Educational Policy Recommendations


National Education Association

NEA Distance Education: Challenges and Opportunities

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 years.

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 education.

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