Hopes for Distance Learning in 2002

As the calendar year changes, I find myself shifting back and forth between reflecting and planning. On the reflection side, I recall some interesting discussions in which I participated in the last few months of 2001.

Terry Hilsberg, chief executive officer of NextEd, based in Hong Kong, shared his story in a couple of public forums. He works with distance learning institutions in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. His partners all offer low-priced programs in China through local learning centers that NextEd develops in partnership with Chinese institutions. They have tens of thousands of students studying electronically with faculty half a world away.

He points out that American institutions are conspicuous by their absence. Those that are reaching out to the Asian market have priced their programs so high that they are available to only a small number of people. He also claims that by the time U.S. institutions are ready to serve Asian populations at an affordable price, all the others will have the market cornered.

Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, talked about the need to change state policies for higher education funding. If institutions are only given state funds for students who take their classes, states are encouraging unnecessary competition in an expensive part of distance learning: course production. They are also not encouraging good service for students who use local colleges for technology, library access, and support but use course materials from another institution. This financing strategy may have worked well for face-to-face activities, but it puts the full costs of distance learning directly on students.

It seems the U.S. model of higher education will not allow us to compete globally unless we can shift our “cottage industry” philosophy. Different types of institutions will have to specialize and be funded for the distance learning activities on which they focus.

So much for the memories. On the planning side of my thinking about the new year, I like the notion of using distance learning to enhance the role of the United States worldwide. Our image around the world is a bit tarnished. We have vast resources of knowledge that we share only with those who can afford the high prices we charge for our boutique degrees delivered at a distance. On a grand scale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare project shows us that we do not have to ration our intellectual resources. We can share them for little cost to us.

Even when course materials are offered online for free, there are still barriers to using them. Not everyone in the world understands the same languages or can access the Web. These problems may work themselves out over time and through new technological developments, but in the meantime, those of us working in the field of distance learning can begin to find new models for sharing resources.

I do not mean to imply that taking a course from a specific institution should be free. The costs of activities associated with actually taking a course for credit must be covered. It may even be possible for some institutions to make money offering such courses. But not all courses or sets of course materials can be profitable. Because there is not always money to be made, we can pull the knowledge out of any specific course. We can technologically open the vast store of human knowledge to anyone on earth who wants it. We can begin to re-create the equivalent of the original vision for public libraries: free access to knowledge.

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