February 1999 // Vision
The Role of the Traditional Research University in the Face of the Distance Education Onslaught
by Gary M. Gatien and Jose-Marie Griffiths
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Gary M. Gatien and Jose-Marie Griffiths "The Role of the Traditional Research University in the Face of the Distance Education Onslaught" The Technology Source, February 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Currently there are many predictions of doom for traditional "brick and mortar" institutions of higher education, including research universities. However, these predictions may well be premature, creating a sense of panic where a more measured response is needed. While virtual and corporate universities that emphasize distance learning may represent the wave of the future for many, they do not directly compete with or threaten the research university. Each of these entities has a role to play in society. When we see dire predictions about the future of traditional universities, we recall Mark Twain’s comment that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Selected Trends and Demographic Data May Cause Concern

Many trends and demographic data that have been reported have helped instill panic at traditional institutions of higher education. We read, for example, that:

  • The distance-learning market is growing at a 25% annual rate in the U.S. (Stein, 1998) and driving one of the hottest emerging growth sectors in the U.S. economy—the $3.5 billion per year "business" of postsecondary education (McClenney, 1998).
  • In the last 10 years, over 200 institutions of higher education have closed (McClenney, 1998).
  • Fewer than one in six undergraduates fit the traditional stereotype of the American college student—one who attends college full-time, is 18-22 years of age, and lives on campus (Levine and Cureton, 1998).
  • The proportion of college students who are "adult learners" (older than 25) has been increasing steadily, from 30% in 1970 and 40% in 1980 to almost 50% in 1990, with projections of over 50% by the millennium. Approximately 85% of these people work (most full-time) and juggle jobs, families, and studies while attending college part-time (Dubois, 1998). They are "unabashed vocationalists" who want to be treated like valued customers (McClenney, 1998).

In addition, personal computer prices are dropping and their capabilities rising. Sales are enjoying a 20% annual growth rate. In 1997, computers outsold televisions in the U.S. for the first time (McClenney, 1998; Dubois 1998). In November 1998, 13% of U.S. heads of household said they were very likely to buy a home computer, primarily "to further their children's education" (Shankland, 1998). In short, our growing student body seems increasingly ready for what distance learning, and computer technology generally, have to offer.

But It's Not All Gloom and Doom

Nevertheless, it is important to note that other data contradict those listed above. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), over 600 institutions of higher education opened between 1980 and 1996. At least one study shows enrollment in higher education increasing from approximately 14 million in 1995 to 20 million by 2010 (McClenney, 1998). At the University of Michigan (UM), we received just under 19,000 applications for admission in 1997; in 1998, we received over 21,000, a record number.

Moreover, research suggests that a large proportion of students already enrolled in "regular" classes also take courses online (Guernsey, 1998). This seems particularly true for universities with large populations of commuter students. For example:

  • At The University of Colorado at Denver, 500 of the 609 students enrolled in the distance education program were also taking regular courses on campus.
  • At The State University of New York, as many as 80% of students in the SUNY Learning Network (online) program were either full- or part-time students on campus.
  • At Rogers University in Claremore, Oklahoma, two-thirds of the students enrolled in distance education courses were also taking courses on campus.

Some suggest that this amounts to a blending of "distance learning with face-to-face methods, so that the markets are not as distinct as they were originally envisioned to be" (Phillips, 1998). This is an area ripe for more research.

The Future of Traditional Research Universities

The research universities that will flourish in the face of the distance education onslaught will take the best of their activities and traditions, build upon their strengths, and grow from there. Many will (and do) offer distance learning courses and participate in what might be thought of as the distance learning mainstream. For example, at Michigan we offer online undergraduate courses in English composition, psychology, and Spanish, as well as many online graduate courses. We also offer courses via the Michigan Virtual Automotive College (MVAC) and the National Technological University (NTU), the latter being a consortium of higher education institutions.

But research universities make better use of a particular strength (or market niche, if you prefer) when they understand distance education within the broader context of their overall use of information technology for teaching, learning, and administration. From this perspective, the focus is not on creating and packaging distance learning courses for sale; rather, it is on using information technology to address many issues of educational delivery, including those related to the constraints of time and place. Within this broader context, information technology can enhance some of our traditional strengths, including our role in fostering knowledge communities: groups of individuals who share common or complementary interests and who join together to pursue common or complementary goals aimed at the creation, enhancement, or sharing of information (Griffiths, 1998a). Below are some examples from the University of Michigan that illustrate my meaning. As you read these examples, please keep in mind that at UM, 25% of undergraduates participate in research alongside research faculty.

  • The Upper Atmospheric Research Collaboratory, now part of the Smithsonian Institution's Permanent Research Collection, allowed researchers to conduct team science and educational endeavors on a global scale from distributed locations via the Internet. UARC has been succeeded by the Space Physics & Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC). SPARC is the subject of a study by computer and behavioral scientists who are developing and refining the tools and organizational structures that will make such real-time, online collaborative research commonplace.
  • Recently, students in English composition courses participated in a study that required collaborative writing and involved the use of e-mail, Web publishing, and electronic conferencing. Student writing improved, and faculty identified some key components necessary to maintain scholarly integrity when using these tools. These students' efforts can also be accessed by future students via a course Web site (Griffiths, 1998b).
  • In the Vortex Ring Transit Experiment, over 80 students from several disciplines collaborated over three years to produce an experiment that went up with the space shuttle Endeavor in December 1998. The project—from fundraising to technical issues—was managed entirely by students, who worked with representatives from academia, industry, and the government. Like the English composition students, the Vortex students created a Web page where they detailed their work as an example for future students.
  • Students in music engineering are working to develop a signal processing tool that will convert an acoustic music recording into a musical score. Success will, among other things, create new forms of feedback in the training of performers, conductors, and composers. For example, recordings of a particular piece could be linked to other recordings of the same piece and compared, or a piece could be compared to a composer’s portfolio.
  • One Sky, Many Voices involves students from several disciplines whose mission is "to create innovative, inquiry-based K-12 weather curricula that utilize current technologies such as CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web for the interactive study of current weather and air quality. Students, teachers, parents and scientists can participate from classrooms, homes, after-school programs or other educational settings."
  • The English Composition Board (ECB) pairs UM students with students at the Murray-Wright High School in Detroit. UM students conduct peer tutoring via e-mail and the Web; they also help high school students prepare essays for a portfolio-based writing assessment program that the ACT is now field-testing at Murray-Wright.
  • The University of Michigan Digital Library (UMDL) is a multidisciplinary collaboration that includes many corporate partners and explores new ways to digitize, catalog, and link print and other media to define libraries of the future.
  • The Social and Behavioral Science Collaboratory, which has brought together social and computer science researchers and expanded our Center for Parallel Computing, enables social science researchers from around the world to share, sample, and analyze large databases. Analyses that used to take hours or days now take minutes or seconds. This facility encourages experimentation with new statistical and visualization approaches, and the research data can be used at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

These examples show how information technology may be implemented in ways that are both broader than and different from what people usually associate with mainstream distance learning courses. They use the traditional strengths of the research university to enhance the educational experience of our students and others both inside and outside of the university. As a result, technology enhances tradition, and everyone has an opportunity to learn. While this approach and mainstream distance learning courses may use many of the same tools, learning with this approach is not limited to e-mail and/or Web sites, online interaction with an instructor, online class discussions, or collaborative work among students in a particular discipline and distance learning class during a particular semester. Learning is both technology-based and face-to-face, often with student "apprentices" working with, developing relationships with, and being mentored by nationally and internationally recognized experts. Learning extends across disciplines and reaches even those not enrolled in a particular course. The benefits may affect those located anywhere, including those who follow after us. A particular challenge for research universities is to continue to enhance and extend these kinds of learning opportunities, create new ones, and ensure that these learning opportunities are available to all students—whether full- or part-time, on campus or off.


Dubois, Jacques, Distance learning: A transformational model for higher education, going the distance. PBS Adult Learning Service.

Griffiths, J. M. (1998a, October 13). Knowledge communities, tradition, technology, and transformation in higher education. Paper presented at the International Conference on the Social Impact of Information Technology, St. Louis, MO.

Griffiths, J. M. (1998b). Knowledge communities, tradition, technology, and transformation in higher education. Video available from the Office of the Chief Information Officer of The University of Michigan. Contact Kathleen McClatchey at kjm@umich.edu.

Guernsey, L. (1998, March 27) Colleges debate the wisdom of having on-campus students enroll in online classes. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44, A29.

Levine, A., & Cureton, J. S. (1998). Collegiate life: An obituary. Change, 50(10), 14–17, 51.

McClenney, K. M. (1998, August). Community colleges perched at the millennium: Perspectives on innovation, transformation, and tomorrow. Leadership Abstracts, 11(8). Retrieved January 31, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.league.org/labs0898.html.

Phillips, V. (1998, November 23). Re: Some online learning trends-stats? E-mail to Distance Education Online Symposium.

Shankland, S. (1998, November 20). The lure of low-cost PCs grows. ABC News. Retrieved January 31, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.abcnews.com/sections/tech/CNET/cnet_lowcostpc981119.html.

Stein, L. (1998, September). Expanding the distance learning revolution: PBS Adult Learning Service and University Access to deliver next generation education. Press Release, University Access Press. Retrieved January 31, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.universityaccess.com/admin/press/pbs.htm and http://www.pbs.org/als/universityaccess.

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