Vol. 15 : No. 9
DISTANCE LEARNING - A PERSONAL HISTORY
Lessons of the past are rarely regarded as essential or even worth reviewing by succeeding generations. Why then do those who have lived through the implementation of philosophies of education or learning technologies continue to tell of their experiences in the hopes that the dynamics of change will bring improvements to today's schools?
Education has reached a new height in national awareness. There is general agreement that good schools lay the foundation for student success. Despite the recent emergence of examples of single focused "nerd" dropouts who achieve lottery-like financial success, parents persevere in their unshakeable belief that a good education will give their children tools for a lifetime.
Today, there is a focus on technology. Cities and towns, supported by the federal government, are wiring their buildings and bringing computers into the classrooms. Public schools and colleges are looking to the Internet as a major force for school improvement and as a way to extend their reach beyond the physical classroom setting (Michaels, 2000). Corporations, with an economic need to train and retrain are developing their own systems, as well as looking to others to provide education. Multiple delivery systems with their own component equipment packages are rising like derricks on a construction site.
Technology has been a physical presence in schools for many years. On Friday afternoons in years past, the "AV Guy" brought out the 16mm projector and the whole school watched a movie, disconnected from the curriculum or listened to the click, click of the filmstrip projector with a staccato of still images. Today, the concept of "distance learning" brings technology beyond the classroom and the auditorium to public settings and more personally to the home. From correspondence courses of old and "closed circuit television" of the early fifties, there has been a yearning for the possibility of realizing learning opportunities anytime, anywhere (Quan, 2000). Computers and the Internet, which allow both sound and pictures to be easily distributed, contribute to a new paradigm at the university or college level and some interesting experiments for K-12 education.
Looking at the history of education, however, shows us that the two traditional methods of teaching, the lecture and the blackboard, remain at the forefront of teaching with technology. Despite the capabilities of electronic information transfer and of increased communications, much of what abounds in education is the same old methods of instruction. We continue to use new technologies in traditional ways, repeating past inadequacies and constraints with the new media. At its worst, once the novelty wears off, the same boring lecture is still present, and the same textbook or blackboard presentations are even more difficult to read "on screen". At its best, "distance learning" is not distant at all, but a close and personally intense experience, an interchange with the instructor or with the other students. Many advocates prefer the term, "distributed education", reflecting the extension of learning to students many miles or even thousands of miles apart. (Stokes, 2000)
The Open University
My earliest observation of "modern" distance opportunities for students in 1969 was with the British Open University. The Open University began by offering a variety of courses to the public through the medium of broadcast TV. All of the programs were extremely well produced, carefully designed, and taught by professional academics in their respective fields. Each course cost almost one million dollars to design and produce. The camera took students out into the field, beyond the confines of the classroom, and brought to the United Kingdom, a democratization of learning. Thousands of students began taking "credit courses", with personalized faculty attention. With care, the numbers of both students and courses grew each year. In the 90's, the Internet was added to the delivery of instruction, giving students various options: not only credit or no-credit, but text, video and computer variants. Some students received an entire university education without ever setting foot in an academic classroom. The Open University's experimentation was a precursor of much that was to come, becoming a model for excellence in both production and instructional design.
At the same time in the United States, an early morning program, "Sunrise Semester", gave students the option of taking university-based courses at home. Little was done beyond a video rendition of the professor's regular lectures. There was occasional work at a blackboard, and the camera would focus on materials that were brought for use in a classroom. Art courses and art slides or science slides were the most effectively used media; however even in these subjects you would be hard pressed to differentiate a TV class from any college or university lecture hall. Production and production values were not important considerations. These were low-budget fillers to start the day. There was no marketing or advertising budget. At no time did these courses achieve the popularity of the British Open University. They did serve a need for some students, particularly adults, who wished to complete degree programs without appearing on a campus of youthful students or interrupting their careers.
My personal distance learning experience began with Nova University (now Nova Southeastern University) in the seventies. Nova was one of the earliest schools to incorporate distance-learning technology into its programs. Here I taught thirty students from around the country a course in Multi Media Materials for Children in an online Unix environment, as part of a Master of Education degree program. The students were highly motivated, particularly to use the fascinating and complex technology system. I was not. I wanted to make this comparable to teaching in the traditional classroom. I learned only enough of the technology to allow me to communicate with them. It was very different than my expectations. I soon knew every student intimately. They shared personal stories unbidden. The class talked with their fingers as they would not with their voices. They chided me for working on Thanksgiving Day. They were very angry if I did not respond to their queries within a twenty-four hour period. I had never done so much preparation or had so much communication with my students before-every student. Their work was remarkable. When I corrected a paper and commented on exclusions or inclusions, I would receive the paper again several days later with important revisions that went far beyond my observations. There were periodic regional face-to-face meetings. It was like meeting old friends who compared their technology travails, traded hints, and thirsted more for knowledge than any class I have ever taught. At the same time, the university (and the same is true of many today) had little trust in students to take their examinations online. They herded students down to the Florida campus to sit in a thirty-student classroom, taking examinations that had little to do with the kind of education that they were receiving. Rather than allowing time to reflect and research problems, my examinations involved recall of incidental information that did nothing to contribute to their awareness of the world of children's media. Much like the high-stakes tests so popular today, there was little recognition of what students actually knew or what skills they had mastered. I learned a great deal from that early experience. All those today who continue to perpetuate the myth that learning in a bricks and mortar classroom provides more personal contact have never experienced the interactivity that occurs in a well-designed online environment. Although Nova was not recognized for its truly pace-setting early achievements (almost twenty-five years ago), its methods have been replicated and incorporated into the teaching of numerous colleges and universities today.
University of Maine (Orono)
While I struggled along in my early online teaching, a wonderful experiment was taking place with a friend in Maine, George Connick. George had set up a low-level satellite system to distribute academic courses from the university throughout the state of Maine. Students who could not leave their local communities gathered in high school auditoriums to take college level credit courses. George told me "I gathered all the chits that people owed me to get faculty to teach these courses. I told them, it would be no different than teaching in a regular classroom. Of course I lied." Each faculty member had students in the "home classroom" and others around the state. It was difficult not to pay attention to those remote students. They asked questions. They made comments. They constantly interrupted and had to be heard. The entire demographics of who went to college in Maine began to change. No longer was the average student a bright eighteen-year old boy. Housewives on remote islands came to the classes in large numbers. They truly were ready to learn and yearned for a way to extend their lives. Unfortunately this story does not end happily. The faculty eventually forced the whole operation to close its doors. The university failed to support distance learning in the face of faculty opposition. Faculty members throughout the country have much justification for their unhappiness. After these examples of important demonstration programs I will enumerate some of the difficulties for faculty involved in using technologies to teach.
Public Facilities Telecommunications Program
Many early examples filled the landscape. I have been called many times by the U.S. Department of Commerce to read grants for a program known as the Public Facilities Telecommunications Program (PTFP). Originally designed to support public television and public radio stations, the Department of Commerce, at the behest of Congress, set aside part of its budget to support early efforts at telecommunications for schools and colleges. Program staff from the Department of Commerce has been most helpful in offering assistance to applicants. Once again, hundreds of colleges and universities have benefited from this excellent, but limited program, which supplies equipment, but not most materials or staff. The definitions or permissible and non-permissible expenses sometimes border on absurdity. The Massachusetts telecommunications agency, winning a competitive grant from PTFP, received the chassis of a bus, but neither wheels nor motor, to uplink video from the field. Some universities knew how to capitalize on the possibilities of this extremely competitive program. Two organizations rose to prominence, Agsat, now known as A*DEC and the National Technological University (NTU).
As early as 1862 the Land Grant Act brought together agriculturally oriented colleges and universities to conduct research and teaching to on-campus students and to residents of the respective states. Today that includes more than fifty colleges and universities, and has been a true pioneer in both satellite delivery of education and, more recently, online learning. It is a virtual organization, with courses developed by the respective members, including some of the most prestigious land grant institutions.
A*DEC has been at the forefront of many technological innovations. They were the first to develop "almost on demand" learning by broadcasting satellite programs on several channels twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so that students could access courses throughout the night and on weekends. They were among the first to adopt digital satellite transmission. They were among the first to use small aperture satellite dishes at home sites.
To give you a sense of the breadth of A*DEC, there are three staffers, hundreds of faculty and courses, more than 2000 downlinks, broadcasting from 39 colleges to more than 2000 schools and businesses. Many other organizations, like the National Science Foundation, regularly use A*DEC to disseminate information. As an information resource, it tracks important Congressional legislation affecting the agricultural community. It also has researched intellectual property rights and licensing problems, and provided essential information to its faculty members who have developed courses.
National Technological University (NTU)
For more than twenty years, NTU has been a primary source for engineering education to corporations and businesses throughout the country. Lionel Baldwin, a true pioneer, envisioned the need for continuing education for engineers, and developed a network of top universities who would provide education to each other, and, more importantly to workers at major corporations and businesses. These corporations would pay for the upgrading of their engineering staff. For them, it was a real benefit. Engineers could learn new methods and processes through satellite without leaving the workplace. For the students, the courses were accredited and degree granting. Thousands of students very quickly flocked to take courses at the behest of some of the largest American and foreign corporations. The switchover to digital technology allowed courses to be available any time day or night on fourteen channels. Not surprisingly NTU has the largest student body of any institution in the country, and was the precursor for many of the large area wide consortia forming today. NTU also has initiated the use of home access through both the Internet and small satellite dishes. To watch many NTU courses is impossible for a non-engineer. More is seen of an instructor's bald spot than his face, as the overwhelming contingent of male instructors spend their sessions writing on a whiteboard. The information is far more important than the format, and NTU has been enormously successful, answering a need for the engineering community.
There is a real partnership among the NTU organizations. Faculty committees review all courses. Most of the colleges and universities accept a single tuition, with a few opting for higher fees. All books, payments, registration, transcripts and arrangements are handled by NTU, who splits the tuition fee with the respective institution that supplies both course content and faculty.
In the early 80's the U.S. Congress, responding to the vision of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, passed the Star Schools legislation. Senator Kennedy wanted to bring telecommunications technology to K-12 schools throughout the nation (Miller, 1997). By mandating consortia for production and development and sharing of resources, this legislation initiated an outpouring of K-12 programs in the targeted areas of foreign language, science and mathematics. Unasked for and unwanted by the U.S. Department of Education, their excellent stewardship of a competitive grant process initially brought necessary high-level academic courses to bright students in remote areas. Oklahoma State University was an early leader. Harry Wohlert's high school German was a model for the use of multi-technologies, the power of a charismatic personality, and the experimentation with interactivity over a satellite network. STEP from Spokane brought us Penny Cooper, an extraordinary AP English teacher, combining celebrations of student birthdays and sport successes along with solid instruction. TI-IN, the Texas consortium, broadcast two channels daily with an exciting array of Spanish and English programming prepared by a group of teachers working together in an old schoolhouse.
My experience with the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications (MCET) demonstrated that the use of satellite technology could be effective in delivering many subjects to children of all ages. Courses and programs that had been eliminated in schools because of budget cuts were reintroduced. Music, art and dance all found a place in the lives of school children. Whenever someone said that it was impossible to teach any topic via satellite, MCET proved that person wrong. Interactivity became more than asking questions via telephone. Kids danced their telephone numbers, practiced vibrato with the Lyric Opera, performed Romeo and Juliet with the Shakespeare Theater. Students participated in a writing course, critiquing each other's work with a professionalism and compassion that produced increasingly better results. A course in physics for those who would not be caught "dead" taking physics flourished as students built instruments and tested bungee cords in their classrooms during the broadcast. Many college faculty members found great difficulty in teaching these courses. Children's questions did not allow them to complete the planned lessons. They complained, "I couldn't do it all", and took little comfort in the fact that the students were excited about what they were learning.
Professional development programs for teachers found them learning science by doing and competing to solve mathematics problems. Field production was necessary for all courses involving teachers. They needed to see what happened when an activity was presented in a classroom. How was control maintained? How did the teacher handle the child who finished ahead of all the rest? What about the student whose mobius strips resulted in a pile of triangles?
It was possible to introduce courses for both students and teachers unknown to high school curricula, such as "The Human Genome Project" and "Neurosciences", by developing simulations and stimulating class discussions around issues. Faculty from Harvard School of Public Health contributed hours of preparation and broadcast time. Guests came from around the nation to participate. Congressmen and women, and even the President, appeared in a law-related program, "Learning to Lead." It was an extraordinary period of experimentation, hindered only by the constraints of school schedules and access to the satellite dish.
Other institutions, such as museums, have done interesting work in using technology to teach students removed from their physical locations. The Museum of Science in Boston began work with their local cable channel to bring interactive staff development to elementary school teachers. Workshops formerly held in cities and towns could now be accessed through the cable channel. A teacher group in the studio gave all teachers a chance to compare their personal performance with those who were participating in the live classroom. I am suddenly reminded of the recent spate of "survivor" type TV series and the reaction of the public to all of the personalities. In a similar fashion the studio teachers/learners became familiar personalities that elicited amusement, praise and sympathy as they tried to complete the hands-on experiments. In traveling to remote classrooms, I observed teachers anticipating the difficulties that Henry (always inept at following directions) would have each week. One teacher remarked, "I enjoy comparing myself to him. He always makes me more confident in myself." Despite positive responses, such initiatives cannot survive without someone to spearhead the activity and a climate of innovation. This program concluded when its director departed the museum.
Another Distance Learning initiative, Science by Mail, utilized a vast network of scientists on line corresponding with kids who were involved in packages of science tasks, set in an entertainment, rather than a school, atmosphere. Each package had a central theme (circus, space ship, deserted island) and a specific "big project" (build a circus act, a waste disposal system for a space ship, electricity for a party). The program was not directed to the best and brightest, but to ordinary kids who would like to correspond with a scientist and work on fun projects. This program was franchised to many science museums, supported by the National Science Foundation.
One of the most interesting museum examples of Distance Learning is occurring today at Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. Regularly classes of students at the museum watch open-heart surgery taking place at a nearby hospital. Students have the opportunity to talk to the physicians, anesthesiologist and nurses, who respond to their questions as they perform their tasks. Others can access the program through the museum's web site. Those who regularly complain about the poor quality of Distance Learning offerings have not been exposed to the extraordinary possibilities that truly challenge and excite learners of all ages.
Many museums have been recognized by the academic community for their innovative work on videodiscs, Omni films, virtual reality and public presentations of scientific information. In the Spring of 2000, led by the New York Hall of Science and IBM, with the collaboration of the Association for Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), a virtual museum, www.tryscience.com was initiated.
Jones International University
Glen R. Jones, one of the visionaries in the early history of distance learning, conceived of a cable network for education that would serve millions of students with academic courses. This vision, brought to reality as Mind Extension University, was active throughout the 1970's and 1980's. It was well conceived and implemented, solving the early problems of registration, grading, record keeping and book deliveries, which still plague many of the more recent entries to online operations.
The name, Mind Extension University, was typical of the 1960's fervor and made most folks think of psychedelic peripheral education rather than the serious purpose, and after a series of name changes and cable programs, Jones International University (JIU) was born as an online program of courses. Although the original intent was to deliver courses with graduate and undergraduate credit from many universities, the present incarnation is a stand-alone, degree granting institution. It is the first online university to receive official accreditation from the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, who completed a rigorous examination of its courses and processes. Jones International University, University of the Web, offers a Bachelor of Arts in Business Communication, a Master of Arts in Business Communications and a Master of Business Administration, as well as sixteen shorter-term certificate programs. The President of JIU, Dr. Pamela Pease, has an extensive background in communications and distance learning.
The advantages of working with JIU are the ease of operations and the consistency of quality. While most courses are traditional in both format and design, faculty is experienced in dealing with non-traditional students. Everything flows easily, from initial registration through papers, examinations and final marks. The strong administrative structure allows the whole program to hum along as a well-run machine.
PBS Adult Learning Service
The Public Broadcasting System is well known as a producer of top quality materials. Walter Annenberg gave $150 million in the early 80's for the development of university telecourses. This led to a number of interesting initiatives, among them the Adult Learning Services. Hundreds of courses are offered. PBS is the self-proclaimed "largest satellite service for higher education." Over three million students have participated in PBS telecourses, which is a large number indeed. A catalog of telecasts-courses, specials and series is sent each fall and spring to colleges throughout the nation. Many of these are past special series broadcast over PBS stations. Such programs, integrated with other lessons from the local college make excellent academic courses.
One initiative that has been most successful has been the Adult Learning Satellite Services (ALSS), an extensive body of high-quality courses delivered to distributed locations, primarily universities, libraries and community colleges. PBS contracts with well-known universities and colleges, who provide the content. Local colleges give their own credit for attendance, often supplementing the courses or special events with their faculty at the receiving site. This program from PBS extends the offerings of the local college, and provides for subjects that they have not expertise on campus. There is also a licensing fee to tape the lectures for future or long-term use. A faculty member is normally assigned to each student taking a telecourse, who works with the student on the Internet, accepting assignments, grading papers, testing and grading.
A more recent program, "Going the Distance" (GTD), gave over 140 small colleges around the country opportunity to offer an entire computer associate degrees online. These courses have been evaluated by Penn State University. The evaluation, while pointing out some difficulties and shortcomings concluded that the quality of the courses was very good. The colleges involved saw this program as adding real value to their programs. PBS is now building upon its beginning and extending into staff development for teachers. With an infrastructure firmly in place, PBS can experiment with a broad range of superbly crafted offerings.
The newest addition to PBS is Tech*Knowledge, an online professional development resource for schools of education and community colleges. Funded by the U.S. Office of Education, it is an attempt to bring new tools and resources and a competency-based certificate program for future teachers. Divided into brief one to two week video modules that can be inserted into current college courses, here is an attempt to raise the standard of typical education courses, and to bring good educational practices to the teaching of teachers. Twenty-six modules have already been completed, with another forty-six in development by some of the outstanding video and educational producers in the nation.
University of Phoenix
Assuming leadership in the online academic community is the University of Phoenix, a publicly held corporation that has brought profits to its parent company, Apollo, and some important demonstrations for the distance learning community (Stokes, 2000).
University of Phoenix built its reputation, not on technology, but on good teaching. All of its faculty must undergo rigorous training in online methodology. There is no reliance on old-time instruction. Each instructor must become proficient in provoking responses from his/her students. The faculty meets regularly to discuss their operations, their successes and their difficulties. Each student registered in a course must come online at least five times per week. Each student must participate in conversations online, must complete assignments and be a member of a study group. These "cluster" groups are kept small and personal. All of these simple mechanisms keep them interested. One of the major difficulties that most colleges are loath to admit is the high dropout rate. The University of Phoenix is proud of its low dropout and high success rate.
The university presently offers more than one hundred courses. While the technology was initially all text bound and very clunky, today sees efficiently designed courses that are easy to manipulate online. The priority of the University of Phoenix continues to be a concentration on the learning rather than the latest bells and whistles. There is not the rush to implement hundreds of courses precipitously. This is a lesson that others should heed.
Perhaps an article about the history of distance learning courses should not look at a program specifically designed for elementary school children. It is included because this company has rapidly changed course several times, and through the genius of its chairman, John Kernan, has managed to keep a quality product through several formats. As a demonstration of multi-media, Lightspan's programs use video, audio, games, databases, animation techniques, and online materials seamlessly.
Lightspan was conceived as combining good content in reading and mathematics with the excitement of animated or adventure movies and the seductive quality of videogames, to be delivered to home and school through interactive television. When trials of set top boxes in the early 1990's proved a failure Kernan quickly switched to high-end computers, then brilliantly dealt with Sony to use the Sony PlayStation for education purposes. Subsequently, recognizing the growing interest in the net, Lightspan added a large component of family and school Internet interaction, purchasing major content and forming partnerships with both for profit and not-for profit institutions. Production values are extraordinary, and much of the programming, like Disney movies, is timeless.
Today Lightspan.com is an education portal to many activities for students, teachers and parents. Its mission of bridging school and home is being realized and it is one of the few programs that positively addresses equity issues. It demonstrates quality in the growing family of products.
Examples of Quality
While the overwhelming numbers of courses developed today have little imagination and barely use today's technologies to deliver new approaches to learning, a few exceptions should be noted.
Stanford University's College of Engineering has consistently sought to "push the envelope." Early to adopt video and online systems, students take courses today from their dorms as well as their classrooms. Companies have used Stanford as a test site.
The Sloane School of Management at MIT was careful in its evaluation and testing of online education as it sought to extend its reach to populations in countries beyond the continental United States. Each course is held to a standard of excellence.
The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania first developed courses on video, then worked at satellite applications, and today has forged a partnership with Caliber Learning Company to offer multi-media courses and workshops at the Caliber Centers. It is heartening to watch each of these institutions as they struggle to find the technologies that fit their purposes. My personal relationships with the leadership in each of these universities has allowed me to witness to their progress.
At the same time, many corporations have begun to discover the possibilities of the education marketplace. Eduventures.com, a market research organization, reported that equity investment in education was $2.6 billion in 1999 (Stokes, 2000 , Newman, 2000).
Caliber Learning, as noted previously, uses its established centers to deliver a combination of videoconferencing and online education. My visit to a nearby center showed me the excitement generated by students from many parts of the country learning together.
Kaplan, well known for test preparation began offering an online law degree in 1999, followed by a series of 500 additional programs in nine different disciplines.
Harcourt, one of the premier publishing organizations has opened Harcourt University, carefully preparing its online courses to be more than scanned texts.
Pearson from Great Britain has been buying and investing in many education products.
Larry Ellison of Oracle has joined with Michael Milkin to create Knowledge Universe, a seedbed for new education and training ventures.
From corporations needing training to others seeing financial opportunity, education is no longer regarded as a not for profit enterprise. Some of our most prestigious colleges and universities, such as Columbia University and New York University have spun off for profit operations. The federal government has programs and funding opportunities that assist corporations in working together with educational organizations. This year the David T, Kearns program at Harvard University began looking at the intersection of government, business and education. Many of the examples recounted in this article are for profit enterprises.
Western Governors University and