September/October 1999 // Commentary
Back to the Future of Education:
Real Teaching, Real Learning
by James Perley
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James Perley "Back to the Future of Education:
Real Teaching, Real Learning" The Technology Source, September/October 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Only some 500 years after the introduction of the printed text, higher education has encountered a revolutionary new teaching and learning tool. Through the computer, it is now possible for teachers and students to be separated by both distance and time. Although technology-assisted education is a familiar feature in the higher education systems of several other countries, its rapid development in the U.S. is a more recent phenomenon.

Distance education—and online instruction in particular—offer exciting possibilities for higher education faculty because new technologies make possible new approaches to effective teaching. Many dedicated faculty are rethinking traditional pedagogy, learning new technical and communication skills, and exploring ways to reach students through technology. Distance education also creates new opportunities to reach students, especially those who cannot attend classes on a college campus. Working adults who want to improve or update their skills and people who do not live near an institution of higher education may appreciate the flexibility of learning at a distance.

It is the job of contemporary scholars to analyze the ways in which distance education can advance teaching and learning and facilitate intellectual discovery. But it is also the job of scholars to address the concerns that distance education raises and to identify the limitations and disadvantages of this tool. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) believes that active debate and discussion about distance education will inform decisions about its appropriate use. Due to the strong interest of members, the AAUP established a Special Committee on Distance Education and Intellectual Property Issues in June 1998. The Committee's (1999) statement on distance education was adopted as AAUP policy in June 1999.

The policy development process prompted the special committee to reconsider basic pedagogical issues and to affirm that:

  • a well-educated (as opposed to a well-trained) citizenry is of value to society;
  • higher education is something more than career preparation and/or a collection of courses;
  • teaching is something other than the "delivery" of a prescribed set of course materials;
  • learning is something more than the absorption of material;
  • teaching includes a three-way interaction among students, teachers, and course material;
  • learning includes generating the capacity to pursue and create new knowledge; and
  • the most valuable courses are those that are designed and taught by faculty so that the courses can change with the pace, interests, and understanding of students and can expand as faculty and students develop new insights.

Online Education: Does It Measure Up?

After endorsing the above principles, the committee examined in particular the use of computer-based technologies as: (1) supplemental teaching tools within a traditionally taught course; and (2) the media for entire courses. The committee's critical questions included the following: How can educators ensure that the content of courses offered via this new medium is as rigorous as the content offered face-to-face in a classroom? How do we know if the quality of learning online is less than, equivalent to, or an improvement on learning in a traditional setting? Is it possible to have one-on-one interactions with and among students in an online course? In this age of restricted budgets, does the financial investment needed to fund online technologies detract from support for existing educational needs?

The AAUP consensus is that high-quality online education courses can be incorporated successfully into regular academic programs under the oversight of a college or university faculty. The faculty governance body at each institution is responsible for determining the appropriate balance of courses to be taught online and on-campus and for overseeing the general content, depth, and range of all courses (regardless of how they are taught).

Totally Online Institutions

AAUP members are less confident, however, about the success of exclusively online colleges and universities. Jones International University (JIU), the first such university accredited by the North Central Accreditation Association, is an early U.S. version of the "modularized" university. (It is similar in some ways to modularized institutions in the U.K.) In this model, a decentralized university "delivers" courses online or in many remote locations. Content experts—often faculty who are employed at other institutions—design the course materials that someone else teaches. Examinations are standardized, and yet another faculty member may grade them. Curriculum decisions about course content, course levels, requirements for a degree, and other important issues are handled by a small committee of academics and administrators or by administrators alone.

Faculty members working through online universities still have roles to play; for some, those roles are fulfilling and challenging. However, the decentralization of higher education raises fundamental concerns about the quality of the education offered to students at modularized institutions. The AAUP's greatest concern is the protection of academic freedom. Traditionally, university faculty members work together to establish and coordinate courses and to set major and degree requirements. Individual faculty members define the content of their courses and decide, on a day-to-day basis, how to teach them. At modularized institutions, course materials are pre-written by consultants and taught by others; this system introduces elements of rigidity and homogeneity that interfere with the more interesting elements of learning. Is higher education best served by a predetermined curriculum that does not change from site to site or from teacher to teacher? Does such a curriculum encourage excellence and creativity, or does it foster a decline in standards toward a mediocre mean? The AAUP believes that higher education flourishes when faculty members are free to design and teach their own courses and to set standards and degree requirements in on-going consultation with their academic colleagues.

The AAUP is strongly committed to the principle of shared faculty governance. The contributions made by all segments of an academic institution—including the board of trustees, administrators, and faculty—are essential to maintaining excellence in higher education. Each of these groups has a different primary responsibility, but it is the interaction among them that proves beneficial to the institution. At a modularized university, the faculty does not meet as a body, and it does not have a recognized responsibility for governance in matters of curriculum and academics.

Modularized institutions raise serious concerns when they create a structure that eliminates two of the essential elements of higher education: academic freedom and shared faculty governance. Are online institutions like JIU, which currently has the full-time services of just two faculty members, able to ensure adequate curriculum development in all disciplines, oversee the level of education in each department, and assure students that they will receive a high-quality education? Does the absence of a scholarly community impede the kind of faculty interaction that leads to curricular innovation and creative insight? Do students have the opportunity to interact with faculty and with each other, and are students actively engaged in the learning process? Is it possible to alter the direction of a software-delivered course for students with different learning styles? AAUP members worry about the effects of online institutions on the concept of a cohesive curriculum that is created, taught, and supervised by a fully engaged faculty group.

Most faculty members understand that the real product of an academic degree program is an individual who can engage real-life situations, seek out relevant information, critically analyze that information, and seek ways to address perceived problems. Are exclusively online programs, which necessarily confine human interaction to the virtual dimension, able to meet these primary goals of education? Interaction with a keyboard and a computer screen simply does not give a student the same experience as face-to-face interaction with a group of live individuals. Unless the student's entire future is to be based in a virtual world, the student must gain some of his or her educational experience in the real world, dealing with other real human beings.

Most faculty members also understand the importance of research and of a scholarly community. Students who interact with faculty members engaged with the unknown experience a different level of education than those students who simply absorb what is already known. If students do not have direct contact with the faculty members who advance knowledge in their respective fields, how will the students learn that their own questions are valid and worthy of research and resolution?


Higher education, as we now know and value it in the United States, is enriched as much by chaos and debate as it is by settled knowledge. We have come to expect that an educated person in this society is more than just a learned person. Education enables and prepares people to entertain new ideas; to critique information; to ask useful and interesting questions; and to synthesize, juxtapose, and apply experiences that arise out of varied academic experiences. Our traditional system of higher education allows for the engagement of the unknown, for curricula that can grow and change when faced with new circumstances and students with different needs, and for new scholarship that directly informs the content of courses. It would take a truly remarkable online institution to match those capabilities.

Academic freedom and shared governance are the foundations on which our colleges and universities were built and have flourished for centuries. It is, ironically, these solid principles that promote the chaos and excitement of learning in a community of scholars. As aficionados and unashamed advocates of that excitement, members of the AAUP feel a professional obligation to caution students about the vital elements they could lose if they take their education only as far as their computers.


Special Committee on Distance Education and Intellectual Property Issues, American Association of University Professors. (1999, May/June). Statement on distance education. Academe, 85(3). Retrieved 3 August 1999 from the World Wide Web:

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