Observations on Distance Learning Issues in the Commonwealth of Virginia from the Council of Higher Education's Perspective
By Peter A. Blake
Associate Director for Communications and Advanced Technology
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
May, 1998

Colleges and universities today use many forms of telecommunications to expand access to courses and programs. Cable television, microwave transmission, teleconferencing systems, and video tapes are common ways colleges and universities have reached out to students for years. These systems are limited to the number of students and sites they can reach easily and cost-effectively and tend to be focused at a few sites to serve a particular need.

But changes in technology are making it easier to reach large numbers of people at a potentially lower unit cost. These changes will alter the relationships between students and faculty and present new challenges to the way higher education is coordinated. While old models may have worked fine when the technology was used sparingly, digital networks that reach millions of people at places and times convenient to users change the nature of teaching, learning, and governance.

Historically, the most cost-effective way to reach students at a large number of off-campus sites has been satellite transmission. Virginia has used satellites for selected course and program distribution for years. More recently, Old Dominion University, through its Teletechnet program, has expanded its use of satellites to deliver full degree programs. Other institutions, within and outside of Virginia, also are delivering instruction more aggressively over satellites.

Now and for the foreseeable future the Internet and comprehensive local networks present the most challenges and opportunities to colleges and universities wishing to expand access to courses and programs. Institutions across the country are finding that they can deliver instruction almost limitlessly by using the Internet.

These two issues -- statewide distribution of academic programs and the potential of the Internet -- have consequences for the quality, cost, and coordination of higher education in Virginia. As institutions enter markets in which they heretofore have not participated, questions concerning resource allocation, student choice, student services, and program duplication need to be addressed.

Some of these issues have their roots in continuing education, correspondence instruction, and the off-campus programs that have existed in higher education for decades. But in the past, off-campus activities have existed on a small scale and involved only a few institutions. They were organized and coordinated by history and geography as much as by public policy.

Today, off-campus instruction is in transition. Much of it still depends in large part on faculty actually being at an off-campus site. But improved telecommunications make the physical presence of a faculty member less vital. Indeed, the very existence of an off-campus site becomes problematic as the technology makes home delivery more feasible. Increasingly, programs are delivered through a combination of on-site and telecommunicated instruction, or entirely through telecommunications.

For many years the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia has encouraged and the institutions have pursued innovative distance-education programs to address questions of quality and student access. Institutions have experimented and successfully employed many forms of instruction using different kinds of technology, and conditions are fertile for more applications.

Today's telecommunication technology increases the number of institutions that can offer instruction at a distance. Digital signals permit institutions to use established technology to distribute more courses less expensively. The Internet and the World Wide Web make it possible for any college anywhere to deliver courses and degree programs to anyone. One institutional representative, describing the potential of today's telecommunications, put it like this: "It's like a jump ball. Everyone's going after it."

Satellite Distribution of Courses and Degree Programs

The primary means in Virginia today of distributing degree programs to multiple sites is still by satellite. In satellite distribution, students at suitably equipped remote sites can see, hear, and speak to a faculty member who physically is located on a campus miles away. The faculty member delivers instruction simultaneously to students on campus in a classroom and remotely over the satellite. He cannot see the students at the remote locations, but he can hear them ask questions and speak with one another.

Satellite delivery operates in "real time" and requires a capital investment and a physical site. "Real time" means that the student and the faculty member need to participate at the same time; if a faculty member is delivering a lecture, for instance, at 11 a.m., the students need to be in their remote classrooms at 11 a.m. The capital investment at the receiving site includes a satellite receiver, equipment to decode the satellite signal, and audio and video equipment.

Pedagogically, when done correctly, students at remote sites learn as well as students physically located on campus. Financially, satellite distribution of courses has the capacity to reach a few students at each one of many locations, thereby making it a cost-effective way to reach students who might otherwise not be able to take certain courses or programs. Furthermore, the addition of another student at an existing site has a minimal marginal cost. Old Dominion University, for example, has estimated that its Teletechnet program, described below, will operate at half the cost of traditional instruction, provided that it is able to generate sufficient volume to offset its up-front development costs.

Satellite distribution of programs has been used in Virginia since the early 1980s, when Virginia launched the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program. The program originally used a land-based microwave system to deliver courses to Richmond. It later became a truly statewide program, and now satellite television is used to send classes originating at the universities to numerous receiving sites. Classes originate at four universities: Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Old Dominion University. In 1998-99, CGEP will convert most of its courses away from satellite delivery to Net.Work.Virginia, the statewide high-speed, high bandwidth network.

In 1994, Old Dominion University initiated Teletechnet, which offers to community college graduates the third- and fourth-year courses leading to a bachelor's degree. Prior to 1994, Old Dominion had experience in satellite-delivered instruction with programs in nursing and engineering technology. Today, Old Dominion offers 17 bachelors degree programs and 6 master's degree programs by Teletechnet. Its instructional programs now reach more than 30 sites in Virginia.

Because Teletechnet courses are transmitted via satellite, they conceivably could reach most of North America. Any site with suitable equipment can receive the satellite signal. Furthermore, once a satellite signal is received at a given site (Quantico Marine Base, for example), it can be redistributed over a separate network (to military bases around the world, for example), thereby multiplying the reach of a single faculty member.

Old Dominion currently works with the individual community colleges at which the vast majority of its courses are received and broadcast. Together, they decide which of the undergraduate and graduate programs will be made available to students at the community college. In deciding which programs to offer, officials at the institutions consider student demand, adequacy of library and laboratory resources, adequacy and availability of classroom space, and staffing requirements. They also take into account whether other public or private four-year institutions currently offer the same or similar programs. Not all sites receive all programs, although, as mentioned previously, the cost of adding students at a site is small, and the system requires reasonably high volume to be cost-effective.

As with any technology, satellite systems will change and improve over time and should become less expensive and more convenient to use. Already, for instance, the size and cost of a satellite dish is becoming more manageable for many households, which potentially gives students more options. Meanwhile, digital, land-based networks and the Internet are emerging as the best long-term opportunity for wide, economical distribution of courses and programs.

Internet Distribution of Courses and Degree Programs

The Internet creates new opportunities for independent and self-paced learning. Students can now enroll in individual courses or full degree programs through the Internet. Through high-speed, digital computer connections, students can communicate with faculty and other students, and they can see and read course syllabi, library materials, and other digital material.

Flexibility more than anything else characterizes Internet delivery of courses and programs. Students can access course materials at times and places that are convenient to them. Unlike students who take satellite-delivered courses, students who take courses over the Internet do not need to be located physically in a particular classroom at a particular time.

The Internet's flexibility will reduce the constraints of time and space and make possible new ways of learning. For centuries, students have earned academic credit for hours spent in contact with an instructor. It was, therefore, essential that they be in the same place at the same time. A 1989 Virginia Tech document, Report of the University Task Force on the Impact of Digital Technology on the Classroom Environment, noted that digital technologies offer three significant changes in student-faculty contact:

  1. The nature of formally structured contact will shift.
  2. A larger part of faculty/student contact will be ad hoc and relatively unstructured.
  3. The provision of an electronic message system will allow extensive contact without requiring student and teacher to be in the same place.

The Virginia Tech report went on to say that these changes will be positive only if the amount of faculty contact with students outside the formal classroom increases as classroom contact itself decreases.

The shift away from formally structured contact is underway. The number of courses and programs available on the Internet grows steadily. Faculty around the world are developing Internet-based courses. The Internet web-site for the Institute for Academic Technology at the University of North Carolina contains electronic links to dozens of institutions that offer individual courses, certificate programs, and full undergraduate and graduate degree programs over the Internet. These courses and programs are offered by institutions in places such as California, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and the United Kingdom, to students anywhere in the world. Indeed, as high-speed digital networks become more accessible, and as more out-of-state institutions develop courses and programs for delivery over these networks, the Council will show a steady decline in its ability to affect the type and quality of courses and degree programs that are available to Virginia students. It is unclear whether this is a good or bad thing.

Many institutions today offer courses both in the classroom and over a digital network or the Internet. Students may choose to sign up for the network-delivered course because it better fits their schedule, they like the excitement of the new technology, or for some reason they cannot come to a classroom three hours a week. But institutions that mount Internet courses for their own students face an unintended consequence: once on the Internet, courses can be seen -- and conceivably taken for credit -- by students in Poquoson, Pulaski, or Paris. This fundamentally changes how programs are offered, how institutions register students and count enrollment, and how coordinating bodies manage those programs.

While faculty members at many institutions are actively developing individual Internet-based courses, Virginia institutions only recently are beginning to coordinate these activities into cohesive offerings. Christopher Newport University offers a full bachelor's degree program on the Internet. The Virginia Community College System and Virginia Tech continue to make significant strides toward cohesive course and program development.

One statewide effort that builds on successful institutional initiatives is the development of a "virtual university." While some would argue that, due to the variety of courses and programs currently available "at a distance," Virginia already has a "virtual university," more recent efforts are designed to bring together the various offerings of several institutions and to plan strategically for investments of time and money.

Virginia also is participating in the recently launched Southern Regional Electronic Campus, an initiative of the Southern Regional Education Board. By Fall 1998, Virginia's public colleges and universities together with institutions throughout the south will be offering up to 45 programs and 1,500 courses, mostly through the Internet.

A significant technological development in recent years has helped encouraged institutions to think more constructively about digital delivery of instruction. Since 1996, Net.Work.Virginia has connected the higher education community from end to end with high-speed transmission capability. The network began with Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, and the Virginia Community College system signing a contract with Bell Atlantic and Sprint for a statewide telecommunications network that would provide wide-area, high-capacity communications links at affordable prices. Today, over 200 public and private colleges and universities, K-12 schools, state agencies, and other nonprofit entities are connected to Net.Work.Virginia. The network also serves as a key access point for the next generation of the Internet.

Managing Change

The higher education community has become accustomed to rapid changes in technology, and it is easy to understand that things will continue to get faster, closer, clearer, and more convenient. More difficult is separating significant changes from insignificant ones and coordinating appropriately. The key to good higher education policy is finding the proper balance among student access, efficient use of resources, and institutional viability.

As understanding of these complex phenomena continues, the issues will change and the ways the education community deals with them will change. Dynamic and innovative enterprises need to be as free from regulation as possible because they need to be able to adapt quickly to changing conditions.

Public higher education also has a pressing obligation to use resources efficiently. While having many degree programs available from many public institutions anywhere in the Commonwealth increases student choice and convenience, it also creates the possibility of unnecessary duplication. Were these programs free of state subsidy, it might be prudent to allow complete and unfettered competition. But because institutions receive state assistance, it is important that their distance-learning activities be coordinated carefully and with appropriate balance. What follows are some considerations for minimizing unnecessary duplication with as little regulation as possible.

Competition and Coordination

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, chaired by Senator John Chichester, issued in 1995 its report, Making Connections: Matching Virginia Higher Education's Strengths with the Commonwealth's Needs. Of technology, the report said, "Nowhere do we see more opportunities to depart from the old ways and attempt new approaches than in the area of technology. We believe that technology has much to offer in three areas of concern: improving instruction, providing access, and avoiding unnecessary duplication." The report said institutions could use technology, for example, to reduce costs while offering programs where there is demand for them through cooperative programming: "Institutions should also be encouraged to develop cooperative programs that incorporate distance learning technology to eliminate unnecessary duplication of high-cost programs."

Virginia colleges and universities have a record of coordinating course and program offerings to improve quality and access. Some of the cooperation results from General Assembly or Council of Higher Education initiatives, while some results from the mutual interest of the institutions involved. Some examples of coordinated programs are the cooperative higher education centers, the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program, Teletechnet, the Virginia Physics Consortium, and the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium. Also, the Virginia Community College System has experience in coordinating distance-learning activities among its 23 colleges. All of these programs grew out of negotiations, conversations, and agreements on cost-effective ways to make higher education courses and programs available to qualified students. They could serve as models for making sure that technologically delivered instruction meets the needs of students without being unnecessarily duplicative.

Consistent with the direction provided by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education and historical cooperative efforts, it makes sense, as a high priority, to encourage institutions to work together on technologically delivered degree programs. This is particularly true with high-demand, high-cost programs where sharing among several institutions makes possible what a single institution could do only with a significant increase in funding.

Different Ways to Promote Quality and Efficient Use of Resources

The foundation of any academic enterprise should be quality. The Council's existing policies for off-campus assessment and evaluation maintain that off-campus and on-campus academic programs should be of comparable quality: "Although the off-campus instructional environment may differ considerably from that found on campus, it should engender comparable learning outcomes." The responsibility for assuring the quality of off-campus instruction rests primarily with the institutions that offer that instruction. This prerequisite is particularly important for learning that occurs without the physical presence of an instructor.

Historically, the Council coordinated instruction delivered technologically by Virginia public institutions at the point of receipt: the off-campus site. But because the opportunities for student learning today are so vast, the only possible way to monitor quality and efficiency is at the point of origin, that is, the Virginia public institution.

What follows are possible ways the Council could consider coordinating technologically delivered instruction to promote quality and efficient use of resources.

At one end of the spectrum is a completely free and open market. In this environment, institutions would be able to offer any courses and degree programs to any student in any location. Students would have many choices of institutions and delivery modes. The competition among institutions might result in lower costs to the student, although some institutions would prosper and others would suffer. In addition, the costs to the state might be higher because institutions would be using state funds to compete against one another.

An opposite approach is heavy regulation. Institutions would need to seek Council approval for each course and degree program for every site and, conceivably, for every mode of delivery. It would involve a lengthy and cumbersome approval process and student choice would be limited. Such regulation, however, might result in lower costs to the state.

It makes sense to strike a balance somewhere in the middle.

One approach is to competitively bid and award contracts for high-demand programs, such as business and nursing. The Council would issue a request for proposals, institutions or groups of institutions would develop proposals for technologically delivered instruction, and the Council would select the proposal demonstrating the highest quality at the lowest cost. Programs would be re-bid periodically. The request for proposals could emphasize Council priorities, such as cooperative programs, quality, ease of transfer of academic credits, and prudent allocation of resources.

Another option would be for the Council to approve courses or programs by site only if significant concerns were raised. To the extent no concerns existed, institutions would be able to offer any courses and degree programs to any student in any location. If conflicts between institutions, questions about duplication, or other concerns arose, the Council would adjudicate. This would reduce the burden of countless approvals, but it would be difficult to decide at what point the Council would need to resolve differences, and it probably would not be as cost-effective as bidding.

Budgetary Issues

The roaring surge of digital technology within the higher education arena poses a variety of state policy questions, most of which inevitably come down to budgetary considerations. The new technologies and their glamorous offspring-distance learning and computer-assisted pedagogies in particular-involve the funding of hardware, software, faculty and staff time, and other support services.

They also have the potential to change the whole enterprise of higher education, blurring the distinction between on-campus students and those using distance learning approaches, and affecting cost, funding, accountability, faculty productivity, and particularly the concept of quality. We should use the opportunity to recast how we approach these subjects.

We naturally hope that the new technologies will bring about increased efficiencies as well as increased access to and quality of higher education. The evidence to date, however, suggests that initial and on-going investments in technology are significant and that the dividends are difficult to measure and not immediate.

There are at least two ways to reflect on this abstraction. One is to recognize that the use of advanced technology is so pervasive and so much a part of a changing landscape of instruction and learning that it should be evaluated no differently from chalkboards and books. The other is to establish separate and elaborate accounting mechanisms to measure cost, quality, and access, and make investments only where there are measurable gains.

Again, the answer falls somewhere in between. To date, state investments in technology have centered on major infrastructure initiatives that would have been required with or without addressing questions of cost, quality, and access. Given this base level of financial support, it makes sense that colleges and university, as a normal course of doing business, continually explore ways to improve quality and reduce costs and to use technology in meaningful and thoughtful ways to do this.

On the other hand, college and universities need to demonstrate that money for all major initiatives is well-spent and that state policy objectives are being met whenever there is a significant investment. Institutions should continue to report annually to the Council of Higher Education on how it is using increased technology funds. They also should explore appropriate measures of "cost" of technologically enhanced instruction in order to ensure that nonresident students are paying the full-cost of instruction. Finally, institutions should be encouraged use the marketplace to test concepts of "cost," "quality," and "price" as they determine what to include in their calculations and what to charge students. As technology provides the catalyst to higher education, the broad marketplace may be an effective crucible for new approaches to financing higher education.


As the Council considers these issues, it continues to be valuable to invite representatives from the academic and technology communities to offer additional views. As noted early and often in this report, the issues are dynamic and the possibilities limitless. The Council welcomes commentary and suggestions from all interested parties.

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