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Richness and Reach by suchenfz


									Defining Moments: The tension between richness and reach in distance based higher education.

Defining Moments

With only a few weeks to go before the end of the 20 th century we are surprisingly insecure about what
should constitute the `defining moments' of a university or college education in the 21 st century. These
`moments' were once thought to be clearly understood but our understanding has been diminished (as in
many other arenas) by the accelerating coincidence of particular economic, technological and social
change. The velocity of change in higher education (HE) has quickened during the last quarter of the
20th century as all developed nations have sought to increase the HE participation rate of their
populations to grow `knowledge-based' surpluses to gain (or keep) competitive economic advantage.
On the ground these changes have put a severe strain on what we once believed the defining moments
of HE embraced. However, despite the ferocious rollout of mass HE in developed countries since the
1970's the public perception (and expectation) about what goes on in HE has not changed much since
the 1930's.   These perceptions still largely revolve around the spatially located collegiate experience
with closeness to faculty and fellow students being at their core. I see these defining moments mixing
`fixed' and `fluid' experiences.

The fixed moments embrace:
Diligent attendance at lectures and seminars under the tutelage of excellent teachers who set
demanding assignments that they later discuss to draw out connections and links that enrich and
accelerate the acquisition of knowledge.

But we also believe that the portfolio of HE moments includes valuable but more fluid encounters:
         1.   Time for reflection and sharing discoveries with peers.
         2.   The pleasure of life in a community that is generally insulated from worldly cares and
              which may never be experienced again.
         3.   The formation of friendships that could form the fulcrum of a personal network in later
         4.   A CV that proclaims understandable values and credentials.

It is still possible to experience a reasonable portfolio of fixed and fluid moments in some private or
elite institutions but in the public institutions that the bulk of students attend they have been creaking
badly since the mid 1960's. Most public perceptions of public HE are thus more about nostalgia than
reality. The HE academy also tends to dwell on idyllic permutations of fixed and fluid moments long
lost in the push for an `economic' mass HE. They are torn in many directions but they also have to face
the harsh truth that students encounter a wide range of experience in traditional HE institutions that at
the poorer end of the spectrum scream out for reformation. It is important to recognise that all is not

rosy in existing delivery systems before condemning alternative scenarios out of hand. One criticism
of David Noble's `Digital Diploma Mills' [1] is the implicit assumption that a `universal richness'
exists within the traditional modes of delivery. I have no doubt that, in some HE environments, in
some subjects, a well constructed Web based programme would not only substitute for but be superior
to what many students get now. My other criticism would be his lack of faith in academic survival
techniques. The academics at the OU prepare their materials in teams creating innovative courses that
are celebrated for their quality around the world. They don't get angst-ridden over the fact that
administrators then mail them off to students without their input.

In September this year the UK government issued a warning to UK universities that students had a
right to high standards of teaching and that many student complaints about poor standards were still
being swept under the carpet. The NUS in the UK has begun issuing posters urging dissatisfied
undergraduates to speak out. The posters depict students with their mouths taped and bearing the
message `Don't be silenced'. The NUS is also calling for an independent watchdog to counter the
endemic protectionism that exists in the current self-policing systems where academics tend (when
push comes to shove) to protect each other at the expense of students. Traditional UK HE may have a
long history but it also has a lot of fences to mend. The `raw and precious jewel that, with wisdom,
could be polished to a proud shine' taken from `Tuesdays with Morrie' and quoted by Noble [2] is too
often left to polish itself while Faculty polish up their status in other ways than teaching. How many
classes on any given day in the US are being taken by doctoral students rather than professional

Many faculty in the UK believe in universal access to the life-opportunities of HE but understandably
they protest that the unit of funding that once supported say 14% of 18-24 year olds has hardly changed
as it strains to support a 40% age participation rate. Mass HE has meant that the unit of resource has
plummeted with the concomitant that the defining moments of a HE have changed beyond all
recognition. This is a worldwide phenomenon.. US public investment is now down to about 1.4% of
GDP from an average of 2.4% two decades ago and it is projected to drop to 1% of GDP in a decade
from now.      Federal education spending has dropped from 11.9% of total national spending on
education in 1980 to 7.6% in 1999. No one, in any arm of the US government, is planning to channel
the much debated budget surplus in ways that would change this picture very much. In Europe
governments have been or are going down the same `capping' path and many HE institutions are re-
structuring, merging or even closing as the wave of `accountable value-for-money' initiatives sweeps
across nations whose governments are eager to reduce tax burdens and demonstrate `modernization'.

There is nothing wrong in wishing, desiring or lobbying for more resources to support the greater
number of students that now wish to enter HE. But insisting that all HE should continue to embrace
the fixed and fluid moments of a partly illusory golden age of elite participation is head in deep sand
stuff.   Since the early 1980's the public options available to the citizens of developed countries have
been shrinking while the private options available to them have been multiplying. What in public

policy terms we once classified as `needs' have been re-defined as `wants' and this redefinition is
accelerating rather than slowing down. In September 1998 students entering HE in the UK had to find
the first £1,000 of their fees unless a means test finds their parents incapable of paying it and nearly all
part-time fees are now expected to be set at an economic level. Hardly any academics support these
changes but their political influence (if they ever had much) has long been on the wane. The UK
student maintenance grant, once a beacon of liberal education policy in Europe, will be abolished
altogether in 2000 in favour of a partially means-tested loan system and US style part-time working is
now the norm in a culture that has few of the US support mechanisms to help it along. More and more
governments are seeking cheaper ways of funding all public services while catering for an increasing
number of clients and this is not going to change.

Richness and Reach

Because of these changes most universities and colleges have been forced to experiment with the way
that they deliver HE particularly in the way they serve part-time students.      Some of these initiatives
have been going on for a long time using the technologies of: radio, audio and videotape, TV and
postal deliveries of written materials etc., as they became available. Many institutions have also joined
hands with business and commerce giving up some of their academic independence in the process.
They have also become more publicly accountable and, in the UK at least, have adopted the
management approaches of corporations to help deliver this accountability.         For some faculty these
have all been retrograde steps that have chipped away at the fixed and fluid components of the mix
they knew and loved and, from their perspective, no-good can come of it.

Alongside academic dismay at the changes going on in the world around them is the pervasive
hypocrisy that dominates high-level debates on distance learning options. No policy maker, senator,
cabinet minister, university president or vice-chancellor ever suggests that a serious option for their
child might be a distance learning course.     How many professors would?         This reminds me of the
public pronouncements from civil servants and cabinet ministers in the UK during the 1980's about the
need to encourage students to take up vocational programmes like engineering and technology to help
the economy while shuttling their own offspring into law and the liberal arts. It all gets to sound very
much like distance learning is OK for an unspecified mass that might help the economy if they got
good at doing something useful but don't expect the way our traditional elite's are educated to be much
influenced by it.

Many organizations when looking to define their environment i.e. their customers, clients, etc end up
defining it in their own image. Over the years academics have defined their environment as a place
where students want/need to attend lectures in a particular kind of location structured according to
particular conventions which are sacrosanct.         But these conventions are often more to do the
maintenance of an academic `life-style' than anything else. UK universities, for instance, are burdened
by a seemingly unmovable geology of procedural ritual with regard to examination assessment, course

validation and course monitoring that would make most US universities look anarchic, all in the name
of maintaining a chimerical equality of standards. These rituals gobble up the time of academics and
give employment to thousands of unproductive administrators who have become skilled at laying down
sediment at the expense of serving the core business. While these rituals keep internal structures busy
grooming themselves and retain processes whose purpose has long been forgotten students have been
meeting the real world. Many students in full time education are now awash with worldly cares
including student loans, poor accommodation and part-time working and their contact with tutors is
only rarely `close'. The prized insulation from external pressures necessary to fuel time for deep
reflection has all but evaporated and the pressure to get certification (for a job) rather than an education
(for life) has diluted much of the idealism that they and their tutors once shared. The intimacy of
tutorial education in the UK is all but dead and the quality of the pervasive lecture-based delivery
system is highly variable.    Many factors are influencing what students want from HE and many of
them look askance at the limpet-like tenacity with which many old HE traditions retain their grip.

Many students buy into distance education (however it is packaged) because they want convenience
(reach) above all else. They accept that, although it will never replicate the perceived richness of an
institution- based experience at the `best' institutions (best being a fallacy too deeply ingrained to
ignore), it will not differ much from the richness they would have gained in many of the rest. Also
they witness that a degree from UCE or USC is not going to be rated by a prospective employer any
differently from one gained by the OU in the way that a degree from Oxford or Cambridge might.
Older students also quite consciously reject the need for a collegiate richness because at that stage in
their life they don't value it and feel that the richness they desire is that, which after an appropriate
course of tuition, will come from within themselves? The richness they value is represented by greater
confidence, improved self-discipline, the acquisition of new strands of knowledge, greater promotion
prospects and an improved ability to perform in the world. These desires involve a view of education
as a part of `real' life rather than an activity distinct and separate from it. It is common for mature
students, those either catching up or adding to their portfolio, to trade academic community for
convenience in order that they can run learning, family life and continued employment in parallel. This
is not new but the numbers likely to be involved in the future will be new and hence the need to
critically explore new delivery mechanisms that can deliver richness and reach while satisfying much
larger numbers.

For these students the trade, however perceived by academics, may not be one where they feel any
sense of deprivation. Their `community' is already established and the thought, even if they could
accommodate it, of moving into a new and separate community where they would have to establish
themselves anew may not seem very attractive. Most distance learning schemes around the world build
in summer schools, regional group meetings and one-to-one tutorial support as an antidote to student
isolation.   These `real space' events give students the opportunity to discuss course materials with
others, to identify both individual and common worries and to tap into the wisdom of a tutor in a face-
to-face encounter. The growing success of these `intensive' gatherings to supplement remote contact

suggests that we may have always overestimated the importance of `full-time' spatially based HE and
that well orchestrated face-to-face `richness' in small doses works well.      Such an argument might
suggest that the focus and concentration encouraged by the self-discipline of home-based learning,
uninterrupted by the non-academic temptations of collegiate life, offers a powerful richness of its own
that only requires occasional refreshment from other sources.

The part-time OU tutors, who I have spoken to, many of whom also teach in traditional HE institutions,
are clearly impressed with the quality of the materials, the supporting infrastructure and the students
that they deal with. Many of them and are happy to admit that the OU student experience is quite often
richer than that provided by their own institution.    This anecdotal evidence is supported by the UK
government's quality assessment programme. Only twenty or so universities out of over a hundred in
the UK have received an excellent rating for most of their programmes. The OU, catering for 165,000
part-time students, is one of these and usually stands between 10th and 12th in the rankings for the
proportion of its programmes rated as excellent. The OU also features in the top one third of UK
universities for the volume and quality of its research and it spends about £2 million annually on
training its 7,000 associate tutors who provide support to individual students. There can be no doubt
then that distance education using a variety of delivery tools can be excellent. But the OU has been in
that business for nearly thirty years. It has thus had three decades to learn from its mistakes and to
grow unprecedented knowledge (albeit in one cultural milieu) about the processes involved in
delivering a high quality education at low cost over space. It has also leveraged its advantages of scale
intelligently to release tremendous creative powers from its Faculty.    It would be foolish to imagine
that institutions getting into distance education via whatever mix of mailbox, real space and ICT
delivery can emulate this kind of success in five or six years.

Web based learning is now being added to the portfolio of tools used to reach students both within
traditional universities and in purely `distance' based HE operations. There is a temptation to greet the
development of ICT as a revolution in the way we connect rather than a continuance of our now well
established behaviour of adopting and adapting all technologies. I would resist the revolutionary view
of ICT. The revolutionary school ignores the evidence of `parallel running' which humans invariably
adopt in their quest to make the best of everything. They also ignore the fund of stories about human
behaviour that we have accumulated on our cave walls and in our written histories. I am a heavy user
of ICT and an optimist about the way humans assimilate new technologies but I still see them as
continually swirling breezes rather than one off hurricanes. The Indiana mini B555 project basically
confirms what we all know that understanding the human factor (unexpected illness, teaching by a
foreign-born Ph.D. candidate, message overload, lack of non-verbal information, failure to return
assignments on time), is the key. And while many of the frustrations experienced by students doing
B555 could easily be replicated on any day in any traditional university the frustrations were
exaggerated by lack of access to a person in real space. Much of this is not new. We already know a
lot about Web failures in our day to day use of it for other purposes and it is not difficult to see how,

without assiduous attention to detail, these failures could be replicated in distance learning
environments.    Some examples:

1. Net based materials can be updated easily (but we know many web pages that are never updated).
2. Net based assignments can be evaluated and returned quickly (but we know that humans don't
always respond quickly).
3. Student queries can be posted and answered at any time of day or night (but we know that tutors
sleep and may have other things on their mind). I see the celebration of quicker response times by the
promoters of web-based learning as an ideal that will rarely be delivered. Just because instant response
is possible (just as it is in a traditional environment) doesn't mean that it will happen and such an over-
hyped expectation will leave everybody miserable.
4. We understand that virtual chat room and `coffee bar' bulletin boards can provide students with a
forum for the exchange of ideas (but we know that all students will not participate equally).
5. A new generation of Web based services using fast broadband connections and real-time video links
can facilitate not just speed but a much richer and more diverse content (but we know that high quality
content like this will depend on some serious up-front investment which may not always be available).
6. The popular image of Web-based delivery has also been fed with suggestions of a `star in every
study' where the `best' tutors in any subject can be signed up in a `DreamWorks' way to deliver their
knowledge to whoever among the global audience can pay for it. As in `we bring you the `worlds best
in Anthropology'. But we know that many egos could get in the way of such box-office stuffing and
that `some of the best', `some of the time' is a more likely billing.

The key to making distance learning work is excellent materials and excellent infrastructure. What Sir
John Daniel (VC of the OU) calls the `hard and soft' technologies [3]. The hard stuff is the ICT's that
are changing all the time. Given their velocities of change any frozen Polaroid definition of `best' ICT
is likely to be temporary. The soft stuff is the processes, approaches, sets of rules and models of
organization that emerge out of the body of knowledge created by running and evaluating distance
learning programmes. This later is more important in a purely distance learning enterprise because so
much of the actual delivery relies on the efficient administration of the programmes that have been
created by academic teams. To get both the hard and soft bits working well traditional HE providers
have been tempted to enter partnerships with commercial entities. We have seen that the landscape of
exploration into business and commerce is often left littered with the bones of academics and
administrators who sallied forth from cozy publicly financed institutions to mix it in the real world.
Public institutions generally do not recruit entrepreneurs.     As with ICT choices the only criteria for
seeking commercial partners must be `fitness for purpose'.        Define your purpose and the core values
that you will never compromise and the choice of available technologies and possible commercial
partners almost becomes self-selecting. The tension in HE between academics and administrators to
agree and secure these values before any deals are made is an inevitable part of the change and should
be seen as a necessary part in sorting out the parameters of the operation. Both business and HE need

to make money from their involvement and, given their different goals and values it is not an easy trick
to turn to satisfy both.

Potential students soon recognise whether a distance learning programme embraces fitness for purpose.
The once largely passive student voice in the UK is slowly waking up as more and more of them
contribute directly to the cost of their HE. Along with other consumers they are benefiting from the
proliferation of printed and Web-based guides that are starting to reduce the asymmetry of information
that used to make it difficult for students to make an informed choice. Students can now make all
kinds of comparisons between university programmes and not many of them will base their choice on
only one factor. Distance based options utilizing multi-media do not feature strongly on take-up at the
moment for younger students. It has yet to gain credible acceptance. But continuing changes in the
economic and social structures that students operate in suggest that new mixtures of traditional and
distance learning will begin to have more appeal. The way that they perceive their leaders rate these
options in both proclamation and practice will also play a major part in how they are taken up.
Traditional universities have shown themselves to be very resilient at handling the economic and social
changes of the last 50 years and they will be around for a long time. Paradoxically they will be
invigorated by ICT both in their responses to potential `on-line' competitors by absorbing ICT to reach
distant students and using them to better serve their on-campus customers.

Postal services around the world use ICT to change and improve a 150-year-old service that we may
call `snail' but which still touches most of us every day. It's changing but new houses are rarely built
without a letterbox and a computer still looks naked without a printer. Parallel running derives its
imperative from the way humans in different cultures cope and get comfortable with new technologies.
Both students and tutors will cope and get comfortable with Web based multi-media in HE not as a one
-stop panacea. The take-up of Web based programmes will ultimately depend on proof of its fitness for
purpose and by comparing its richness with what could be obtained by other options at a similar cost.
Richness need not be diluted by reach and Web technology has tremendous riches to offer but awe and
intoxication are no substitute for the critical faculties we would normally apply to any other suggestion
to change and modify our mode of delivery. Web technology should be subjected to the same fitness
for purpose criteria that we would use for any new tool that crosses our path. Getting a little more
precise about what we regard as the key fixed and fluid moments of a HE experience would help.

A little observation from my book `Only Connect' :

         "Charles I on reading a declaration of his treason's squirted down a fibre optic cable
         from Cromwell's headquarters somewhere in England during 1649 still gets to hear
         that he is going to lose his head! The defining moment has nothing to do with the
         technology that brings him the message." [4]


1    Noble, David, Digital Diploma Mills, Part I, First Monday, Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet,

2    Noble, David, Digital Diploma Mills, Part III,

3.   Daniel, Sir John, `Innovation at Scale in the Delivery of Learning and Teaching: will the whole be
     greater than the sum of the parts' Address at 12 th International Meeting of University
     Administrators, Edinburgh, 6th September 1999.

4.   Haywood, Trevor, Only Connect: shaping networks and knowledge for the new millennium, 1999,
     Bowker-Saur, East Grinstead, England.

Trevor Haywood
October 1999


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