Breaking the Mold
to change the shape of education as we knew it
Donald G. Perrin
Technology is, in itself, a change agent. The telescope opened up the universe; the microscope revealed yet another universe too small to be seen by the naked eye. Photography made it possible to preserve an image; cinematography made it possible to preserve an event, a performance, a moment of history. Motion pictures also enabled us to expand and compress time; to see motions too slow for normal observation, or to analyze motions too quick for the eye to see. X-rays and other invisible radiations enabled us to explore human anatomy and diagnose medical problems. Lasers enable us to dissect without a knife, and communicate with incredible bandwidth along fibers. Technology includes machines, processes, and new patterns of organization to make better use of time and resources. This editorial is about an educational technology called distance learning. Distance learning in one form or another has existed for over a century, starting with correspondence schools around 1840 when reliable postal services came available, and expanding with the introduction of audio, visual, motion, and more recently, hypermedia, interactive multimedia and the internet.
In 1997, the California State University and Colleges discovered that growth in student numbers was increasing three times faster than its already impacted campuses could grow. The principal constraints were funds and time for construction. At that time, it was determined that 67% of future growth should be served by distance learning (DL). DL has a minimal impact on facilities, is quickly scalable, and can achieve high quality learning without substantial increase in overhead. The major constraint in 1997 was faculty support for distance learning. Like continuing education, it was considered inferior in quality to full-time on-campus programs. Also, distance learning required something in scarce supply on many campuses – state-of-the-art communication technologies.
There were two basic kinds of distance learning programs; Those based on television where participants learned at the same time separated by distance; and those using the computer where learning was available anywhere and anytime to any person or group with a computer and (later) the Internet. As computer networks increased in bandwidth, television became video on the Internet. Traditional faculty saw the value of distance learning tools for classroom use. As a result, distance learning became more widely accepted, and research showed the performance of distance learning students was equal to those from traditional education settings. By the new millennium, most colleges and universities were offering parts of their program using distance education. However, higher education as a whole was slow to realize that global reach presented opportunities for growth that could eclipse the scope and quality of universities built with bricks and mortar. But to do so, we must break the mold to have a more flexible and relevant educational experiences.
Virtual institutions such as the Open University proved the viability of distant and hybrid learning models. While some traditional universities decided to focus on their local community of scholars, others reached out to become multi-national or global in scope. Consortia like the Commonwealth of Learning have long shared resources and ideas. The Internet stimulated global reach, de facto global standards, international collaboration, and competition. The Internet brought higher education to millions of un-served and under-served learners. It offers choice, breadth, and depth of experience to people everywhere. It has attracted full-time professionals, who are extremely competent but under-qualified, to seek higher degrees. In the process, they are sharing their experiences and ideas with their peers and the next generation of learners, adding relevance and quality to the education experience.