Can Distance-Learning Planners Share?

This fall I've been involved in planning meetings with half a dozen states and national organizations involving strategies for using distance learning. They have various goals, but in each case my message is the same. First, the thinking and planning must start from the student's perspective. Second, plan a project that solves a problem, not one that just brings more resources into the institutions.

In one of these states, the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) conducted an assessment of the educational needs of rural communities. The political and business leaders in these communities were concerned about economic development. They focused on the types of skills local people need to do the types of jobs that are being created in their communities—like training for jobs in health care, small business development, and basic technical literacy.

Of course, these are not the types of courses and programs that the leading distance-learning providers in the state are offering. These needs are also short- to medium-term in nature. To appropriately serve these rural communities, while recognizing that the specific needs will change within a few years, the only non-permanent solution is to use distance learning. However, even the distance-learning programs must be flexible. That means it would be more efficient to import courses from providers who have already developed them, providers that may or may not be located in the same state as the communities to be served.

Effectively serving these communities with distance learning also means that someone must take charge of assuring appropriate access to technology and connectivity. But this is just the first step; wh'ever this someone turns out to be must also help rural citizens understand how to use the higher-education system and the tools themselves. Learning to use the technological tools is the easy part. The system itself can be daunting. A large part of this someone's time is likely to be spent assisting local distance-learning students. This would entail helping them find the right course provider, finding the courses themselves, arranging library access, and assisting in finding all of the other local and electronic resources that the students need in order to be successful. None of this relates to creating courses, yet without this effort, distance learning offered to populations with little experience in higher education is not likely to be successful.

After I presented the results of our survey to the relevant state commission, there was a report on the state's virtual college project. The people reporting explained how critical it was that the project receive increased support. Their central recommendation was that their colleges needed to create more distance-learning offerings, as a couple dozen students were already earning their degrees via distance learning originating in a neighboring state.

Ironically, this came right after I had told the commission members about a cooperative, not competitive, way that neighboring states could react to one another. My example was West Virginia and Kentucky. The state of West Virginia is contracting with Kentucky for distance-learning programs the latter has already developed. The citizens in West Virginia need these programs, and their state decision-makers have decided it is much cheaper for them to purchase the programs than to create them. It also allows West Virginia to serve some of its short-term needs without developing new programs.

I guess my remarks were hard to hear. It seems that institution-centered ways of thinking die hard.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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