COLLEGE FACULTY AND DISTANCE
Daniel Eisenberg (Ph.D., Brown University)
Assistant to the Dean of Arts and Sciences for Information Technology
and Professor of Distance Education and Liberal Studies,
Northern Arizona University
Telephone number: (520) 523-6263
Fax number: (520) 214-9701
Arts and Sciences, Box 5621
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ 86011-5621
It is in the interest of college faculty to participate in shaping the world of
on-line education. Present difficulties will be solved as university structures
and hardware infrastructures evolve. The same technology that serves students
at a distance also permits faculty to work where they can be most productive,
not on the traditional campus. Change is coming whether faculty like it or not.
If we are not involved in shaping it, others will do it for us.
Distance learning, higher education, open learning, education, learning
College Faculty and Distance Education
One of the great changes in education today is the growth of instruction
available to students located at a distance from their teacher. Stunning drops
in cost of data transmission and computer equipment make the experience much
richer and involving than correspondence courses ever were.
Higher education is the area most affected by this development. Colleges and
universities are frequently far from the students they serve. This adds to the
cost of study. For some students a residential learning community can be
cost-effective. Those with families and jobs often find that the forced
relocation reduces quality of life while adding to costs, including lost
income. Even commuting to a local campus is an expense in money and time.
Many students are willing to make the sacrifices that location-based classes
entail. Yet others want education, but are unable, because of family, jobs,
health, or finances, to take place and time-bound classes. They constitute the
biggest undeveloped market for higher education today. In addition, those
making sacrifices to take classes are potential clients for less expensive and
more convenient options. Even if delivery of instruction to their homes costs
more in dollars per credit hour, the total cost to them will be less.
It seems likely, then, that delivery of instruction to distant students will
be a growing part of American higher education. However, most faculty with whom
I have spoken are less than enthusiastic about it. Some who have tried it will
not repeat the experience. Students at a distance create logistical problems.
Timely transport of assignments and security of tests can be major
difficulties, not present in the traditional classroom. Communication with
students is limited to mail, phone, complicated video conference arrangements,
or travel over long distances. Printed library materials are available only
with delay, and browsing is limited to catalogs. The new and rapidly-changing
technology is time-consuming to learn and keep up with.
Everything about distance education takes time for the provider. Converting
materials to a new format takes time. Delivering the course is more
time-consuming, and requires more organization and planning, than a traditional
classroom course. Copyright issues may add to cost, or require compromises in
content. It takes additional time to help the nontraditional students who are
often the clientele for distant programs. These realities run head on into the
belief of some ill-informed administrators that distance education takes no
more faculty time, and may even save time and thus money. It is no wonder that
professors who can avoid distance education often do so, and that it
consequently ends up imposed on the least powerful: the temporary and the
This attitude is shortsighted. Distance education is coming whether we like
it or not. We can either help shape its development or others will do it for
us. If we marginalize ourselves, it will evolve without our ideas and
expertise. While teaching distant students is now complex and time-consuming,
this situation is changing and will change further. Distance education in fact
presents extraordinary opportunities to faculty at all levels.
The current complications, vexing as they are, are inevitable given a new
medium, new technology, and new structures. One might recall how complicated,
expensive, and limited personal computers were only a few years ago. The World
Wide Web is barely five years old.
The infrastructure for transmitting data will continue to become more
capacious. Video telephone or conferencing will become routine. Textbook
publishers will routinely publish their materials in the now-standard HTML
format. A marketplace for on-line materials will mean that each professor will
not have to create his or her on-line course from scratch. Our cumbersome
copyright and permissions system, devised for printed materials, will give
birth to an automated royalty system for on-line materials. The problem of
access to print library materials will never disappear, but it will diminish in
importance with the digitalization of the publishing industry and, selectively,
of library collections.
For professors, distance education offers both personal and professional
opportunities that we have not yet recognized. If the students can be anywhere,
so can we. It is a solution to the terrible problem of commuter couples. It
will also facilitate research. If one needs to be at the British Library, or
Brookhaven National Laboratory, or in the field to carry out research, one can
do so and still teach. All that we need is a link to a data network.
If we can provide instruction to this large body of unserved or underserved
students, it makes sense that the job market will improve. There is a vague
apprehension that distance education will lead to packaged courses taught on an
assembly-line basis, with interaction primarily with machines. This is, in
fact, the vision of some administrators, and no doubt there will continue to be
some of this. Yet if we have things to offer that a machine cannot provide -
and I firmly believe that we do - then we will be properly compensated for our
services. Packaged courses will remain and be recognized as what they are now.
That is, a bargain, second-class type of education, suitable for some purposes,
better than nothing to be sure, but clearly inferior to what a qualified,
enthusiastic, and caring professors can deliver. Many such materials are
already available - one company sells tapes of "great lecturers" -
but they remain educationally peripheral. All that company can deliver is a
great lecture, current as of when it produced the tape.
In my own field, foreign languages, any good-sized computer store has a
selection of language teaching software. Most airline magazines have ads for a
variety of tape and video packages. To my knowledge, these materials have had
no impact on language enrollments. On the contrary, they only seem to increase
the demand for assistance and feedback from a live instructor.
The new technology, and delivery of material at a distance, brings the
possibility of great and positive change for higher education. It makes
possible highly specialized classes - a seminar in Whitman, or a class in
Korean - that only the largest institutions can presently offer. In a
text-based environment, the instructor need not worry about students' gender or
physical appearance influencing grading. With asynchronous instruction,
scheduling problems all but disappear. Within limits - a 24hour period, say -
professors can teach when they want, and students can "attend" when
they want. The disabled can be more easily accommodated. The Internet has
brought access to materials rarely, if ever, available in traditional
classrooms, such as foreign radio and television, or foreign newspapers on the
day of publication. Direct, convenient access to primary materials can allow
students to go much deeper into subjects than previously.
Our present university structure dates back to the Middle Ages. We collect
professors and students in one "community of scholars," frequently in
relative isolation. Our world is of course dramatically different from that in
which universities were born. One response by higher education is using
technology to overcome space and time limitations. This may well become the
primary model of postsecondary education. Again, we as faculty need to be
involved in the process. If we do not, others, less concerned about knowledge
and learning, will shape it for us.
Dr. Eisenberg has adapted this article from a presentation, "Faculty
Perceptions of Distance Education," given November 3, 1997 at the Annual
Retreat of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat, sponsored by the
American Council on Education.
Daniel Eisenberg is Assistant for Information Technology to the Dean of
Arts and Sciences at Northern University.