Contemporary Distance Education Issues
December 9, 2001
This analysis of contemporary distance education
issues was written for OMDE 604, Distance Education Management. It
reflects the author understanding of various issues and challenges
facing distance education managers a few years ago, many of which
are still relevant today.
For distance education managers and leaders to successfully guide their
organizations, they need to attend to a number of key contemporary issues.
These issues include external pressures, trends, events, and developments
that could have an effect on the manager’s organization. The following
issues and developments are considered particularly important for distance
education managers, and are listed and discussed in order of priority.
Competition, collaboration, and the marketplace
As more traditional public and non-profit higher education institutions
enter the distance education marketplace, competition for students
has increased. Increasing numbers of for-profit organizations have
also joined the fray, some with great success. In particular, the University
of Phoenix, one of the largest for-profit systems of educational institutions,
has placed increasing pressure on the more traditional institutions,
as it continues to grow and to utilize nontraditional and more market-driven
teaching and faculty models. As the July 2001 report by the Education
Commission of the States demonstrates, for-profit, degree-granting
institutions have grown at a significantly faster rate than their nonprofit
counterparts (Borrego, 2001; Education Commission of the States, 2001).
While some private institutions have attempted to create their own
for-profit distance education entities, such efforts have met with
For example, NYU Online, a subsidiary of New York University, has recently
closed its doors, despite a well-publicized launch and a seemingly viable
business model designed to deliver online courses to businesses and other
clients out of the curriculum offered by the university (Carnevale, 2001).
In this progressively more competitive environment, institutions, corporations,
commercial distance education developers and providers, and even the
military are joining together to pool their resources and gain a greater
share of the market. The creation of the Western Governors University
was one of the more notable example of an association of institutions
created to enable institutions to combine their offerings in a new competency-based
model of distance education (see WGU Web site at http://www.wgu.edu/wgu/index.html).
More traditional state-level consortia, such as the Connecticut Distance
Learning Consortium, provide opportunities for students in that state
to select from distance courses offered by a number of different providers
(see CDLC Web site at http://www.ctdlc.org/). The U.S. Army’s University
Access Online (AUOA) has gained a lot of media attention because it represents
a major initiative by the U.S. military to partner with private industry
(PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLC, Blackboard, Saba, and Peoplesoft), the Council
on Academic Management, and educational institutions to provide distance
education educational opportunities to servicemen across the world (see
AUAO Web site at http://www.earmyu.com/).
Corporations are also getting into the business of providing distance
education. While many corporations provide their own courses to employees,
a significant number partner with traditional educational institutions.
This may represent a real opportunity for traditional educational institutions,
although there is also a downside. Corporations often demand that courses
be quickly redesigned to fit their particular business needs and challenges,
and may want their educational partners to provide many more services
that are time-consuming and costly, including 24-hour-a-day access to
instructors, mentors, and other students (Meister, 2001). As Meister
(2001) points out, “[i]t all adds up to a fundamental shift: the
end of ‘one size fits all’ corporate educational programs.”
As competition increases and as distance education grows as a potentially
viable alternative to classroom education, concerns about the quality
of the education provided also increase. Twigg (2001) points out that
discussions of quality measurements in distributed (or distance) education
tend to focus on the potential need for different quality standards for
distance education, the perception that distance education has no or
low standards, and the fact that there seems to be little consensus about
what constitutes quality in distance education.
Traditionally, private accrediting agencies and governmental agencies
have provided oversight of education institutions. As distance education
offerings have grown, the traditional accrediting agencies in the United
States have been forced to address new issues relating to the quality
of courses offered at a distance. While the regional accrediting agencies
have traditionally operated independently, under the umbrella of the
Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and with some assistance
from the Western Cooperative for Education Telecommunications, the regional
accrediting agencies are beginning to develop common standards and approaches
to providing the public with assurance that distance education programs
meet acceptable quality standards (Eaton, 2001; WCET/WICHE). The issue
of quality is complicated by the rising number of “new providers” identified
by Eaton (2001), which include new institutions, consortia, corporate
education providers and non-degree programs (pp. 5-6).
As Mende (November 2001) observes, “[t]he good news is that the
number of reputable educational institutions offering bona fide coursework
and degrees is growing by leaps and bounds. The bad news is that scam
offerings from diploma mills and other non-accredited programs are also
on the increase.” In response, Eduprise comments that “this
mix of good news and bad is actually old news when it comes to distance
learning” (Eduprise). Eduprise argues that distance learning, especially
when offered via the Web, has made many regulations obsolete, like the
correspondence courses of the past. Methods of distance learning may
change more rapidly than lawmakers, regulators, and accreditors can react.
In the long run, concludes Eduprise, “institutions and students
will also need to protect themselves by becoming critical consumers of
online offerings and by allying themselves with vendor-neutral experts
who can provide trusted advice on the quality of new educational programs
Globalization and international issues
The US is by no means the first to offer distance education programs
and courses, and may not even be the predominant player in the distance
education arena. At the same time, many US providers view international
expansion, in part through collaboration with providers in other countries,
as their next opportunity. While information technology has expanded
the number of organizations offering global distance education programs
and courses, these organizations continue to face significant difficulties
in terms of delivery of materials, student access to technology, structures,
and consistency and quality of service (Rumble, 2000).
The National Committee on Trade in Education (NCITE) has identified a
number of barriers to trade in transnational education that must be considered
by any organization seeking to expand to the global marketplace (see
NCITE Web site at http://www.tradeineducation.org). These barriers include:
National legislation and policies that prevent foreign education and
training providers from being recognized or licensed
Difficulties with qualifications authorities – for example, students
are unable to have degrees from foreign universities translated into
Customs regulations that limit the movement of educational materials
Restrictive telecommunications laws affecting the use of satellites
Difficulties crossing national borders
The World Trade Organization has recently been considering a number
of proposals designed to “free international education from most common
restrictions,” while making the importing and exporting of higher
education subject to complicated WTO protocols (Altbach, 2001). Altbach
opposes the WTO’s involvement because he fears that higher education
would end up added to the group of commodities controlled by the WTO.
As a result, minimal restrictions on investment and expansion would apply
overseas, nations whose students participate in education programs originating
outside their boundaries would lose control over quality and standards
of education, and universities’ autonomy would be severely compromised.
The tension between ensuring easy access to education across
national boundaries and providing for adequate national controls
providers within a nation’s borders is particularly difficult for distance
education programs, and is not expected to be resolved soon.
Faculty members and other teaching staff in traditional classroom-based
teaching environments have typically been viewed as opposed
to the expansion of educational opportunities at a distance
for the quality
of such programs. The American Federal of Teachers, for
example, has expressed some skepticism about whether difficult
can be deeply
understood when studied at a distance, whether distance
education may be ineffective for certain types of subjects and
limitations on the availability of library and learning
materials seriously impairs distance education courses (American
Nonethless, the AFT also points out that instructors who
have taught at a distance agree that when they are given adequate
and support, they have been successful in their distance
Federation of Teachers).
Of perhaps even more importance in the faculty arena is
the question of who owns courses and course materials
(Twigg, 2001). Citing
a number of cases, Twigg (2001) focuses on the need for
policy, and on the various legal precedents that seem
to govern the question of whether the institution or the employed
the course materials. One alternative approach whereby
faculty share in the profits from new course development
other instructors use their online materials, much as
might for publishing textbooks, has been tried at the
and other institutions (Young, 2001). The interesting
result of this
approach is faculty members are potentially encouraged
to develop online course materials, and everyone gains,
students who benefit
from this course materials sharing.
Access to technology
Access to the technology needed to engage in distance
education is a key issue for learners with disabilities
or who because of socioeconomic
hardship do not have access to the technology used in distance education.
In the United States, many distance education organizations
are subject to the Americans for Disabilities Act
(ADA), which in part governs the
requirements that apply to educational institutions that receive federal
funds, by far the majority of US educational institutions. Under ADA
Title III, “courses and examinations related to professional, educational,
or trade-related applications, licensing, certifications, or credentialing
must be provided in a place and manner accessible to people with disabilities,
or alternative accessible arrangements must be offered” (U.S. Department
of Justice, 2001). Furthermore, as Salopek (2001) points out, as the
result of the 1998 Workforce Reinvestment Act, accessibility requirements
extend beyond the realm of higher education. As part of that legislation,
Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to
make their electronic and information technology accessible to people
with disabilities (Section 508, 1998). EASI (Equal Access to Software
and Information), a non-profit organization, has published and distributed
extensive information to provide organizations with guidance on improving
Another accessibility issue concerns the ability
of individuals in the lower socio-economic strata to
have access to the equipment and services
they need in order to be able to participate in distance education programs
and courses. A great deal of discussion has centered on the so-called “digital
divide” (U.S. Department of Commerce, October, 2000; U.S. Department
of Commerce, undated; PBS, undated). Related to this are the efforts
of poorer countries to expand educational opportunities to their citizens.
A significant challenge for these nations is how to use online technology
in countries where few people have access to computers or even phones
(Bollag, 2001). The issue of accessibility in poorer nations also affects
the globalization of distance education.
Summary and Conclusions
While these are by no means the only issues that distance education
managers need to attend to, they are among those that are most important
at this stage of development of distance education. Within each of these
categories there are potentially several other important issues that
managers need to understand, at least in general terms. For example,
relating to both globalization and faculty issues are questions of developing
standards for course sharing and sharing learning objects. While a manager
need not be conversant in the technical language of standards, or completely
knowledgeable in any particular area, he or she needs to understand the
forces at work in the marketplace.
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