Educational Policy Recommendations
National Education Association
NEA Distance Education: Challenges and
Distance education is no new phenomenon
in higher education. Correspondence courses have been offered
by colleges since the late 1800s. More than 10 percent of all
broadcast radio stations were owned by colleges and delivered
educational programming by 1923. The first educational television
programs were created in the 1950s (Guide to Teleconferencing
& Distance Learning). The use of audiocassettes for language
and music appreciation courses has been commonplace for many
Educators always have been drawn to technology
because of its promise and potential. During the 1980s, students,
faculty, and institutions embraced the use of computers for writing
across the disciplines, financial analysis in business, and statistical
analysis in the social sciences. Midway through the 1990s, there
was a shift in emphasis from the computer as a desktop tool to
the computer as the "communications gateway" to colleagues
and information. Data bases, libraries, and other information
sources have become increasingly accessible via computer networks
to both faculty and students. Today, increasing numbers of faculty
are utilizing the Internet and web sites.
The fiscal pressures facing higher education
combined with the increased demand for access, also have prompted
renewed attention to technology. NEA recently conducted in-depth
interviews with the education chairs of state legislative committees
in 49 states. These legislators wholeheartedly endorsed the expanded
use of technology as a means for delivering instruction in higher
education -- and they were willing to provide funding for new
technologies. Technology is viewed as a critical linkage between
colleges and universities and the public schools. In sparsely
populated states, technology will provide educational access
to students who are in remote locations. In the long term, technology
is seen as a way to reduce the need to build new campuses. It
also, mistakenly, is viewed as a cheap solution to educating
masses of students.
Western state governors embraced distance
education when they agreed to create and fund the "virtual
university," scheduled for operation the summer of 1997.
The governors see the "exploding availability and capabilities
of advanced technology-based teaching and learning" as a
powerful means to expand access, reduce costs, shift the focus
of education from "seat time" to competency-based learning,
and to utilize new approaches to teaching and assessment.
The excitement about distance education
raises some important questions. When colleges and universities
were first formed, their primary role was as a community of scholars
with the library as the central storehouse of knowledge. Students
came to campus to interact with that community and with each
other. It was the place where students came to be tested and
challenged by the faculty. In modern times, the library can now
be accessed through the Internet and many of today's students
have become "commuter students," attending part-time.
How do we preserve the learning community when learning is taking
place off the campus? How do we maintain the student-to-student
and faculty-to-student interaction that is so important to learning?
As the financial stakes are raised, intellectual
property rights and faculty rights increasingly become intertwined.
Institutions that previously asserted no ownership claim to a
scholarly book are rethinking their policies on intellectual
property rights. While institutions consider distance, faculty
ponder the implications for their intellectual property rights.
What they see is a potential diminution of those rights -- and
a devaluation of their skills. Their discomfort is exacerbated
by the failure of current copyright law to address the issues
raised by distance learning.
There's also the issue of quality control.
Faculty members play major roles in the development of curriculum
and setting standards for their particular disciplines. In the
development of distance education courses, will faculty be a
vital part of the decision-making on the content and quality
of the courses?
Finally, technology tools are expensive.
Better models for measuring the costs and benefits of technological
instruction are needed. Institutions often underestimate the
real costs of technology. What does it cost to support instruction
in the classroom? What does it cost to maintain the equipment
and to train people to use it? How soon does equipment become
obsolete? There is still much to be learned about the costs and
benefits associated with technology. Each institution must find
the right balance in combining traditional practices and materials
with new ones.
Distance education also means new union
contract issues, such as evaluation, student contact, workload,
and compensation. A review of the contracts on NEA's Higher Education
Analysis System (HECAS) indicates this is an unsettled area of
negotiations. Several agreements provide for the use of technology
on a case-by-case basis until the parties have time to study
the full impact of technological changes. Other contracts establish
a labor-management committee and defer bargaining on the specifics
until there is more information. Large numbers of contracts have
clauses on intellectual property rights, both patents and/or
copyrights, and an increasing number are dealing with distance
In most cases, faculty members cannot be
forced to teach telecourses and the courses are not used to fill
their regular teaching load. Some contracts limit telecourses
to non-credit classes out of the mainstream curriculum.
The rate of pay for these courses is often
a lower rate, either the overload rate or part-time hourly rate.
As the use of technology grows and telecourses become part of
the regular course loads of faculty, compensation will become
an issue. Another issue related to compensation is class size.
There is no consistency between contracts on this issue. It is
possible for enrollment in telecourses to be very large.
Student contact for off-campus telecourses
is another issue. Students have access to faculty by phone, E-mail,
or regular mail. In some cases, faculty members schedule review
sessions for students throughout the semester.
Faculty need time to prepare to teach telecourses.
One contract for a four-year campus provides for up to a year
of preparation. It includes working with the media department
to adapt lesson plans to telecourses, to become familiar with
equipment, and to receive training. Another college gives faculty
the option of enrolling in courses to obtain training in telecommunications.
Others reduce course loads in order to prepare a televised course.
Distance education and other technological
advances are rapidly changing education. But the pursuit of quality
must be maintained.
from "A Technical
Guide to Teleconferencing and Distance Learning," 3rd edition