January 1999 // Vision
Will Distance Education Really Revolutionize Higher Education?
by William R. Klemm
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: William R. Klemm "Will Distance Education Really Revolutionize Higher Education?" The Technology Source, January 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

We hardly need to be reminded that universities, of all social institutions, are among the most tenacious resisters to change. For hundreds of years they have embraced only three educational technologies—the printing press, the chalkboard, and the overhead projector—and the dominant form of university instruction remains the professorial lecture. One student has described the stultifying pedagogy at most universities this way:

I find sitting in a lecture hall listening to someone essentially summarize the main points of a textbook to be not only boring but a waste of my time. Furthermore, exams that are nothing more than a memorization exercise do not accurately reflect or encourage the understanding of key concepts, the development of critical thinking, or cognitive synthesis of new ideas or theories developed as a result of studying the content. Worst of all, I have found this type of educational experience to sometimes dampen interest in the subject rather than stimulate the student to explore the subject further (Harrsch, 1998).

Yet with the introduction of information technology tools, universities, however reluctantly, are beginning to change. One major innovation in the delivery of education is distance education (DE). In Texas, for example, 98 of 116 institutions of higher education are already using DE. The University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, and the University of Houston have large two-way videoconferencing networks of high-speed digital telephone lines. The A&M network alone reaches 94 sites including Mexico City, and last year offered 180 telecourses. A 1995 U.S. Department of Education survey of two- and four- year colleges indicated that 1/3 of all U.S. institutions of higher education offered DE courses and 25 percent more planned to do so in the three years following the survey. Today, the majority of U.S. universities offer DE courses, with a much higher proportion in public than in private institutions (NCES, 1997).

Distance Education as a Potential Force for Change

Many universities see DE as a way to increase enrollments within their state. Other institutions see DE as a way to extend influence to other states and nations and enhance their own prestige and research capabilities. Whatever the motivation, DE confronts higher education with the need for major restructuring. Unfortunately, the technology outstrips public policy and politics, and educational governing bodies are confused and ambivalent about how to proceed in this strange new world of "just-in-time" higher education.

This confusion is present in a host of educational arenas, such as admission criteria, registration mechanisms, fee structures, residence requirements, access to traditional university resources and support services, laboratory experiences, integration of diverse technologies into instructional methods, reward systems for professors, intellectual property rights, course marketing, and turf battles among colleges and universities.

Because it is not constrained by time and place, DE expands and liberates the educational market. Students can sample a DE smorgasbord of courses and degree plans. Online courses are developing at such an astonishing rate that merely cataloguing and indexing a world-wide list is a daunting task (See America's Learning Exchange, 1998). In 1994-95, there were 25,730 distinct DE college courses (NCES, 1997).

However, there are complications arising from this new freedom. For example, if DE allows all institutions to compete directly with each other, will state legislatures need to protect "weak" schools from other schools that have more resources or that offer a superior product? If state legislatures attempt to impose protectionist policies giving each school an inviolate "territory," how might such policies protect against incursions from private schools within the state or schools outside the state? State legislatures are typically unenthusiastic about encouraging out-of-state students because of the drain on state resources (tuition and fees rarely cover the full cost of education). Delivery of education to out-of-state students might therefore be discouraged unless costs are less than those for on-site students.

DE Educational Practices—the Good, the Bad, the Costs

Before judging the results of our current education-with-technology programs, we need to reassess the ways in which we are providing instruction via technology. Simply extending the lecture hall model to mass distribution of content via tapes, CDs, and the Web will lessen the quality of education. In on-site instruction, even in large lecture classes, at least some dialogue occurs among students, teaching assistants, and professors. Students learn from each other in laboratories, hallways, dormitory rooms, and even beer halls.

The good news is that DE students can have many opportunities to interact with each other and with the professor via e-mail and computer conferencing software (Klemm, 1998a). Some programs use computer conferencing to complement lectures to on-campus students (see Klemm, 1998b) or use a mix of DE technologies for content delivery and student interaction. These combinations add up to good educational practice.

The bad news is that a high degree of interactivity increases professor workload. Administrators find DE appealing because of the savings in brick-and-mortar infrastructure. They see the campus expanding without expensive new buildings and dorms. They also tend to accept the prevailing myth that DE allows for more efficient use of professor time. Why have professors lecture to 200 students when they can deliver the same materials to thousands via VCR tapes, CDs, or Web sites? What administrators miss in their calculations is that modern DE engages professors in more one-on-one interactions than ever occur in on-campus instruction. If, in the interests of efficiency, such interaction were not encouraged, that would certainly lessen the quality of instruction and learning. Also, to have a powerful educational communication tool and not to use it is tantamount to malpractice. At present, DE, properly done, is not cost-efficient. Cost-efficient education can occur when universities pack several hundred students into a lecture hall or broadcast lectures over television. But if educators value quality, visionary means must be found to support multiple interactions among DE students and between students and the professor in a cost-efficient way.

The Future of DE

We now have a world-wide store of information available on the Internet at the click of a mouse. Since 1993, the Internet has grown over 30-fold to 36,739,000 named sites in July, 1998 (Network Wizards, 1998). Desktop televideo conferencing, although technically primitive, is available to anyone who buys an inexpensive camera that plugs into the personal computer. So-called Direct (digital) PC is cost-comparable to cable TV and provides high-speed downloads of Internet information. At least four companies currently plan to blanket the globe with high-speed televideo transmission via satellites.

One set of models that is catching on in on-site education involves such practices as problem-based learning, collaborative learning, and more authentic forms of assessment—all backed by research showing their advantages for motivation and learning outcomes. These educational practices are even more important for DE students, who would otherwise be condemned to learn in isolation.

Whither the Halls of Ivy?

Traditional colleges and universities must compete with institutions that dabble with DE as well as with corporate DE universities. Yet there is no need for hundreds of online versions of the same courses. Despite some purely administrative groupings of institutions offering DE, universities have not found good mechanisms for cooperatively parceling out online courses so that each institution can specialize and acquire the faculty to support huge online classes. Most universities that venture into online education have not come to grips with issues of scale. They operate with small DE classes and have no capability or even game plan to exploit the economies of scale to support thousands or tens of thousands of students in a class.

Who is going to pay for faculty and technology infrastructure to support all the expanded adult and DE activities of traditional universities? Tuition rates already increase much faster than inflation. From my vantage point of 33 years of college teaching, I think quality has already declined. DE will inevitably drain resources, degrading quality further. To maintain instructional quality, traditional universities must receive extra funding for DE initiatives. Research universities may have to opt out of DE or else restructure some of their priorities. Universities may have to specialize and stop trying to be all things to all people. Formation of educational consortia, among universities and between universities and industry, would allow institutions to share educational resources, including faculty and courses.

Many professors in our traditional institutions are not ready for the necessary changes demanded by new instructional technologies. Incentives are needed to upgrade teaching skills (and attitudes). A new support-service infrastructure has to be created.

But the die is cast. Many universities will now cater more to adult and DE students. Even on-campus students will increasingly take some coursework online and expect to get the credit transferred to their home institution. We need vision to keep our eye on at least a minimum goal—that of providing DE while sustaining quality in education in the 21st century. Better yet, instructional technologies provide visionaries an opportunity to improve educational quality, both on-site and in DE.


Harrsch, M. 1998. E-mail posting on the ifets-digest V1 #46 owner-ifets-digest@gex.gmd.de, 10 Nov.

Klemm, W. R. 1998a. Using computer conferencing in teaching. Community College Journal of Research and Practice. 22: 507-518.

Klemm, W. R. 1998b. New ways to teach neuroscience: integrating two teaching styles with two instructional technologies. Medical Teacher. 20: 364-370.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1998, February). Distance education in higher education institutions: Incidence, audiences, and plans to expand (NCES 98-132). Retrieved January 6, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/98132.html.

Network Wizards. 1998. Internet Domain Survey, July 1998. Retrieved January 5, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.nw.com/zone/WWW/report.html.

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