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Distance learning test America's
higher education dominance

By Mark A. Emmert
Chancellor and Provost for University Affairs

This opinion piece first appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of Connection, New England's Journal of Higher Education and Economic Development, a quarterly journal published by the New England Board of Higher Education.

At the close of the 21st century we can take comfort in the fact that American colleges and universities are unchallenged world leaders in higher education. Or can we? True, students and scholars from around the globe continue to travel to U.S. institutions in large numbers -- more than 450,000 last year. And there is no doubt that an American degree is the educational coin of the realm. But as we enjoy our current success, it may be too easy to forget that not so long ago, the European universities were the dominant force internationally in both research and teaching, and drew many of the best and the brightest from our country to their campuses. Our shining success is, historically speaking, quite recent. It also could leave us as rapidly as it arrived.

More specifically, technology-based education -- by reducing or eliminating geographic and temporal barriers -- will open up higher education markets to new global competitors. Information technology and distance learning are exciting developments in higher education. They provide extraordinary opportunities to transform the when, where and how of what we teach. But they also have the potential to dramatically alter the nature of the higher education marketplace.

While Peter Drucker overstated the case when he recently proclaimed in Fortune magazine that the traditional residential campus would be dead within 30 years, there can be little doubt that distance education will visit great change upon our institutions of learning.

As both student and educator become increasingly comfortable with technology-based learning, those institutions that master the use of information technology will be well positioned to take advantage of a substantial segment of the educational marketplace. This is especially likely for the most rapidly growing student population, the nontraditional, location-bound, continuing education student. In those cases where it is easier and cheaper to transport the classroom to the student, rather than the student to the classroom, technology-driven learning will grow dramatically.

An interesting portent of the future of distance education has been offered by Sir John Daniel, rector of the United Kingdom's Open University. At the first International Forum for World Leaders in Higher Education, held in Hong Kong in July, Daniel described the emergence of "mega-universities" -- institutions with more than 100,000 students. These unique entities share two important traits: all but one are in developing countries and, because they are targeted at non-traditional students, they rely heavily upon distance education.

These institutions reflect the enormous demand in both industrial and developing countries for technology-based higher education. Moreover, in recognition of this demand, institutions such as the Open University are now beginning to reach out for students beyond their national borders. In fact, one-tenth of the students of the Open University live outside the United Kingdom. At the Hong Kong meetings, 40 higher education leaders from traditional research universities around the globe shared a common reaction to the predicted impact of international distance education: anxiety.

In the United States, discussion of distance education tends to focus on details of implementation and collaborations within a single state, or perhaps regionally, as with the Western Governors University. Most often, conversations conclude with a litany of the obstacles to technology-based education. The issue of international competition is rarely considered. Yet, one does not need much imagination to envision technology-based education beaming in from all points of the globe. Information technologies allow educators to cross national boundaries with ease. Indeed, distance education may well become an internationally traded commodity early in the 21st century.

Currently, there are few obstacles to rapid internationalization of distance education. The prevalence of English as the language of commerce, particularly among the young, will allow the development of instructional materials with relatively high international transferability. Moreover, as the quality of visual materials improves, the most complex and expensive aspects of educational programs will be readily adaptable in multiple languages.

Quality control
One hindrance to globalization of higher education markets is the issue of quality control -- an area in which U.S institutions begin with a disadvantage. Today, quality in American higher education is assessed by a complex, some say arcane, system of accreditation. The American accreditation system relies heavily upon the assessment of proxies for educational quality, such as hours spent in classrooms, student-to-faculty ratios, availability of facilities and total resources spent on each student. Many other nations, particularly in Europe, approach quality control through competency examinations for each discipline. Such competency assessment de-emphasizes time to degree, instruction mode and the reputation of the institution providing the instruction. These nations therefore may be better positioned to adopt quality control in distance education.

Recognizing this fact, the Western Governors University plans to base quality control of its shared distance learning delivery around assessments of students, not institutional factors. A number of American regional and specialized accrediting bodies are moving in similar directions, although they have a long way to go. An agreement to use competency-based assessment models is a critical step toward the exchange of distance learning courses -- not just among American institutions and various states -- but also across national boundaries.

As the issues of common accreditation practices remain unresolved, those institutions and nations with systems better suited to distance education will have a substantial advantage in their development.

The end of this century thus brings a convergence of factors creating global markets for distance learning systems -- in particular, the explosive growth of information and telecommunications technologies and the increasing demand among all nations for higher education for the nontraditional student. These forces -- along with the rise of mega-universities and the increasing acceptance of international quality control programs -- create exceptional opportunities for American higher education, but also challenges to its global dominance.

American universities must take advantage of their already established reputations as intellectual leaders and respond to new opportunities. How might we meet this challenge?

First, we must begin from a seemingly contradictory position, recognizing the inherent weaknesses of technology-based education as well as its potential. Information and telecommunications technologies can help us accomplish a great deal, but they were not intended to fully replace face-to-face human interaction.

One new state-of-the-art stock and bond trading facility I recently visited includes both an extraordinarily complex computing and telecommunications system and an equally complex, and expensive, open trading floor within which all the traders can see each other. Asked why both approaches were needed, one official noted that traders would never rely solely on the information transmitted on their monitors, but also needed to see the faces of their colleagues and "feel" the mood of other traders. Information technology has limits that we must recognize up front.

Second, we need to develop truly world-class educational materials. As the distance education marketplace becomes global, the level of competition will become keen. The quality of instruction must be up to the task. Too much of what we deliver today is mediocre in its creative use of technology, and is not critically evaluated. American universities need to be leaders in creating excellent technological academic programs.

We also should consider the creation of international distance education agreements along the lines of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- fully mutual agreements that allow a free exchange of higher education across borders. Our current approach to accreditation serves much like a system of trade barriers. Opening up the eduation market, however, should not lead to a lowering of academic standards any more than a free trade agreement would, for example, permit a nation to trade dairy products that do not meet mandatory health standards. If we can create competency-based standards, we can then move toward a free exchange of education programs.

Finally, in preparing to compete in the global distance education market, American higher education should build on its own unique strengths -- and primary among them is its system of self-regulation. Former Harvard University President Derek Bok, among others, has pointed to U.S. higher education's independent governing boards, which are free from intrusive governmental control, as important factors in America's academic leadership. Whatever mechanism we develop for regulating quality and increasing coordination among institutions, it should not be centralized in state or federal government bureaucracies. Resisting the urge to allow governments to do the job for them, universities should accept responsibility for developing standards to meet the legitimate needs of the marketplace.

American colleges and universities have established an extraordinary position in world education -- a leading role that serves the national interest very well. Converging forces, however, are changing the face of a large and important segment of higher education. By responding thoughtfully and creatively, we can maintain a dominant role in the era of distance education. Or we can wait and watch as others replace us.