Distance Learning: Lessons from Alaska
As Alaskans are experiencing the annual
thaw, it may be worthwhile for those of us in the lower 48 to think about some
lessons we might be able to learn from the distance learning planners there.
Two years ago, I began to work with Mike Sfraga and Steve Smith of the
University of Alaska as they tried to sort out the first steps in responding to
a challenge. Their task was to devise a statewide network that could serve all
of the distance learning needs of the public school system, local governments,
the National Guard, public libraries, community colleges, technical colleges,
and the state's public and private universities. At least they did not have to
try to weave in public health care needs; there was another project dealing this
those issues on a parallel track.
They began their planning process by
including all of the players and focusing on the actual distance learning needs
of each of the constituent groups. Mike and Steve pushed all of the groups to
articulate their plans in sufficient detail so that they could understand one
The school planners wanted to ensure that students
throughout the state could have access to the courses they would need to be able
to stay and work in their own communities or that they might need to attend
college. The National Guard needed regular training for members located
throughout the state. The public libraries needed to share documents at every
local branch, regardless of the their size or location. The tribal college
wanted to reach young people in their communities to enable them to complete
some of their college work close to home.
There was no talk of
technology until the needs were defined. During the next stage of the process,
the university technocrats played a supportive and facilitative role. They
helped each group understand what type of electronic tools could be used with
different levels of bandwidth. They showed the other groups how tools such as
Web video or chat groups could be used in well-designed learning environments.
Even though the university planners knew their own bandwidth
requirements, they never dictated what others might want to do. Each group was
set loose to define the type of learning tools it would need to achieve its
To design a system that would balance costs and bandwidth
requirements throughout the state, the university planners called in
representatives from private industry and local phone companies. Those
negotiations are still going on, but at least all those involved have figured
out what they want to do and how those diverse groups—with constituents from the
Arctic Circle to the Bering Sea to the border of British Columbia—can work
together for the benefit of all.
Throughout this statewide planning
process, the University of Alaska campuses in Fairbanks, Juneau, and Anchorage
began some of their own planning. Through system-wide purchases, all parts of
the university now have a common student information system. This has enabled
campus officials to begin developing a fully integrated system to support
students. Their eventual goal is to upgrade all of the services for
The lessons I hope all of us can learn from our northern
colleagues are to include all critical parties in the planning process and, most
importantly, to define needs before planning the network. It may not be as much
fun as evaluating the new technological toys, but it d'es increase the chances
that the tools that are ultimately selected will actually be used.
As founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational
Telecommunications at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education,
Sally M. Johnstone serves as a resource on higher education technology issues.
She also serves on the board of the American Association for Higher Education,
the U.S. Open University's Board of Governors, and the Advisory Panel for the
Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education. email@example.com