By Andrew Feenberg
ONCE THE STEPCHILD of the academy, distance learning finally is taken seriously.
But not in precisely the way early innovators like myself had hoped. It is not faculty
who are in the forefront of the movement to network education. Instead politicians,
university administrations and computer and telecommunications companies have decided
there is money in it. But proposals for a radical "retooling" of the university
emanating from these sources are guaranteed to provoke instant faculty hostility.
Today I find myself in the paradoxical position of defending my own understanding
of distance learning against both its foes on the faculty and its advocates in the
In 1981 I worked on the design team that created the first online educational
program. This was the School of Management and Strategic Studies at the Western Behavioral
Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California. At the time online education was essentially
The equipment was expensive and primitive; we used Apple IIEs with 48K of memory
and 300 baud modems. (Multiply by 1,000 and 100 respectively to get current averages.)
The complexity of basic computer operations in those days was such that it took a
full page of printed instructions just to connect. A variant of e-mail called computer
conferencing was the only available electronic mediation.
Computer conferencing was suited to our application since it facilitated the sort
of many-to-many communication that goes on in the classroom, but no one knew how
to use it for education. We soon discovered that computer conferencing was not very
useful for delivering lectures, and of course it could not support any graphical
contents, even the simple drawings teachers like to scribble on the blackboard. But
these limitations led us to explore a Socratic pedagogy based on virtual classroom
discussion that proved quite successful.
The school grew to include more than 150 students in 26 countries around the world.
It pioneered many of the features of online education taken for granted today. Other
experiments soon benefited from our example and added their own contributions.
These experiments all were championed by enthusiastic professors who involved
their students in an adventure on the frontiers of technology. At first growth was
slow, but in the last ten years online education has attracted much attention and
seems well on its way to becoming a standard feature of the modern university. I
am proud to have had a role in this development.
Consider, then, my surprise when I heard rumors last year that something called
online education was coming to my university, San Diego State University, under the
sponsorship of Microsoft, Hughes Aircraft, Fujitsu and MCI. This California Educational
Technology Initiative (CETI), was supposed to build a $300 million information infrastructure
to support virtual learning on our multi-campus system. Our classrooms and dorms
were to be hardwired to the internet; we were to have video conferencing, various
computer based teaching aids, electronic distance learning, and production facilities
for marketable prepackaged courses to be sold by the CETI consortium for a profit.
CETI was opposed, sometimes violently, by most faculty and students. There were
two main objections. First, both teachers and students doubted the educational value
of networking, and second, some faculty members were upset by the commercial goal
of CETI, the delivery of higher education through the market outside the context
of a university community. What was once a daring faculty innovation had come to
be perceived as a big business takeover of the campus.
I am no more enthusiastic about trading an academic job for one at Microsoft than
the next faculty member, but this unqualified rejection of online education contradicts
our experience at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute. There the virtual classroom
was a place of intense intellectual and human interaction.
Literally hundreds of highly intelligent comments were contributed to our computer
conferences each month by both students and teachers. The quality of these online
discussions surpasses anything I have been able to stimulate in my face-to-face classroom.
As CETI became a common topic of discussion on my campus, I wondered why my colleagues
did not share my interest in this innovative medium.
My puzzlement was soon to end. Our new system-wide Chancellor, Dr. Charles Reed,
was due for a get-acquainted visit. As he was leaving I finally had a chance to ask
him the question that most bothered me: What is the pedagogical model that has guided
CETI? The Chancellor looked at me as though I'd laid an egg, and said, "We've
got the engineering plan. It's up to you faculty to figure out what to do with it."
And off he went: Subject closed!
Would you build a house, design a new kind of car or refrigerator, in this way?
Surely it is important to find out how the thing is going to be used before committing
a lot of resources to a specific plan or design. Yet this was not at all the order
in which our chancellor understood the process. Perhaps this is because he conceived
of online education as an "information superhighway," down which we faculty
were invited to drive.
But this overworked metaphor is altogether inappropriate. In the case of educational
computing, the choice of infrastructure will largely determine the applications.
If corporations rather than faculty are consulted about this choice, the outcome
will be entirely different from the ideal of educational community to which faculty
are attached by their culture and traditions. The ambition of CETI to make and market
computer- and video-based courses illustrated that difference.
The CETI story has a significant ending. Public outcry against it grew gradually
as faculty and students protested on campus, in the newspapers and before legislative
committees. The initiative collapsed and now will be replaced by a more modest plan
financed by public monies, as is proper.
The faculty will shed no tears over having to wait a bit longer for their first
ride on the electronic infobahn.
Education and Economics
As CETI shows, the distance learning debate polarizes around two hostile positions
that usually correspond to the different roles of administration and faculty.
For too many administrators the big issues are not educational. The fiscal implications
of electronic distance learning are what is interesting to them: Administrators hope
to use new technology to finesse the coming crisis in higher education spending,
and to accommodate exploding enrollments of young people and returning students.
Innovations like video conferencing and automated online education will make it possible
to improve quality through the use of "star" professors while cutting costs
of delivery. Students in virtual classrooms need no new parking structures. What
is more, courses can be packaged and marketed, generating a continuous revenue stream
without further investment.
But can new technology accomplish the existing educational mission for larger
numbers at a discount? Two main solutions have been proposed during the current wave
of enthusiasm for distance learning.
Video conferencing allows a professor to address a large number of students in
remote locations. Live interaction can be supported by a two-way video feed. The
physical presence of teachers and students in the classroom can be reproduced electronically
at some cost, but more students can be served without expanding existing campuses.
Automation offers a more radical solution with large start-up costs, but promises
far greater savings in the long run. In an automated system, the teacher's physical
presence in the classroom is reproduced on CD ROM or made available over the internet.
Exciting computer-based graphical materials can replace dull textbooks. Research
on the internet can replace hours spent in libraries. Testing and grading can be
done online. Even essay tests can be graded by powerful programs for textual analysis.
In a really low-cost solution, discussion can be replaced by automated exercises.
Eventually it will be possible to dispense with campuses altogether. Students will
pick out courses at an educational equivalent of Blockbuster Video and "do"
college at home without ever meeting a faculty member or fellow student.
Is this for real? Unfortunately, many people think it is. It's quite a vision,
but few faculty buy it. Where administrators see educational "content"
as the constant and economics as the variable, faculty see education as the variable
and economics as the constant. Most faculty cannot imagine simply reproducing the
learning experience of a face-to-face classroom online. Distance learning, like it
or not, will be a paradigm change -- a change, many faculty fear, for the worse.
Faculty skepticism is of course due in part to resistance to innovation and fear
of change, as administrators charge. But they are, after all, the professionals and
know something about the difficulties and opportunities of conventional classroom
teaching. They have reasons to doubt that an item-by-item electronic replacement
of their classroom is possible.
Students confirm what faculty suspect: They are poor TV performers, and it is
boring to watch them on the little screen. How, they ask, can one duplicate the learning
experience of a highly interactive classroom with video? And both faculty and students
complain that computer programs that are supposed to replace specific teaching tasks,
such as guiding students through exercises, are often difficult to use or even incomprehensible.
On the other hand, faculty detect continuity in administration enthusiasm for
cost-cutting at the expense of traditional educational roles and values. Between
1970 and 1995, the number of full-time faculty increased by about half, while over
the same period part-time faculty grew by two and one half times. If the trend continues,
part-timers will overtake full-timers on college campuses in three years. At community
colleges, they already are in the majority. This worrying trend parallels the growth
of the nontraditional or returning student population, which now constitutes the
majority of students in higher education.
These students require different course schedules than the traditional ones to
which faculty are attached. Largely because of this, adult education has developed
outside the standard academic departments and procedures under direct administrative
control. As a result, a vast parallel system of higher education has emerged in which
faculty have low status and little power. Since it serves adult learners -- precisely
the students most likely to be open to distance learning -- this parallel system
has a free hand to experiment even if traditional universities resist.
These trends set a precedent for administration strategies. The replacement of
full-time by part-time faculty is merely the opening act in the plan to replace the
faculty as such by CD ROMs. A new economic model of education is being sold under
the guise of a new technological model. This is the route to what David Noble calls
"digital diploma mills." Understandably, this is not a route many faculty
wish to travel.
The Question of Distance Learning Technology
When faculty were lonely champions of the new distance learning technologies, their
primary goal was pedagogical success. They had few resources and relied on inexpensive
technologies such as e-mail. They were engaged through their vocation as teachers,
their commitment to finding new and exciting ways to transmit knowledge and culture.
Their principal allies were students interested in playing with computers, and occasionally
companies willing to donate equipment. This was a world of tentative experiments
in which the stakes were small and near-term expectations low.
The present administration-dominated phase of the development of distance learning
is very different. Contrary to the popular impression that the academic world is
poor, universities in fact spend about $200 billion a year in the United States.
Administrators command these resources and corporations know it.
Huge sums are involved in the purchase of elaborate networks. Corporations are
major players and find a ready audience for their most expensive technologies among
administrators. Big investments in technology today are supposed to pay off in savings
on facilities and salaries tomorrow, although the details remain fuzzy.
The aim of reproducing or automating the classroom feeds directly into a preference
for video, which seems to offer the closest equivalent to the classroom experience.
If administrators believe that, they may buy these expensive tools in the expectation
that faculty will be able simply to pick them up and use them. This is naive, even
from a business standpoint.
Faculty, when they actually engage with the new teaching technology, sense immediately
that it is not mature, that electronics is not "there" yet as a ready tool.
In the actual experience of online education, technology is not a predefined thing
at all, but an environment, an empty space faculty must inhabit and enliven. Live
video, with its complicated and intimidating apparatus, is no solution.
To the extent that they are interested at all, faculty appreciate the graphical
capabilities of computers as aids to presenting information and exercises in computer
labs. But these applications are better compared to textbooks than to classrooms;
they are supplements to, rather than replacements for, classroom teaching.
Although neither video conferencing nor automated learning have caught on with
faculty, there is a long history of enthusiasm among at least a small group of them
for interactive text-based applications such as computer conferencing.
Could it be that our earliest experiences with computer conferencing were not
merely constrained by the primitive equipment then available, but also revealed the
essence of electronically mediated education? I believe this to be the case. Even
after all these years the exciting online pedagogical experiences still involve human
interactions and for the most part these continue to be text based.
But here is the rub: Interactive text-based applications lack the pizazz of video
alternatives and cannot promise automation, nor can they be packaged and sold. On
the contrary, they are labor intensive and will probably not cut costs very much.
Hence the lack of interest from corporations and administrators, and the gradual
eclipse of these technological options by far more expensive ones. But unlike the
fancy alternatives, interactive text-based systems actually accomplish legitimate
pedagogical objectives faculty can recognize and respect. There are good reasons
Considered as an environment, the world of online interaction has properties that
determine its appropriate use. Just as a concert hall is a space appropriate for
different activities than a living room, so the electronically mediated spaces of
computer networks also are suited to specific activities.
The basic fact about computer networks is scarcity of bandwidth. Even with all
the recent advances, we are far from being able to reproduce the actual experience
of human proximity in space. Indeed, it is hard to imagine in what that would consist.
What kind of network would make it possible to bump into someone on the way into
class and make a new friend, to carry on a heated discussion after the end of the
hour, to catch the professor's eye and exchange an instantaneous glance in which
boredom or alertness is tacitly expressed?
On the other hand, we have a well established method for communicating in a narrow
bandwidth: writing. And we have a rich experience of using writing to overcome the
limitations of bandwidth. Writing is thus not a poor substitute for physical presence
and speech, but another fundamental medium of expression with its own properties
and powers. It is not impersonal, as is sometimes supposed. We know how to present
ourselves as persons through writing; this is what correspondence is all about. Nor
is it harder to write about ideas than to talk about them; most people can formulate
difficult ideas more easily in written form than in speech in front of an audience.
While interactive writing is the basic medium of expression on networks, in recent
years we have learned to enhance the network experience with sound and image, and
that is a good thing. But writing is the basic medium of online expression, the skeleton
around which other technologies and experiences must be organized to build a viable
In online education as in the classroom, we must be careful to distinguish the
basic medium from the enhancements and not to confuse their roles. Speech is the
basic medium in the classroom, and we supplement it with labs, movies, slides, text
books, computer demonstrations, and so on. Similar enhancements to the written medium
are possible on networks. But confusing the medium with the supplementary enhancements
leads to the pedagogical absurdity of teacherless education.
To replace online written interaction with the enhancements makes no more sense
than to replace the teacher in the face-to-face classroom with labs, movies, slides,
text books and computer demonstrations. That was tried with educational television
and computer-aided instruction long ago with no success.
What does this say about the ambition to replace campuses with virtual universities?
Large markets for distance learning will undoubtedly emerge, and this will be a blessing
for many students who cannot attend college classes. But if we cut higher education
loose from the traditional university and its values, the blessing will turn into
a disaster. The best way to maintain the connection is through insuring that distance
learning is "delivered" not just by CD ROMs, but by living teachers, fully
qualified to teach and interested in doing so online.
Then prepackaged materials will be seen to replace not the teacher as a mentor
and guide but the lecture and the textbook. Interaction with the professor will continue
to be the centerpiece of education, no matter what the medium. And of course for
most people that interaction will continue to take place on campus, if they have
the means and the mobility to attend a college.
There is some evidence that students share this view despite the marketing hype
for distance learning. In its first weeks, after $9.5 million in expenditures, the
Western Governors University had only ten enrollments. This disappointing start for
a major initiative in online education may have been due in part to embarrassing
technical difficulties, but it also signals that, whatever its usefulness, distance
learning is unlikely to be the panacea claimed by its commercial promoters.
First, administrators and businessmen should forget the idea that distance learning
systems based on video conferencing or CD ROMs and star professors will replace face-to-face
Second, politicians need to be realistic about the future costs of higher education.
Distance learning is not going to be a cheap replacement for campuses. The campus
experience will remain in demand for the foreseeable future.
Third, the overselling of foolish ideas about technology should not be allowed
to discredit the whole field of online education. We as faculty need to get beyond
defensive contempt for this significant educational innovation and look at specific
designs with legitimate pedagogical objectives in mind.
Fourth, the educational technologists themselves need to work creatively with
faculty and students to devise truly viable applications that fulfill real needs.
There are good reasons for sticking with interactive text-based systems and supplementing
them with visual and other online resources, rather than attempting to duplicate
face-to-face education online.
Fifth, we must give serious thought to the implications of student diversity.
The influx of returning students over the past 15 years has had major benefits for
many people who missed the opportunity to finish their schooling in adolescence.
New educational formats have been developed that work better for them than the traditional
residential college teaching schedule. But these innovations have gone along with
a devastating deprofessionalization that has gutted the occupation of university
professor of security and respect, for approximately half of all current faculty.
However, negativism is not enough. The systematic rejection of online education
will not stop further deprofessionalization. The dream of automation, under cover
of which this process will go forward, deserves criticism, but that should not become
an alibi for ignoring real dangers and opportunities.
Andrew Feenberg is professor of Philosophy at San Diego State University. His
book, Questioning Technology, will be published by Routledge in March