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Editor’s Note: Catherine Meyer offers creative insights and wise advice for administrators and educators involved in designing new distance education degree programs. Meyer’s discussion addresses the need to make informed choices about creating a curriculum that truly meet adult learning needs. The author stresses the importance of creating quality academic degree programs based on sound instructional principles and best teaching practices.

Adding Cupboards versus Building a House:
The Difference Between Courses and a Degree Program

Katrina A. Meyer


Distance learning is at a crossroads. From its earliest manifestations as correspondence schools, it has evolved into online learning available anytime, anywhere. It has grown, and continues to grow, in student enrollments, courses offered, and programs available. From 1997-98 to 2000-01, the U.S. Department of Education (NCES, 1999; 2003) tracked a growth of 134% in courses offered (from 54,470 to 127,400), 126% growth in enrollments (from 1,363,670 to 3 million), 128% growth in degree programs (from 1230 to 2810), and a 291% growth in certificate programs (from 340 to 1330) at U.S. colleges and universities. Undoubtedly, these figures have continued to grow, despite the recent difficulties in the economy. Of course, many of these offerings are not online: no data as yet has provided a clear picture of how extensive the online phenomena has become. But no distance education director doubts that the growth in student enrollments continues unabated and will likely continue to grow for some time to come, despite economic recessions, war, and downturns in state funding.

This growth is both an example of students “voting with their feet,” but also stamping their feet – like impatient children – for more. Their demands have created the quandary of what to offer next. And here is our crossroads: we can offer new noncredit or credit courses or we can develop degree programs that take the student through an entire program of study in new ways. To put the issue simply, do we emphasize the offering of isolated courses or complete degree programs?

The situation is analogous to building a house: will we offer students a few new cupboards and a bookshelf or two, but no house, or a garage and an attic, but no house? Certainly, for some students who already have a house – or baccalaureate degree – a new cupboard is all that may be needed or wanted. They would prefer a remodeling of their house, as it were, or a new addition. They have a good career and want to stay abreast of the changes around them by adding modern conveniences to their home. Or they like learning new things and adding several more bookshelves to their existing home. Or they need a new home, but they have already built a house before and know what to do.

But others have no house, or are renting a house that is substandard. They need to prepare for a career or change the one they are in: individual courses, however helpful, may not give them the house they need to enter a new profession or career. Or they are living in their parents’ house and need to begin to do the arduous work of learning and building their own house in preparation for adulthood and independence.

So why do we not have more degree programs available online? If there were 2810 distance degree programs in 2000-2001, this is but a small percent of the total number of degree programs currently available on the campuses of U.S. colleges and universities. Certainly we need more programs, but building houses such as these is easier said than done. Why?

Building Houses and Degree Programs

Building an online degree program requires a number of very time-consuming steps. Faculty must agree on the program (assuming that the online program is not a retread of an existing program), its learning outcomes, pedagogical approaches, assessment tools, technical approaches, and solve the issue of how similar or different individual approaches to teaching online are acceptable. It is an endeavor that is extremely difficult, and sometimes it is impossible. But, if that were not difficult enough, the courses or modules must be created, content digitized, documents loaded, exercises invented; for someone with training in a course management system, this is a lot of work -- for those without these skills, the tasks are easier said or listed than done. And these tasks must be accomplished when many faculty are already busy with many other essential tasks. This is nothing new, however, and it is not offered as an excuse or apology, just as an explanation that provides a few keys to solving the problem of not enough online programs. Time, especially release time or a rearranging of the time commitments or priorities of faculty, is essential for building curricula and courses, meeting deadlines, and locating the resources and skills necessary to build this particular house. Which may mean that additional staff are needed to help teach the faculty new skills, design the new courses, and create specialized parts of the program.

And however essential faculty may be for building this house, we cannot ignore the other services that light and heat the house, remove garbage and deliver mail, clean the streets when it snows, and provide mail, telephone, and cable TV service. These are the corollaries to the student services that allow students to find and use their house, pay for its upkeep and their room and board (as it were), get books to warm the bookshelves (this house will need lots of bookshelves), get access to the house’s online journals, find ways to locate and make use of the knowledge in every nook and cranny, cupboard and attic, meet and make use of the guides to the house (the faculty), and prove their worth and ownership of the final house when they are ready to move out.

It may be that there will be students who – for reasons of maturity, lack of skill or motivation – cannot be a good tenant. They might live in a house, but rarely open the cupboards and only infrequently rummage through the books in the library or log on to its portal to online resources. They may trash the furniture or abuse their time in the house. They may be genuinely confused about how to get around and use the house, since it will likely be different from any house they have come to know in the past. But these students exist everywhere, and may be no more likely to frequent the online program than the on-campus program. Fortunately, screening devices exist to help students – and online programs – make more informed choices about the suitability of the student for the online learning world.

The question is, if we can wring one more analogy out of this house, whether the house will be built wisely – using the best building techniques and products available – and whether it will be built solidly and for eternity. Unfortunately, in this analogy, an online program built like a house to stand for 100 (or more) years is not a good thing, but will be a program slated to become an anachronism in a matter of months. No, this house must flex and twist, reconfigure itself, adjust to its tenants, add rooms continuously, remodel its layout and restructure its frame, move load-bearing walls and add skylights as well as tunnels or passageways between floors. It must, in other words, be organic, adjusting to students’ learning needs, their new and revised knowledge, and the preferences of faculty. It would be a novel house, indeed.

Fortunately, using the Internet as building material for the house – providing the content for the shelves and the floors -- will likely keep the walls moving and the floors shaking. It also provides the means by which the house, disassembled into rooms and cupboards, courses or modules, can be delivered to the student looking for a house to inhabit.

This would also require a commitment on the part of faculty to keep the house up-to-date – flexing and moving in the appropriate directions – that mirrors the time commitment needed to build the house in the first place. This means that solving the challenge of insufficient faculty time is a continuous problem.

The issue for the advocates of credit courses or cupboards is whether they can be assembled into a workable house. Having viewed a few amateur remodels, the answer is yes and no; some can and will build a house that might be eccentric but sound, others will cobble together a building that looks not so much like a house as a hobo city of cardboard boxes. Some students will manage to build a good house – even a mansion, perhaps – one that we would envy for ourselves. Another will leave the task before it can be finished. No doubt that a few rooms are better than none and a small house better than facing the elements without shelter or warmth. But how much better would a society be if its citizenry were housed in buildings on solid foundations and had light, airy interiors with elegant finishes throughout?

Of course, building houses (and educations) is difficult to do. Building a house is a relatively regularized process; we all remark upon how quickly a housing development takes shape, moving from concept and drawings to stakes placed in the virgin land, to bulldozing of streets and foundations, to wooden frames going up to form the first real sign that a house will be here, to windows, roofing and inside walls, plumbing and wiring, fixtures and furnishings, and finally, a yard. For the uninitiated, it goes by in a blur; for the craftsman, the process is clearer, with set steps in the sequence, a coordinated plan for all of the parties that must come together to make the blueprints into a real house, and an ebb and flow of professionals bringing their separate expertise to the final product. In a matter of months, you can move in and hang your paintings, place your furniture, and plant annuals in the beds.

Not so our online degree program. This house building exercise does not have the building industry’s long experience, set procedures, and managerial expertise. Professionals with expertise in online instruction and pedagogy exist, content specialists are on staff, but they are not yet organized to produce the program quickly and effectively. Some would argue, and there would be some truth to their argument, that the best procedures are not all known and experimentation is therefore required. This makes the process highly tentative and prone to constant rethinking and revision. So the house that will be built will necessarily require an attitude of tentativeness, of evaluation and tinkering that more nearly mirrors the house that is needed: flexible, organic, and never quite done. In other words, what may appear to be a problem has created precisely the sort of product that is needed by an online program. This is fortuitous, even if unplanned.

Every Program Online?

If there is one thing we know, it is that more online degree programs are needed. A quick look at http://www.petersons.com might give you the impression that we have enough baccalaureate programs in business administration (for example). But of the almost 3,000 baccalaureate programs listed, only some 20 or so are fully online (this is based on data provided at http://www.petersons.com/dlearn, which certainly may not list all online programs). And if an undergraduate degree in business administration – a lucrative and high-demand specialty – is in this situation, how poorly do other fields fare?

You might argue, justifiably so, that not every degree program ought to go online, given its unique characteristics (either a need for face-to-face interactions or supervised assessments), high cost or low interest, or whatever. These are good points, and certainly pedagogically and economically sound. However, a case might be made to treat low-demand program areas in a similar fashion as orphan diseases. Pharmaceutical companies avoid research and drug development of diseases with a low incidence of occurrence. Their reasoning is the same: there is no money in it. This situation argues for coordination among institutions to decide who might develop such a program of limited appeal, avoiding too much competition among providers and splitting the market into small, unprofitable segments. These would be very small houses, bungalows with novel shapes, and unique in their style and decoration.

But it is fair to ask, who actually builds the house? The faculty may build an online degree program to “house” a student’s learning, but it is the student who builds their educational experiences into a house for intellectual habitation or professional competence. In fact, the work is collaborative and individual, tedious and stimulating, taking its worth from the efforts of both and the unique contributions of each. The house is built by faculty and student together, but it is the student who takes final possession of the building. And it is also a process of experimentation and failure, magical moments of intense insight separated by long periods of dreary work. In other words, while each nail must be pounded into the wood individually and cupboards dusted and windows washed, sometimes you can host a party with friends and celebrate your house with laughter and joy and accomplishment.


The house analogy has been useful: it clarifies some relationships while it obfuscates others, as most metaphors tend to do (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). If an online degree program is truly like a house, then the metaphor will make our understanding of online education clearer and richer and help generate relationships that tweak our old knowledge into new twists and turns. But analogies also beguile us into ignoring what does not fit as we focus on the new and engaging. So we are wise to be cautious: the house may be a prison, the place of unhappy childhoods or worse, or a too-high mortgage that bankrupts our future happiness. It is best to wear our metaphors lightly.

But if our house analogy has been helpful, it is because we value our homes and our educational accomplishments. A cupboard, however useful, is not as useful alone as it would be if it were mounted to a wall of a two-story, three-bedroom home with a garage and basement.


Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2003. Distance education at degree-granting postsecondary institutions: 2000-2001. Available from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2003017.

National Center for Education Statistics. 1999. Distance education at postsecondary education institutions: 1997-98. Available from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid_00013.

About the Author

Dr. Katrina A. Meyer is assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Dakota, P.O. Box 7189, Grand Forks, ND 58202. She specializes in online learning and higher education and is author of Quality of Distance Education: Focus on On-Line Learning, a 2002 publication of the ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Series. For over three years, she was Director of Distance Learning and Technology for the University and Community College System of Nevada. Prior to this, she served 8 years as Associate Director of Academic Affairs for the Higher Education Coordinating Board in the State of Washington and was responsible for technology planning and online learning issues.
 Contact her at Phone: (701) 777-3452
or email: katrina_meyer@und.nodak.edu.
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