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Friday, February 29, 2008

The Bright Tomorrow of Online Education

Online education will play a major role in the future of postsecondary education in America. Colleges and universities are scrambling to be aboard, and state legislatures, with long-term economy in mind, are making major commitments of support. There are, however, many hurdles before viable cost-effective/learning-effective online education programs are in common use. At this point, the majority of programs is simply an extension of passive lecture or lecture discussion through electronic means. Few institutions understand the economies of these programs, nor have they faced the structural changes that are required. As important, institutions have not understood the quality and accessibility of programs that will be needed to meet the challenge from private sector initiatives.

"You Can't Predict the Future But You Can Plan for It"

The following are ten important questions concerning the future of distance learning:

• Will faculty adapt? The pay isn't great, but the job of a full-time faculty member is really very nice. By tradition a faculty member controls his own work; functions independently; gets to perform by lecturing; and has adequate time for study, reflection and interaction with stimulating colleagues. The use of technology in education, and particularly in distance learning, requires cooperation, teamwork, performing a role in an organized structure, more effort in design than in delivery, and less self-directed time. Quite simply, it is counter-culture for faculty. Will sufficient numbers of faculty adjust to permit institutions to design and deliver educational services in new ways?

• Will online education grow through shadow colleges? In many instances, rather than face the obstacles presented by traditional faculty, the existing work rules, union contracts, and faculty attitude, many institutions have created new organizations outside of the basic institution. These organizations have new salary schedules, reward systems and work policies. Will this be the only way that colleges can restructure? Can these organizations exist within traditional institutions?

• Will college administrations adopt new, more sophisticated planning and/or management systems? While it will be difficult for faculty to adapt to new delivery arrangements, it will also be difficult for administration. In educational budgets, management has typically been concerned with only three variables -- classrooms, mean class size and professors. The use of information technology and online education introduces a myriad of new cost elements that have to be worked into the basic cost structure. New and more sophisticated planning/management systems must be put into place, or the new arrangements will simply cost more and will not be practical to initiate.

• Will state bureaucracies establish a single online education institution? It is no secret that in recent years state legislatures and bureaucracies have increased their control and decision-making with regard to public higher education. In a number of states significant appropriations are being made to develop infrastructures for distance learning. The question that will be asked is, "if distance programs are expensive to develop, and if all of our sites are tied together, why not have one organization that delivers these services statewide." Colleges and universities need to prepare to answer that question.

• Will funds become available to develop quality learning software that uses the full capability of information technology? To date, substantial state appropriations for online education have gone for infrastructure, equipment and networks. While these are useful, there is real question as to the need for these expenditures. There are so many networks (for example, the Internet) available to use. Important advancements in learning can be made if significant appropriations are shifted to learning software. This software should use the full capabilities of information technology and the research on adult learning.

• How will learning be certified? In the United States each institution basically makes its own decisions with regard to what learning will be credited. Very often decisions are based on a well entrenched "not invented here" syndrome. As increasing numbers of individuals register for courses and learn through a wide array of institutions, there will be a demand from the public for that learning to be assessed and credited toward degrees and certificates.

• Can colleges keep their certification monopoly? The strongest cards that colleges and universities hold in competing with private organizations in online education are prestige and certification control. To keep the certification monopoly. Colleges and universities are going to have to work with other organizations and be considerably more accommodating in recognizing learning that was not provided by their institution.

• How will on-campus and distance use of technology integrate? Much present online education is simply the extension of the lecture classroom to distance locations. But, there are few examples of the instructional software designed for distance coming back into use on campus. Materials that are developed that are time and place independent. As well as time variable. Can be used on campus with the addition of more interaction with college staff. This would provide new options for students and increase student volume. Thus providing more capability for greater expenditures on development of quality educational software.

• How can we substitute for the inspiration of personal interaction with faculty members? In all of my years at Miami-Dade Community College, I never received a letter complementing a college program without reference to a faculty member or other staff member who had inspired or contributed to the development of the writer. Almost all of us can point to an individual, very often a faculty member, who had major impact on our lives. Is there a way to keep that inspiration in an online education situation? Is there something to be substituted?

Mathew Simond is a journalist and copywriter. He is also a webmaster of many websites including and He aims to provide healthy information and advice on academic degrees.

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