September/October 1999 // Commentary
Back to the Future or Back to the Past?
by Mary Harrsch
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Mary Harrsch "Back to the Future or Back to the Past?" The Technology Source, September/October 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I would like to thank James Perley for bringing his concerns about distance education—and, in particular, online education—to the attention of Technology Source readers. His comments remind us that the education community is comprised of many different voices, and that students benefit when those voices engage in constructive debate. In the spirit of such debate, I offer here a rebuttal to Mr. Perley's article. My hope is that both of our opinions will stimulate educators to take an active role in determining what educational venues will serve the students of the future.

Faculty Control: The Real Issue is Faculty Competency

According to Mr. Perley, members of the AAUP believe that high-quality distance education courses "can be incorporated successfully into regular academic programs under the oversight of a college or university faculty." He emphasizes that faculty should maintain local control over individual curriculum elements.

Although this approach perpetuates the existing institutional structures of most universities, it does not ensure that students are exposed universally to key concepts. Faculty at higher education institutions in the United States are not required to obtain any form of teaching certification. In most cases, obtaining a Ph.D. is the only prerequisite for teaching. The Ph.D. indicates that the scholar has demonstrated his/her ability to understand specific concepts and to analyze empirical evidence; it does not, however, signify an ability to explain key concepts to a classroom of uninformed students or to integrate instructional design principles into course delivery or the development of course materials.

With the exception of Education majors, most new faculty have never studied the science of teaching and learning. This results in levels of quality which vary from faculty member to faculty member, since the ability to teach is dependent on each person's innate ability to communicate ideas, explain complex theories, assess student understanding, learn from actual classroom experiences, and apply past experience to future efforts. The pool of truly qualified individuals is diminished even further if technology skills—important elements of distance education—are considered.

The Viability of Academic Freedom in Virtual Environments

Mr. Perley points to the importance of academic freedom. He raises the specter of a slide toward mediocrity with the introduction of elements of homogeneity, and he warns that faculty may be shackled by the rigidity of a system that relies on course materials designed by content experts. Most faculty now rely on textbooks written by recognized content experts and support materials provided by the publishers. How is development of interactive media used in a distance education environment significantly different? The instructor’s role does not change; he/she still must ensure that students understand key concepts through discourse and evaluate student responses to the material presented. The forum simply changes from a physical classroom to a virtual discussion list.

Virtual learning does have advantages. Some faculty members have found that students share their thoughts more openly in a virtual environment—where they are not hampered by gender roles, differences in communication style, or language barriers—than in a physical classroom. Moreover, when the instructor poses questions to a virtual classroom, each student can evaluate them without the pressure of formulating a speaker's agenda or worrying about time constraints. Students can formulate their responses carefully and submit them for equal consideration with the responses of other discussion participants.

The Truth About Faculty Governance

Mr. Perley also emphasizes the importance of the principle of faculty governance. Theoretically, faculty governance sounds like an excellent tool to monitor the quality of education. In reality, faculty governance often is applied across the entire organization. This means that faculty members actually vote (without so much as a pamphlet to help them understand the issues at stake) on major curriculum changes for programs about which they know very little. Depending on an institution’s organizational structure, a physicist may be asked to vote on curriculum decisions for a foreign language program. In practice, votes are treated as routine housekeeping issues. This exercise, then, does little to ensure the quality of programs that a university develops and offers.

Many institutions require their instructors to collect course reaction inventories from their students to assess the quality of the material presented. But negative responses have no impact on the retention of tenured faculty. Furthermore, administration may give such responses little weight if the faculty member is successful at obtaining large research grants. On the other hand, distance education programs are often subject to far greater scrutiny than conventional course offerings. Still, they have been successful at achieving both quality instruction and revenue. The United Kingdom's Open University has achieved some of the best Teaching Quality Assessment results in the UK, and its Institute for Educational Technology wins over £5m a year funding for its research.

Scholarly Communities and Real-Life Learning Opportunities Online

Mr. Perley expresses concern about the quality of education in the absence of a scholarly community. Learning relies on the sharing of ideas—abstract intangible concepts that do not require a physical presence to be exchanged. Why is a community of scholars sharing ideas in the virtual realm less valuable than a "captive" community of scholars congregated in a physical environment?

Mr. Perley identifies the real product of an academic degree as an individual who can "engage with real-life situations, seek out relevant information, critically analyze that information, and seek ways to address perceived problems." The present campus experience does not provide real-life situations, except in the case of practicum exercises which take place in external environments and usually are supervised by adjuncts or contracted supervisors (not full-time faculty). The truth is that most higher education is delivered at a theoretical level; in fact, that is the primary complaint of corporate employers. In an online environment, however, virtual simulations can provide lifelike situations. Students can replay these simulations, examine the results of them, and question instructors about their observed outcomes.

The Benefits of Distance Education: Constant Contact, Professional Input

Mr. Perley mentions again and again the absence of student contact with faculty, as if distance education were delivered like a canned presentation. Distance education in the 21st century will not be limited to providing the solitary experience of 20th century correspondence courses. Supporters of technology-enhanced distance education do not envision a system without instructors or facilitators. In fact, faculty who have stepped into the arena of distance learning often complain about the significant increase in time they spend interacting with students (e.g., monitoring online discussions and answering e-mail questions). A faculty member is always available in a virtual environment, even if not real time. Students are not left juggling their class schedules with posted office hours.

Furthermore, virtual environments can include professional participants that could not participate in physical classroom exercises. Adult learners, the target of many distance education programs, value the insight of other practicing professionals. These professionals face the unknown every day. Their livelihood depends on their ability to develop new ideas, critique information, and synthesize and apply the lessons they learn in the forge of experience. Their contributions are not theoretical or offered from the relative safety of a tenured position.


Mr. Perley states that the current system of higher education allows for the engagement of the unknown and for curricula that can grow and change when faced with new circumstances and students with different needs. But institutions that merely provide online course syllabi and web-enabled admissions and registration procedures do not truly embrace the opportunity to develop human potential that new technologies offer. The needs of students of the new century—who increasingly are adult learners that require lifelong learning experiences—have not been met by the existing system. Adults who are engaged in careers and family life cannot afford, in most cases, to quit their jobs and uproot their families to pursue education at a traditional campus-bound institution. This is especially true in vast, sparsely populated areas like Canada, Australia, and northeast Asia and for geographically isolated populations such as Pacific islanders. The fact that individuals now need continuing education throughout their lifetimes effectively means that the traditional model of education may, for many, serve only as a preparatory exercise for adulthood. Furthermore, as tuitions climb in response to dwindling public subsidies of higher education, this exercise is rapidly becoming the purview of the wealthy few. Distance education provides a more cost-effective way to extend a quality scholastic experience to literally millions. However, if the faculty of traditional institutions of higher education are unwilling to meet the new challenge of providing lifelong education to a global community, then adult learners will be deprived of the "excitement of learning in a community of scholars" and must settle for a corporate substitute.

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