Note from the author: This article was published on-line in Virtual University Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1, May 1998. The URL for that publication is: You are viewing the article as archived on my personal web site,

Virtual University Journal



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 untenured.

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.

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