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U.S. Distance Learning: A "Cottage Industry"

All the available data seems to indicate that online courses and programs are proliferating steadily. Yet they are, by and large, still quite faculty-centered and adhere to the traditional "one size fits all" model of pedagogy. A single faculty member designs the course, creates the materials (with some help from specialized software packages), manages the class, and assesses the students. The courses are taught in the same old semester format, based on the amount of time a student sits in his or her class. The means of measuring the length of a course was designed to manage students coming to a physical space for their learning opportunities.

As Terry Hilsberg, chief executive officer of Hong Kong-based NextEd Ltd. pointed out at a recent Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) conference, we are using a cottage industry approach to distance learning. Most U.S. institutions do not have an institutionwide strategic approach to distance learning. Individual faculty members are practicing their craft with online tools, but there is little change in what they offering students.

The work of Carol Twigg, executive director of the Center for Academic Transformation, and her colleagues is showing us models of what is possible when whole academic departments begin working together to use technology to help students succeed ( These projects are all working on campuses with local students, but there is no technological barrier to moving the models into a distance learning environment.

A great example of this innovative approach is the required statistics course the Ohio State University faculty redesigned. Many students were failing it despite having seemed to master the first half or two-thirds of its content. They fared poorly only in the course's last section, but still failed the entire course and therefore had to repeat it. In the redesign, the course was broken into technologically supported modules through which the student could progress. Some students might finish all of them in less than a semester, others might take one and half semesters, but no one had to repeat material they had already mastered.

Another problem with our cottage industry approach is the lack of economies of scale. Since Ohio State's statistics faculty members have gone through the effort of redesigning a fairly standard course of study, why can't other universities and colleges take advantage of that work? With technologically mediated course modules, there is no fundamental reason why dozens of other institutions could not use them to assist their own students either on- or off-campus. The biggest barrier is probably our cottage industry values that drive institutional cultures.

As campus leaders look strategically at how they can use the online environment, perhaps they will recognize the financial realities and the increased potential for students in shifting away from the craft-industry approach. Perhaps they will be able to put the needs of individual students in a central position for new learning environment designs. Maybe it will even be possible to eliminate the specific seat-time requirements for federal financial aid eligibility so that distance learners will have all the support face-to-face learners now have. Of course if students on campuses are shifting to using modules that are material dependent and not based on time-in-class and seat-time, the rules may evaporate of their own accord. Who knows?

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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