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 Technologys 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.
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.