Trends and Policy Issues
A report prepared for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia by New Dominion Partners, Inc.
for 1998 and Beyond
January 9, 1998
Colleges and universities are in the information business. It is no wonder that the rapid development of computer and telecommunications technologies to record, analyze, and transmit information is transforming many characteristics of higher education. The transformation is most evident in the proliferation of distance learning opportunities for students.
Despite the changes underway, Virginia's system of traditional campuses at its community colleges, colleges, and universities will continue to be the foundation for educating Virginia students in the next century. Campus-based experiences will be enhanced through technology-augmented courses. But for students who are unable to pursue campus-based education and for lifelong learners who seek off-campus educational opportunities, distance learning offers a wide variety of options.
Defined as "any formal approach to learning that takes instruction to the learner rather than taking the learner to instruction," new methods of providing distance learning raise possibilities and expectations. For example,
In January 1998, five of Virginia's public institutions will join the Southern Regional Electronic Campus, a regional consortium of institutions created by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), and will begin to offer courses via distance learning to students throughout the South. The SREB envisions a catalog of 1500 courses and the addition of degree programs in the 1998 fall semester. Participation by Virginia institutions is expected to increase in the next year. The initiative has unlimited possibilities for expanding access to and choice in higher education in the South. At the same time, it raises a host of questions regarding the applicability of historic policies and practices in higher education.
The Virginia Community College System (VCCS) offers respiratory therapy, dental hygiene, and veterinary technology programs via distance learning to areas in the state with high demand to fill these jobs. Because these programs are not campus-based, they are easy and cost-effective to transport to other locations as soon as needs are identified. But the development of such programs is complex, and the VCCS needs funding to accelerate efforts.
Virginia's business community maintains that the state's future economic vitality depends on the fast, convenient and flexible design and delivery of workforce training programs -delivered by distance learning methods. The Northern Virginia Technology Council's 1998 legislative agenda proposes a variety of employer tax credit and education funding options to achieve workforce training goals. Virginia's institutions of higher education will be expected to deliver the needed programs.
Often used interchangeably with "virtual learning," distance learning is described as any formal approach to learning in which the majority of the instruction occurs while the educator and the learner are at a distance from one another. The literature presents these criteria of today's distance learning programs:
- The program content is designed to increase student knowledge or skills,
- An educational institution provides the course content and assessment of student achievement,
- The teacher and the student are separated during a majority of the instructional process,
- Two-way communication between the student and the teacher is provided, and
- Educational media, increasingly computer and telecommunications technology, are used to unite the teacher and student.
The current environment for distance learning is exciting and, as one higher education official describes it, "chaotic, in a positive sense." The chaos surrounds the pace and magnitude of change in both the technology industries and the traditions and practices of higher education. Recognizing the importance of distance learning to higher education in Virginia, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) requested a scan of the broad policy issues surrounding distance learning. Specifically, SCHEV wanted the scan to address these questions:
- What trends are catalysts for distance learning initiatives?
- What are the emerging issues surrounding distance learning in Virginia that need to be examined in the near future?
- To answer these questions, a variety of individuals were contacted in Virginia institutions of higher education, state government, and business. Individuals in other states and organizations were interviewed. Finally, a number of documents were reviewed. A list of the organizations and documents consulted for this review can be found at the end of the report.
II. What Trends are Catalysts for Distance Learning Initiatives?
Distance learning initiatives are responding directly to trends occurring in society, in technology, in the workplace, in government, and in higher education. The most often-cited trends include the following:
Changing Consumer Demands
More citizens who value postsecondary education view themselves as consumers of education and seek more choices for obtaining it. Many people want more education, but are unable or unwilling to invest four or five years in a campus-based, full-time student experience. Citizens want options that permit them to hold full-time jobs, to care for families, and to "fit" their higher education experience around the other demands of their lives. Many citizens are more interested in learning practical information and enhancing skills and competencies than in receiving a terminal degree. More citizens have access to distance learning technology either in their workplaces or their homes. Now they seek educational experiences that meet all their needs: that bring relevant instruction to them, at a time and in a place that they choose. Due to these changes, higher education is evolving into a learner-centered rather than a campus-centered enterprise.
Based on demographic trends, the next ten years will see a tremendous increase in both traditional-age college students seeking degrees and in older and employed students seeking skills enhancement and certification of competencies. As companies reorganize and reengineer, they are requiring employees to re-skill. The pace of knowledge advancement will require that citizens be lifelong learners. According to the American Society for Training and Development, by the year 2000, nearly three-quarters of the current workforce - those with and without college degrees -- will need to be retrained or re-educated just to meet changing employer expectations. Accordingly, business and political leaders are pressing to make higher education more responsive to the rapidly changing needs of the workplace and more affordable and accessible.
Economic Development Needs
In America today, higher education is viewed as a critical part of the economic infrastructure, as vital to a thriving economy as the transportation and financial infrastructures. This is increasingly evident in Virginia, where business leaders recently endorsed the recommendations of a study by Virginia's growing technology sector. Building a Commonwealth of Technology: A Blueprint for Technology-Based Economic Growth in Virginia details the requirements for Virginia to emerge as a global technology leader in the 21st century. The Blueprint calls for substantial investments in education, training, and retraining of Virginia's workforce, much of which must be delivered through distance learning. The Blueprint's time horizon of two to five years puts pressure on higher education to take significant action immediately.
Key Technology Trends
According to experts in distance learning, new initiatives in local and wide area networking will have more impact on teaching, learning, and research than does the current Internet. "Internet 2," under development by the federal government and major research institutions, will result in significantly greater speed and clarity in the transport of video, voice, and data. Before long, expanded bandwidths will enable multimedia programs to be delivered directly to the home.
Virginia is among the leaders in the nation and the world in its networking capability with Net.Work.Virginia. Through a contract negotiated by Virginia Tech, Bell Atlantic, and Sprint, all of Virginia's institutions of higher education, public schools, libraries, and state and local agencies can be linked, regardless of their geographical location. There are currently 191 links to the network, and more are added each month including an increasing number of business and corporate locations seeking to expand educational opportunities for employees. The network offers tremendous potential for delivering distance education and training at low cost throughout the Commonwealth.
An outgrowth of the technology revolution is the "virtual university" -- a delivery system for higher education that uses technology to link students with faculty, courses, library resources, and support services, thereby simulating a university, but without geographic or political boundaries. Essentially universities without campuses, virtual universities are gaining popularity at the state level, because elected leaders are feeling the press of increased demands for postsecondary education and insufficient funding to meet demands.
Virtual universities are under aggressive development by state university systems (e. g., the University of Oregon and the University of California), by states (e. g., Minnesota), and by regions. For example, the SREB and the Western Governors Association are developing virtual universities to greatly expand the postsecondary opportunities for students in the regions, to provide access for students in rural and under-served areas, and to provide training to employees in technology industries with a shortage of skilled workers.
The concept is becoming increasingly popular in Virginia. The Virginia Technology Blueprint developed by the business community recommends that a Commonwealth Virtual University be developed so Virginians can access courses, libraries, and support services from a variety of institutions, at any time, from any place, at a price comparable to or less than current tuition and fees. SCHEV has approved Virginia's participation in the Southern Regional Electronic Campus, where five Virginia institutions will offer courses beginning in January 1998.
For-Profit Ventures in Higher Education
Private-for-profit companies are entering the higher education arena as partners or as competitors of traditional not-for-profit institutions. Private-for-profit ventures have the organizational agility and financial strength to enable quick implementation of innovative programs that meet demands for low-cost, accessible training and education. These ventures are reshaping the higher education delivery system. Here are three examples:
- The goal of the IBM Global Campus is to build and operate online networks for traditional institutions that wish to outsource these operations. Officials with the company compare this concept to private book sellers who operate campus bookstores.
- Real Education, Inc. describes itself as "the market leader in providing web based online universities and training centers....Real Education's mission is to design, build, and manage complete online university campuses for our clients."
- The University of Phoenix is a distance learning franchise operation aimed at working adults with 47 sites in 11 states and Puerto Rico. In 10 years, enrollment has grown from 3,000 students to nearly 40,000, with projections of 100,000 by the year 2000. Observers attribute the school's success to its emphasis on practical education that can help students advance in their jobs.
State Government Actions
In the 1990s, Virginia's political leaders have begun to address the technology infrastructure and equipment needs in higher education. In 1996, the Governor and General Assembly initiated a four-year plan to provide $79 million for technology equipment through the Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund (ETF) and $25 million for technology operating funds. This funding was to be used to integrate technology in teaching and learning and provide automated systems to advance restructuring and cost-cutting efforts of institutions.
But even this considerable effort is far from sufficient to address burgeoning needs. For the 1998-2000 biennium, Virginia's public institutions have requested an additional $250 million for technology-related needs. For the first time, the total technology requests are more than the requests for all other operating budget needs, underscoring the growing importance of technology to the teaching and research missions of institutions.
III. What are the emerging issues Surrounding Distance Learning in Virginia that Need to be Examined in the Near Future?
The context in which higher education operates today is changing dramatically. Virginia's institutions of higher education - both public and private - will be affected by the development of distance learning capabilities and virtual learning environments. How Virginia and its institutions choose to respond to the opportunities and challenges ahead will affect their future viability. Furthermore, Virginia's leaders must develop policies that bridge the new and traditional approaches to providing higher education.
Following are key issues that must be addressed by the major actors in higher education: the Governor and General Assembly, SCHEV, leaders in institutions of higher education, faculty, students, and private employers.
Issues for the Governor and General Assembly
Virginia's elected officials are faced with increasing demands for education and training, and limited funding to address all needs. Distance learning offers increased opportunities to make education accessible to more people, and it may offer lower costs per student. However, a number of state policies will need to be revisited to reflect the differences between distance learning and on-campus instruction. For example:
- New Public Policy Choices. Should Virginia develop a degree-granting virtual university that draws on the best courses and programs in Virginia's public and private institutions? How should Virginia support traditional campuses and programs as more cost-effective options become available through virtual universities and other distance learning approaches? Should the state deregulate higher education and let market forces of supply/demand and customer satisfaction determine its scope, quality, and price? In a learner-centered environment, should state funding follow the student rather than the institution?
- Leadership for Distance Learning Initiatives. Where should the locus of leadership be to guide Virginia through the distance learning revolution? Should central policies and guidelines be established for the Commonwealth? Or should boards of visitors chart the direction for each institution?
- Funding Policies. What influence will distance learning have on current funding variables such as teaching loads, student-faculty ratios, space needs, library resources? Should funding benchmarks be developed for distance learning programs? Should peer groups be established, as currently exist for faculty salaries? Should the state continue to fund duplicate administrative systems for each institution that could be provided by a centralized system serving all institutions? Does the move away from contact hours and academic calendars require new approaches to setting tuition? What policies should guide the timely replacement of technology equipment?
Clarification of Status. In a distance learning environment, what do these terms mean - in-state student, out-of-state student; in-region, out-of-region student; private student, public student; full time student, part time student; on-campus, off-campus; in-state tuition, out-of-state tuition; physical presence of an institution?
Issues for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV)
The roles of higher education coordinating bodies such as SCHEV will likely undergo considerable modification as distance learning gains prominence. In addition to playing a lead role in the development of distance learning policies, SCHEV will have to reassess a variety of coordination and regulatory issues, such as:
- Relationships with Virtual Universities (VU). How will SCHEV relate to regional consortia and stand-alone virtual universities? How will conflicts between virtual universities be resolved? Who selects institutions and courses to be part of a VU? Which institution grants the degree? Which institution counts the student enrollment? Determines VU course tuition and fees? Collects and accounts for fees? How will credit banking and transfers be accomplished?
- Program Duplication. How will issues of program duplication between virtual and traditional institutions be identified and resolved? What criteria should be considered for assessing appropriateness of program duplication? How will traditional "service areas" be affected by distance learning?
- Accreditation and Program Approval. What role will state coordinating bodies play in accrediting regional programs offered through distance learning? Can SCHEV develop "fast track" approaches to approval that will ensure timely response to business needs?
- Consumer Protection. Will SCHEV be responsible for ensuring the quality of distance learning credit courses offered within Virginia by either in-state or out-of-state institutions? Will SCHEV be responsible for ensuring the quality of noncredit courses? Of courses offered by private institutions? Who will students contact if they have a complaint about a program?
- Information Resources. Should SCHEV develop a central catalog of all distance learning courses available to Virginians? Who owns the information that is part of a VU? How will libraries respond to needs of VU students? What are the implications of copyright and intellectual property laws on the VU's ability to provide students with learning resources?
Issues for Virginia's Institutions of Higher Education
Each institution in Virginia will have to determine its involvement in distance learning efforts from two perspectives: 1) as a provider of distance learning opportunities and 2) as a recipient of programs offered by other institutions. Each institution also will have to understand the competitive forces at work that could decrease or increase demand. Among issues to be considered are the following:
- Mission and Goals. Is the institution's mission appropriate, given the recent trends in learners, the workplace, and technology? How will distance learning affect missions of research and public service? Is the targeted student population appropriate given recent trends? In what ways will the institution need to refocus its activities? How has the institution's "service area" changed?
- Planning for Institution-Wide Responsiveness: Does an effective process exist to monitor technology, instruction, and business trends and align institutional programs accordingly? Is planning for technology aligned with instructional and administrative priorities? Are academic and administrative leaders articulating goals and priorities that are realistic and do-able within budget, skill, and time constraints? Does long range planning incorporate distance learning as a viable approach to lowering costs? Do "fast track" approaches to program development exist to ensure responsiveness to business and other employers?
- Access to and Use of Information. How will sensitive issues be handled relating to academic freedom, privacy, and freedom of speech? Who owns faculty-developed courseware - faculty, technical expert, instructional designer, institution?
- Standards for Users. What are reasonable standards of access, operation, and user behavior that all involved parties should adhere to? What incentives and disincentives should be developed? Who will promulgate, monitor, and enforce standards?
- Management Practices. How can management activities such as backup, access control, budgeting, and disaster planning be coordinated centrally when the data are distributed to subunits? What level of faculty support should be provided in user departments? How should support be allocated and funded?
- Infrastructure Issues. What is the new role of the library? Of the traditional "AV" center? Should there be a central office for instructional media or should media service centers be distributed? Where is the boundary between the responsibilities and authority of the central information technology unit and the decentralized units? Who supports the network? The desktop equipment? The software?
- Cost-benefits of Distance Learning. How can expectations for distance learning can be established and managed within available resources? What methods can be used to demonstrate the costs and benefits of distance learning programs? How can access to high demand programs be leveraged through technology?
- Maximizing Resources. How can strategies such as partnering, student technology fees, department fees, enterprise operations, outsourcing, etc., leverage existing staff resources without significant new general operating support? How can users become more self-sufficient?
Issues for Faculty
The availability of technologies to enable distance learning is expanding faster than the development of faculty expertise to use technology effectively. The following issues must be addressed to ensure that technology maximizes learning:
- Faculty Development. Is there institutional commitment to creating and funding ongoing development programs? What faculty development programs and facilities are needed? Do formal and informal opportunities exist for faculty and technical experts to routinely interact? What faculty support staff are needed for activities such as graphics design, copyright clearances, and application licensing?
- Measuring Benefits. What changes in learning occur with different applications of technology? What measures exist to track the effectiveness of distance learning approaches on retention and completion? Do students with certain profiles learn better than others in a distance learning environment?
- Faculty Roles, Rewards and Responsibilities. How will distance learning affect research and public service roles of faculty? How should faculty be evaluated on their distance learning courses? What are the implications of distance learning for faculty workload? For faculty development? For tenure? For affiliations with other institutions? Are processes in place to give distance learning leadership roles to faculty who are the most proficient and interested in distance learning?
Issues for the Student
Distance learning changes the education process in fundamental ways. It takes the course to the student, rather than the student to the course. It reshapes a fairly rigid, campus-centered environment into one that is more flexible and student-centered. It enables credit to be given for a student's knowledge and skills, not for the "seat time" in class. It also requires greater self-motivation on the part of students. These fundamental changes in the roles and relationships of students and institutions lead to a variety of issues:
- Student Financial Aid. How should financial aid be configured to assist the distance learner? How can aid be packaged and accounted for when students assemble programs from several institutions within a state? From several states?
- Student Preparation. How can curriculum and teaching methods from elementary to postsecondary levels prepare students for self-motivated learning that continues throughout life? Is student fluency with information technology an explicit curricular goal? Who will train students and in what facilities?
- Student Responsibility for Learning. Should technological proficiency be a prerequisite for higher education? Should information technology overhead costs be passed on to students? Should students be required to purchase technology "products" such as computers and software?
- Student Support. Are faculty empowered to provide mentoring and as-needed assistance to students? Does online support exist for technical problems? Do online services exist for student advising, career guidance, and counseling?
Issues for Employers
Business is calling for higher education to make significant changes in the way it designs and delivers education and training. To ensure that programs are needed, are relevant, and are effectively delivered, business needs to be an ongoing partner in the distance learning effort, especially regarding these issues:
- Assessing and Meeting Needs. How can the workforce training needs of employers be appropriately assessed and addressed within the higher education arena? Who should bear responsibility for conducting and funding the needs assessments? How can future needs be appropriately integrated in the instructional planning process of institutions? What role should business play in the design of programs and courseware?
- Financial Support. What role should business play in the funding of distance learning programs developed to meet an industry's specific workforce needs? Can programmatic and financial partnerships with employers benefit institutions and students without compromising academic independence and quality?
The challenges and opportunities presented by new approaches to distance learning will have a significant impact on higher education in America and in Virginia. Recurring higher education issues of access, affordability, and productivity can be addressed. An abundance of educational choices can be provided to consumers. And economic imperatives such as workforce training and online research will help business and industry maximize their resources.
The central question facing Virginia's political and academic leaders is not whether higher education will change in light of recent trends in technology, society, and the workplace. Rather, it is how the changes that are inevitable can effectively balance the needs of Virginians and the state's resources while maintaining the high quality that is the hallmark of Virginia's system of higher education.
Individuals from many institutions of higher education and other organizations provided helpful information, observations, and recommendations for this report. New Dominion Partners is grateful for the involvement of the following organizations: Bell Atlantic - Virginia, Inc.; Division of Legislative Services; Center for Innovative Technology; Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia; Council on Information Management; Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia; Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission; Northern Virginia Technology Council; Old Dominion University; Southern Regional Education Board; State Council of Higher Education in Virginia; Virginia Community College System; Virginia House Appropriations Committee; Virginia Senate Finance Committee; Virginia State Chamber of Commerce; and Virginia Tech.
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