aspects of development and delivery of instructional television for both on-campus and off-campus use. Off-campus activity included both K-12 (overseeing the AEBC and K-12 production) and higher education. On-campus activity included a wide range of video support, from complete courses that were used to meet demand at University Park and to extend introductory courses in specialized disciplines to multiple campuses to videotaped demonstrations and problem-solving sessions, to a few early attempts at computer-based education and videodisc.
Along the way, we began to develop courses for the new statewide and national delivery outlets. The projects that I remember best were a series of inter-disciplinary Science, Technology, and Society courses developed through collaborations among faculty at Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. The courses explored the complex interrelationships among science and technology developments with social change. Topics included “The Finite Earth,” “The Behavioral Revolution,” and “Bio-Ethics.” A partnership with CBS College Publishing resulted in “Principles of Accounting,” an introductory telecourse that was distributed nationally.
This generation of distance education resulted in a culture of collaboration that was rare in higher education. One reason is that the infrastructure for development and delivery of video required a large and very expensive infrastructure—television studios, editing facilities, and the staff to support them—and access to television and cable systems, satellite uplinks and downlinks, etc. This required an institution-level commitment. While some academic disciplines—Engineering, especially—developed specialized interactive video teleconferencing systems to serve nearby businesses, most distance education support services were centralized. These units worked across academic units and, in many cases, worked at the degree level rather than at the individual course level. While our counterparts in public broadcasting and, to some degree, continuing education tended to work at the project level, those of us in distance education developed long-term, ongoing relationships with academic units.
We also created new communities at the national level. Many of the new organizations that arose around satellite and video-based distance education became professional meeting grounds, where we in distance education could find colleagues who were experiencing the same innovations at home and going through similar struggles. In the late 1970s, NUEA (now UPCEA) started a Division of Educational Telecommunications Utilization, bringing new members into the association. I had been asked by my Station Manager to attend the conference where the new Division was being created. A small group—perhaps eight of us—met and elected officers. Then, we convened to the bar. There were no other sessions to attend and few welcomed us. However, we eventually became one of the largest subgroups within the organization.
Having homes in these associations was critically important.
University of Maryland University College
In 1987, I moved from Penn State to the University of Maryland University College as Executive Director of the International University Consortium. It was an amazing opportunity for leadership. The role of the IUC was to adapt British Open University courses to the North American curriculum. The OU (now the Open University of the United Kingdom) had been founded in 1970 to improve access to higher education for middle-class and working-class adults. Its courses were highly interdisciplinary and much larger than the typical North American course. A typical OU course might be the equivalent of 18 or more North American credits. The challenge for IUC was to re-organize the materials so that they were more acceptable to the North American curriculum, while also addressing cultural differences. For instance, in adapting the BOU foundation course on the Enlightenment, IUC added a section on the Enlightenment in the U.S., including the American Revolution.
As a dedicated adult education institution, UMUC operated in a very different environment from Penn State. Once, a friend asked me to compare the two, and I could respond only by saying that they were mutually exclusive. The advantages of one were disadvantages at the other. My role at IUC also allowed me to see distance education at work in many different kinds of institutions, from specialized institutions like Empire State College and Athabasca University to public universities like the University of Memphis to national open universities like the Open University of Hong Kong. It was an education in the variety of ways in which distance education institutions serve adult students around the world.
A few years later, my role broadened. As Associate Vice President for Program Development, I had the additional responsibility for overseeing the Center for Instructional Development and Evaluation (CIDE). CIDE was a centralized instructional design unit that worked with UMUC faculty to develop open learning courses. Previous CIDE directors, Barbara Grabowski and Kerry Johnson, had also built CIDE into a highly innovative, pioneering instructional technology design unit. For example, CIDE had a federal contract to develop Agricolearn, a videodisc-based training program for the Agricola library database. When I came on board, CIDE beginning development of UMUC’s first fully online degree program: a Bachelor’s in Nuclear Science designed for use by staff in nuclear power plants around the country. The Worldwide Web didn’t exist yet, so CIDE and UMUC technical staff adapted PLATO as a platform. It was our introduction to online learning as we think about it today.
Back to Penn State
In 1992—the centennial of distance education at Penn State—a University-wide taskforce had proposed that distance education play a more strategic role at Penn State. I returned to Penn State in 1994 as the first Assistant (later Associate) Vice President for Distance Education, charged to implement the taskforce’s recommendations. At that time, interactive video was seen as the future of distance education. Penn State had established a business relationship with AT&T, through which they were connecting all 24 campuses for interactive video through a fibre optic network. They were also experimenting with computer-based distance education. One major project combined video lessons with an online testing system that prepared students to take the professional engineering exam. Penn State also had a longstanding graduate certificate in Acoustics Engineering that focused on live interactive video lessons delivered via satellite. We won a grant from the Sloan Foundation to create an online version of this program. However, at this point, we had no strategic approach to online learning.
All that changed in 1996, when Penn State President Graham Spanier returned from a visit to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, where he learned about plans for a multi-state online learning initiative to be called Western Governors University. When he returned, he called a small group into his office—VP for Outreach Jim Ryan, CIO Gary Augustson, Budget Officer Richard Althouse, and me—and argued that we needed to take a strong position on adopting online distance education. He asked Jim and me to draft a concept paper and announced to the university community that we would be exploring the idea of an online “world campus.” The working name had been suggested by a Commonwealth Campus CEO. Graham appointed Jim to chair a “study team” of university leaders who met every Thursday evening from November 1996 to March 1997 to work out a vision, organizational plan, and business structure for the campus. In March we presented it to the Faculty Senate and immediately submitted a proposal to the Sloan Foundation to support its first 18 mounts of operation. The World Campus opened in January 1998 with four courses and 448 students. A decade later, it had grown to more than 10,000 students and 70 degree and certificate programs.
Dredging a New Mainstream
During my career in distance education, I’ve seen several important technology changes. Online learning has by far been the most disruptive. More than any other technology, it inexorably brought distance education into the mainstream of university life. It eliminated geography as a defining factor in our relationship with students, with content, with the workplace, and with faculty at other institutions. In the process, it is redefining our notion of a “learning community.” Increasingly, institutions are using online distance education not only to provide access to new students, but also to allow peer institutions to share students and faculty members. A good example is the CIC’s CourseShare initiative, through which universities can aggregate student populations in rarely taught courses.
We learned, with some difficulty, that you cannot introduce a major innovation like online learning into the mainstream without changing the mainstream itself. As we developed the World Campus, we needed to address a list of university-wide policy issues, including copyright of online materials, faculty workload and recognition, residency requirements for graduate programs, software licensing, privacy of in-class communications, and a variety of financial policies, including a revenue sharing formula. We also needed a financial model to allow full-time resident students to take World Campus courses and to accommodate situations where students from one campus would want to take an online course taught by faculty at another campus. In this case, innovation made visible many background practices that otherwise had been taken for granted.
Issues for New Leaders
A new generation of leaders is taking the reins of online distance education. I feel confident that, like my generation, they will see some dramatic changes of their own during their careers. Some will be technological. It is worth noting that, just a decade before the first online learning experiments, at least one vice president at a major university declared, “There is no distance education without satellite!” And, just as online learning was taking root, institutions were making significant investments in interactive video networks. The thing about disruptive change is that it is unexpected. We should expect to be surprised. With that in mind, my first piece of advice to new leaders is this: Don’t define yourself—or allow yourself to be defined by others—in terms of the technology you use. Be an educator who uses technology, not a technologist who happens to work in education. Be open to experimentation, but be sure that it focuses on improving student access and learning success.
It is also safe to predict that the process of dredging a new mainstream is not yet complete. The new mainstream will look different from both yesterday and today. Innovating in the mainstream is difficult. While some will want you to succeed, many will not want to change themselves. Be willing to work with folks who distrust where the channel that you are digging will direct the flow. Use professional associations to find safe harbors where you can explore the broader visions with colleagues who are in similar positions at their own institutions.
As online distance education fully merges with the new mainstream, there may be a need to re-think organizational structure. The question is: to what extent will the institution continue to need a separate organization to ensure quality in student support, faculty support, instructional delivery, etc.? At some institutions, a new mainstream might fully merge both on-campus and distance education. At others, the old distinctions may be maintained, but with closer linkages to allow both students and faculty to easily cross over between delivery environments. Much depends on institutional mission, history, and culture.
We can also expect that a mature online distance education function will require some new responses to the institution’s external relationships. The current national focus on state authorization is one example. Back in the 1990s, the regional accrediting associations tried very hard to identify new quality standards that they could use to review online learning initiatives in member institutions. While national initiatives like Quality Matters have helped in this regard, once can expect that, as mainstreaming continues, the regional associations will need a fresh look at standards. Leaders need to be ready to inform that discussion.
It is already becoming apparent that the online learning environment will also create new relationships among institutions and between institutions and employers who want to bring employees to online programs. I imagine that several kinds of partnerships that are isolated innovations today will become much more common in the years ahead. Some examples:
· University/K-12 Partnerships – The online environment offers an excellent opportunity to establish new linkages between universities and K-12 schools. If we are to increase dramatically the percentage of high school students who go on to college, we need to increase dramatically the percentage of students who graduate from high school prepared to enter college. Online distance education greatly facilitates deliver of dual enrollment courses—courses taught by higher education faculty that give high school students both college credit and high school graduation credit. At the same time, the increasing diversity of online courses suggests opportunities to re-package course content so that it can be used by high school teachers, empowering them to better prepare students for graduation. We can expect that both dual-enrollment courses and sharing content will become much more prevalent in the future. We should begin now to explore what new organizational arrangements may be needed to encourage and support them.
· Institutional Collaborations—Current inter-institutional partnerships like the Great Plains IDEA and the CIC CourseShare demonstrate how online learning can be used to ensure that individual institutions have access to the academic resources needed in their communities. Inter-institutional sharing allows us to aggregate students from several institutions into a single, rarely taught course and to extend the reach of faculty members in specialized disciplines. Leaders will need to develop some templates for institutional agreements and, in some cases, update public policy to accommodate this innovation.
· International Collaborations – Very clearly, in a globalized information society, there will be new opportunities to partner with institutions in other countries to share curricula, faculty, and students for mutual benefit. So-called “sandwich doctorates” are one example of how such collaborations can reduce brain-drain in less-developed countries while building new research collaborations in key disciplines. Distance education, in this arena, becomes a means to a much more diverse strategic institutional goal.
The next decade will surely bring some surprises—true disruptions—to our field. It should be an exciting ride.