Distance Learning: Untried and Untrue

By Jay A. Halfond

G. K. Chesterton famously once said: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” This, I believe, applies to distance learning as well. There is far too much self-congratulatory hyperbole about the growth and pervasiveness of online learning – which exaggerates reality and overlooks the true revolution occurring less visibly.

Much of what is shoved under the rubric of distance learning is not conducted at a distance, doesn’t attract new learners to these institutions, and isn’t terribly well supported by the schools boasting large online enrollments.

The most dramatic, frequently quoted, and perhaps embellished statistics come from the Sloan survey of more than 2,500 colleges and universities, who claim that more than one in four students took at least one course online. Almost five million students at any one time were learning online. This definition of online assumes at least 80% of the content occurs outside class time, thus measuring a shift from the classroom to the computer, but not necessarily a complete leap from a local to a virtual campus.

Should you opt to confront one of the wizards of Oz claiming large numbers of online enrollees, or giddy about the ubiquity of distance learning, here are a few questions guaranteed to unnerve them:

How many students do you actually have enrolled exclusively online? I have asked this question of leaders of some of the major institutions in the distance learning business. The typical answer is they do not know, nor even think to track this information, since online courses are simply a convenience and option offered to their existing student population.

How many students taking online courses actually live at a distance where they couldn’t ever commute to your campus? “Distance” learning is largely a misnomer: Few institutions attract students beyond their catchment area through online offerings, nor do they even try.

How many academic degree programs do you have fully committed to distance students in which the complete menu of required courses is guaranteed to be available online? Many institutions offer random web-based courses, scheduled sporadically, subject to faculty whims.

How do you provide faculty with assistance to develop their online courses? (By now, you are making the boaster squirm a bit, as you shift the questioning to support for distance learning.)

What is your staff size relative to the number of online courses offered? Do you employ instructional designers and media and graphics specialists to shadow the faculty, or do you just provide an online tutorial for faculty to work self-sufficiently with the learning management system? Distance learning has become a laissez faire crapshoot—a technological tool to be used whenever and however one chooses.

How does your institution establish and maintain academic standards, expectations and quality in the online arena? How do you know that students receive a comparable educational experience? Do you routinely monitor online courses to address problems that arise? Do you have a help desk specifically designed to support students at a distance? Have your institution’s resource operations—especially the library, bookstore and registrar—adjusted their hours, accessibility and services to accommodate remote students?

By now, you have almost guaranteed that you will not be invited back to future gatherings.  But, if you want to go in for the kill, begin to penetrate their understanding of the online student community, or lack thereof.

How well do online students get to know one another in their courses and programs? How do you promote affiliation, community, and peer learning? How do you connect these students to the mothership?  What are the demographic characteristics of your online students that differentiate them from those on campus? What applied research have you conducted to measure student satisfaction, comparable learning outcomes and impact on the academic culture? How have you taken the lessons learned online as opportunities to improve classroom instruction?

The idealistic goal should be to create an exciting and engaging learning environment where the remote student can have a holistic experience by learning from faculty, fellow students drawn from diverse backgrounds (geographically and otherwise), and course materials. Their institutions would be obsessed with attaining comparability with the conventional classroom and campus, if not a superior learning experience. And they would be investing significantly and collectively in making that happen.

Like Chesterton said of Christianity, most haven’t yet really attained the true potential of distance learning. American institutions have made great progress in creating technological tools that allow faculty, generally acting independently, to mitigate face time in favor of work online. Asynchronicity—not being the same place at the same time—is not a sufficient standard in itself to fulfill the promise of distance learning.

I offer a more idealistic and aspirational definition: Reaching out beyond a region (nationally and even internationally), and providing a substantial investment in faculty and student support, an academic institution provides a full educational experience and learning community entirely online—worthy of the reputation and integrity of that institution. How many would still boast that we have achieved that standard?


Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University. In a future one of these monthly columns, he will suggest what it might take to achieve the ideal of distance learning, and welcomes your comments and insights.


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