An area graduate student researching distance learning posed some questions  the other day.  Here are his questions and my responses.  I’m sure he’d appreciate answers from other higher education professionals.  His questions are in grey, my answers are in blue.

1. Are there any current or future concerns regarding adminstrative structure with regard to staff and team building, marketing a program, or planning and delivering programs.

Five years ago, a key part of delivering online programs was convincing stakeholders (students, employers, accreditors) that online learning is educationally sound. Now that that challenge has been for the most part met, we have moved on to figuring out how online learning can function efficiently as it scales, and where it “fits”  within the institution (What’s the relationship between distance learning and IT?, Is distance learning a support department, or does it hire its own faculty and develop its own curricula like any other academic department?)

2. How has technical infrastructure and support expanded, and do you see continued support for developing online courses? Are faculty adapting well to existing and upcoming technologies and being trained to use them to their fullest extent?

The rapid growth of online learning enrollments has caused many institutions to move away from hosting their own servers and towards relying on vendors for complete managed solutions. Institutions with small online programs can manage things in house (one server and one support person)  The largest institutions can deploy departments full of people to do the same thing.  The institutions in between seem more likely to contract out, since they don’t have the personnel to keep up with program growth.

It’s widely understood that technology changes rapidly and will continue to do so, necessitating a long term commitment to faculty training and support.  Like anything new, the Technology Adoption Lifecycle https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Technology_adoption_lifecycle applies. Also please see #4.

3. With regard to faculty time and compensation for developing and teaching online courses, do you see more incentives, rewards and/or compensation in the future and how so?

No. During the salad days of online learning, instructors got release time or monetary compensation for online course development, since it was understood to be new and different.  Now, online course development is increasingly seen as part of the job, even though it tends to take more time than traditional class development and requires special skills.  In many cases, the flexible scheduling possible for instructors is the incentive, and there is often competition for online sections among instructors who want that scheduling flexibility.  It’s the same scheduling flexibility that draws students to online learning.  Also, online learning environments allow you to draw from a potentially global pool of adjuncts.  Between this expanded pool of instructors and the desire for flexibility, there is no shortage of online instructors.  Unless one develops, I don’t see a growth of incentives happening.

4. How does social interaction, or the lack thereof, affect faculty and students with regard to teaching and learning? Is this a problem you see for the future or is this area of distance learning improving?

The eagerness with which instructors take up new technologies seems to correlate pretty well with the extent to which the technologies mesh well with the existing content delivery model of education. To that extent, social media uptake has been minimal, because to really leverage social media/social networks, you have to make fundamental changes in your course locus of control, and the things which follow from it.  I think it will take a decade or so to know if it will improve.  When those who grew up with social media become educators, one of two things can happen. Either they’ll integrate the technology they use day to day into their teaching, and things will get better, or they will teach the way they were taught and things won’t get better.  If the latter happens, there’s a tremendous opportunity to disrupt the higher ed model to its core. See, for example, the thought experiment at :

http://www.youtube.com/user/tehdai#p/u/0/V8jYbu6VVvQ

5. Do you see evaluation and assessment of students learning skills improving?

Yes, but only in small ways.  It’s hard to improve assessment until there’s a broad consensus about the knowledge, skills, and abilities we want to assess.  There’s growing tension about the extent to which education, especially higher education, is about teaching employable skills versus more abstract goals that contribute to things like good citizenship and well rounded persons.

Also, there’s a gap between the assessment many would like to do, and what our system scalability allows.  Compare the multiple choice exams many students take with Advanced Placement exams, each of which has a free response section independently marked by two graders who have been trained in how to mark them.  The kind of assessment we say we want (projects, artifacts, etc.) is much more labor intensive than the assessment we have.

6. Are there still issues with student access or adaptibility to technology or access to courses?

Basic access for most students is less of an issue than it once was.  The challenge now is that bandwidth and computing power limitations at the student end are hampering the growth of rich media content and interactivity.  What do you do, for example, if your course requires a java plugin to display media that you don’t have the permissions to install on the computer at home, at your workplace, or in your local library that you use to access your courses?

7. Where do we go from here with policy makers and administration? How do you perceive funding cuts to be an issue for online and distance learning?

I actually see funding limitations driving online learning growth.  While doing online learning well requires resources, the cost of adding capacity online is lower than that of building classrooms, adding parking lots, and paying utilities and maintenance on those facilities.

8. Will distance learning continue to be a viable and growing option in the future?

Definitely.  The days of most college students stopping the rest of their lives for four years so they can be on campus full time are not coming back.

9. Are there any areas that need further research and study?

Of course there are. There always are.  I’m less certain of the value of studying the tools themselves.  We spend person-years studying this or that tool, rather than focusing on how we use them.

10. Final thoughts?

Long term, I think there’s a correlation between how open we are and how effective all learning (not just online learning) will be.  That’s why I posted these answers to my blog rather than emailing you back.

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