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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
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Teaching in a Wired World
Maine learns the lessons of distance education

By Bennett Daviss

Augusta, Maine

If the coast of Maine were straightened, it would stretch to California," a child once told television host Art Linkletter. "But we have to stop government spending somewhere."

For Maine's state university system, attempting to straddle the horns of the child's dilemma is part of the job. With an operating budget of $253 million, the system not only operates seven campuses dotted around the state, it also is charged with providing access to affordable learning for Maine's 1.2 million people. The state's population is spread over 35,000 square miles of hilly forests where moose often outnumber humans, as well as on hundreds of populated islands-a total area larger than the other five New England states combined.

To carry out that assignment, in 1987 Maine launched one of the nation's first experiments in distance learning in higher education. The experiment has been strikingly successful: its $6.87 million annual budget consumes just 3.2 percent of the system's funding but yields about 4.4 percent of students' credit hours-the equivalent of about 11,000 enrollments each year.

The venture also has raised, and has begun to address, three of the most contentious issues of distance learning: the new demands it places on faculty; the need for a structural framework that opens access and enriches learning for all students; and concerns about the quality of education over distance (and now, thanks to the Internet, over time as well).

 
  Chancellor Terrence MacTaggart of the Maine state university system, has calmed faculty fears about distance learning.  
For the foreseeable future, dealing with these issues will remain a work in progress. Still, Maine's deliberations already offer lessons to other institutions facing a future that-according to a growing number of observers-must include distance learning in some, and probably many, forms. "It's no longer a question of 'wither distance learning,'" said Sam Levy, executive director of Maine's University System for Education and Technology Services, known as UNET. "Now it's a question of how we can work together to do it in the best way."

The writing isn't on the wall but on pink slips and harvest tallies. For more than two decades, Maine's traditional industries-fishing, forestry, footwear and hardscrabble farming-have been dwindling under pressure from foreign competitors, regulators and the nation's growing environmental awareness. By 1985, it had become clear to the state's policymakers that if Mainers were to take their place in an information-based high-tech economy, they needed more education. But given the challenges of distance and terrain, single snowfalls that are measured in feet instead of inches, and the state's low rates of college attendance, that promised to be an uphill journey.

Instead of asking the cash-strapped Legislature to bankroll a string of community colleges across the state, the university system's administration hatched a plan to use its existing resources to fill the gap.

The result, begun in 1987, was called the Education Network of Maine. Two years later, the network launched one of higher education's first interactive television channels. The ITV system now beams classes over a fiber-optic network to all seven state university campuses, ten dedicated learning centers, and about 100 more remote sites. The network was set up on the Augusta campus, which has no dorms and most closely resembles a commuter or community college. "The idea," Levy explains, "was to leave no resident farther than 25 miles from a place where they could take a course."

The ten learning centers were opened in modest-size towns such as Ellsworth and Thomaston, population centers that still are relatively far from a campus. Each center includes classrooms, is outfitted with large-screen televisions, phone lines so students and instructors can talk back and forth during class, a career information library, and is staffed by a director and a student services worker. The more remote, unstaffed sites are housed in church basements, public schools, community centers, or anywhere that even just one student can be linked to a class through a television cable and a phone line. Students can matriculate at any of the seven campuses and take courses-even earn full degrees-without leaving their local sites or centers.

But before the show could go on, there was the issue of faculty compensation to work out. In a typical traditional class, students can catch the instructor in the corridor for a quick question or show up for a conference during the professor's few open office hours each week. Because distance students' schedules often are less flexible, the course's instructor has to be more so-keeping additional office hours and being available by e-mail or telephone, perhaps even in the evening.

There was also an issue of sheer numbers. A conventional class might have 30 or 40 students. A televised class would have those same students in the room with the instructor but also perhaps another hundred or more, far away. A faculty member accustomed to reading 30 papers or grading 40 tests suddenly might be handed five times that number, all while fielding questions and trying to address the individual needs of each student.

 
  Grace Leonard, dean of social sciences, and Ken Elliot, professor of psychology, at the University of Maine’s Augusta campus, are shown in “command central” for the statewide distance education network.  
To entice teachers into the experiment, the system's administrators agreed to count televised courses as double credits in the faculty member's teaching load. If the instructor's normal load was four three-credit courses, that instructor would teach only two three-credit televised courses for the same pay. Also, if the course enrolled more than 40 students-on campus and off-the instructor would be assigned a grader or teaching assistant. In addition, each participating faculty member would work with a producer-technician who would handle the technical aspects of the broadcasts.

Still, only three Augusta faculty members volunteered the first year. One was sociology professor Jon Schlenker, who readily embraced television as "a new way to reach more students."

A number of his colleagues hesitated in part because of concerns that the quality of learning would diminish over long distances. But Schlenker has helped to lay that concern to rest. He recently completed a study comparing the grades of 37 students on the Augusta campus with 119 at outlying sites, all taking his introductory sociology course. He found no statistically significant difference, a finding reflected in more than 300 national studies over the last 30 years assessing learning over media from radio to the Internet.

"It's simply the case that some instructors are more conscientious than others," said Sue Huseman, the system's vice chancellor for academic affairs. "When you add a layer of technology, obviously you're adding a new challenge for faculty members. But in terms of fundamental quality, the questions are the same as they are in a traditional classroom: How does the instructor interact with students and how responsive is the instructor to their needs? These are universal questions. They're not embedded in a technology."

Indeed, Schlenker has come to believe that technology "makes me a better instructor."

Because distance students don't have the same easy access to instructors for questions, "I've had to become better organized and make my presentations much tighter," he says. As television technology has become more sophisticated, so have the graphics Schlenker uses with his courses, making the material more accessible for visual learners. "It also keeps me fresh," he added. "When the technology or the graphics change, I adjust the course content and presentation to make better use of them. I'm always updating my material, trying new things. Learning over television is a richer experience for me as well as for my students."

Word began to spread. By the mid-'90s, the television network sported four separate channels. Professors at all seven campuses were teaching on the system, and more-although still a small proportion of the faculty system-wide-were clamoring for access. "A growing number of faculty were no longer wondering whether they should do it," Levy said, "but how they could get time on the system."

That worried George Connick. As president of the Augusta campus, he had been not only the architect of the television system but also its resident visionary and chief champion.

 

"It became clear to us that if we wanted this to be a truly comprehensive statewide network, it had to be separated from the influence of any single campus," Connick recalled. In 1995, he proposed transforming the distance learning venture into a separate operation within the university system. When then-chancellor Michael Orenduff backed the idea, things promptly fell apart.

The state was still struggling to emerge from the recession of the early '90s. In response to hard times, the Legislature had held the university system's budget flat for several years, then cut it. Tuition rates had skyrocketed, driving down enrollment, and the faculty had been working without a contract since 1992. Exacerbating matters, the chancellor and faculty had clashed repeatedly over policy on various fronts.

One of those fronts was distance education itself, which was still controversial among the faculty. "There was pressure to sign on," said one professor who asked not to be named. "Some of us felt that we were being told that this was the future, like it or not, and we either had to get aboard or we'd be left behind. That didn't go over well."

When Connick's proposal to spin off the distance learning program surfaced, rumors flew that the television network would become an "eighth campus" with separate faculty and offices. The faculty worried that the new enterprise would gobble up money that otherwise could boost salaries and improve facilities at other campuses. They were concerned that it would shut out all but a select few instructors from access to thousands of additional students statewide, and separate them from the revenue and instructors' job security that those students would bring to the campuses where they matriculate. The faculty circled its wagons.

The rumors, Connick and others assert, weren't true. "We had no intention of creating a separate campus," he said flatly. "One thing we specifically did not want was our own dedicated faculty. We wanted to be flexible enough to offer programs that were in demand, and retire those for which we'd exhausted the market. It was important to us to be able to draw on faculty expertise as we needed it, wherever it was in the system."

Added Levy: "Some faculty and administrators thought that they didn't get needed money because there was a distance learning program. But they were never going to get that money anyway. It became available not because there was a university system, but because the specific concept of distance learning excited the imaginations of enough legislators to be funded specially."

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to effecting the separation was the chancellor himself. According to Connick, "This became a hot-button issue during the ongoing faculty contract negotiations because it was the only system-wide entity that the faculty could target that they knew the chancellor supported."

By all accounts, Orenduff's leadership style was one of command and control. He was not known to solicit other opinions in deliberating over decisions, and he tended to be especially brusque with faculty. "He was not willing to put up with a lot of rhetoric about 'the academic community,'" Connick said. "He was very blunt about telling faculty, 'We live in a new world. Our job is to ensure access to education, not to worry about where in the state students go to school.' Obviously, this caused a great deal of anxiety among campus-based faculty already concerned about their jobs." By 1996, the faculty's intransigence on the issue had played a key part in forcing Orenduff from his job.

His replacement arrived in 1997. Terrence MacTaggart, formerly the University of Minnesota's chancellor, was well aware of the distance learning controversy when he arrived. But, he said, "I had bigger fish to fry.

 
  Sue Huseman, vice chancellor for academic affairs in the University of Maine system, must deal with faculty workload and class size issues created by distance education.  
"We hadn't had a budget increase in seven years," he recalled. "There were 16 bills in the Legislature to radically restructure the state's university system or abolish it entirely. To be involved in a debate about whether it's better to have seven or eight campuses was not the debate to be having. In this state, the only way we were going to approach adequate pay for faculty and staff, and be able to make other needed investments, was through growth. We needed to stop talking about what we needed and start talking about how we better serve the people of Maine."

In framing that discussion, MacTaggart relied on two principles: that change is more enticing when it's invited than when it's forced; and that initiatives that capitalize on existing assets take priority over those demanding new ones.

"In terms of distance learning, I said that we will not have an eighth campus. We have enough overhead as it is, so let's just take that idea off the table. That action didn't resolve all of the faculty's concerns but it was pretty symbolic of a new start." MacTaggart said.

Next, he convened a commission made up of faculty and administrators to suggest ways to implement distance learning equitably and effectively. He also removed the television system's administration from the Augusta campus and placed it under the chancellor's office as a system-wide utility. "Instead of telling faculty that they had to teach at a distance for the good of their souls, we told them that this is an opportunity to reach more students, and if you want to be on it, we'll do our level best to get you access," he added. "If you don't want to use it, there are plenty of faculty on other campuses that will."

Framing the issue in those terms reoriented the debate. "I don't get yelled at anymore about the fact of distance learning when I go to faculty meetings," Levy said with a chuckle. His UNET staff of 87 full-time-equivalent specialists now includes Web course designers, network managers, video editors and student support counselors, all of whom work with faculty to improve existing distance courses and to create new ones. "What I do get yelled at about is, 'We need to expand the technology' or 'We need more support'-and that's a healthy discussion," Levy added.

That discussion has expanded over the intervening years, as the speed with which technology invades traditional academic space has accelerated. Broadcast courses are adding Internet-based discussion forums and chat rooms. Some instructors are moving their entire courses to the Internet, posting their lectures and graphics on the Web. Some are using traditional class sessions only for group work or other enrichment activities, or are abolishing class meetings altogether.

Even the issue of quality has reappeared-although in an unexpected context. "We've all seen enough studies to convince us that technology doesn't necessarily diminish learning," noted Josh Nadel, dean of Augusta's arts and humanities department. "But there are related questions and concerns that remain."

Some Augusta instructors teaching Web-based courses seem convinced that the technology prods students to do better work. "When students speak in a classroom, their words float away in the air," noted Jeffrey Klivans, an associate professor of business at the Augusta campus. "But when they post a comment or question on a discussion board, it stays there for all to see. I can't back this up with data, but it seems to make them more thoughtful and careful about what they say. And because so much of the course communication is carried out over discussion boards and e-mail, I think it also improves their writing."
 
  “The idea was to leave no resident farther than 25 miles from a place where they could take a course,” says Sam Levy, executive director of the Maine state university distance education network.  


But ensuring the quality of a distance course can be grueling for a faculty member. "We have work-related issues that haven't been adequately addressed," sociology professor Schlenker said. "In this spring's semester, I had more than 400 students in my two televised courses. I'm still grading papers even though it's now the first week of summer school. I didn't get a week off between terms, and I'm not paid any more for teaching these courses than someone who has 60 students in a distance course instead of 200. The increased compensation scale that applies to televised courses is equitable only if you teach smaller classes."

For his Internet course, Klivans spends half an hour each week on an open phone line so students can call with questions. He logs an additional hour each week in an online discussion forum, and in a typical day he fields 50 e-mails from students. "An Internet course is 50 percent more work than a television course, which is more work than a traditional course," he said. "It's not more difficult to teach, but it takes time to do the paperwork and keep up with students."

As Schlenker and others struggle to give students personalized attention in courses groaning under huge enrollments, the question of quality reappears. Schlenker does have a teaching assistant to grade the objective parts of tests and handle routine chores. "Some faculty members' TAs do more, reading papers and so on," he noted. But that touches on the ethical aspects of quality, he argues: Students take a course to interact with a professor, not a teaching assistant. "If a student calls me to ask about comments made, or their grade, on a paper, I'd be embarrassed to have to say that I didn't know because I'd delegated the job to someone else."

Faculty members agree that workload and class size limits are issues still in search of a solution. Compensation and help for distance instructors should be keyed to a rising scale of enrollment, they argue, not just fixed at twice the credit value, and sweetened by the help of one assistant.

Even those basic adjustments haven't been codified for Internet courses, according to Nadel. "In some instances they count as double credits; in others they don't," he said. "It's been a matter of individual negotiations." For his Internet courses, Klivans negotiated only a 50 percent increase-less than the 100 percent increase applicable to televised courses, even though Web classes demand more of an instructor's time.

Schlenker is part of a faculty-wide committee spearheading a collective bargaining initiative to create a more graduated scale of pay, time flexibility, and help for instructors as their course enrollments rise. "It's been a soft issue in contract negotiations because only a small portion of the faculty has been teaching at a distance," he said. "But now that more people are becoming involved, the issue is drawing more faculty support."

Not a moment too soon. New faculty members are required by contract to teach at a distance if called upon to do so. Also, Maine and other traditional schools face new competition for students from cyber-courses offered by renowned universities around the world as well as by for-profit enterprises such as UNEXT, which is bankrolled in part by junk-bond king Michael Milken and software mogul Lawrence Ellison and is able to hire the services of stellar academics.

 
  Maine’s university system now operates a distance education network that includes seven university campuses and ten “dedicated learning centers.” In addition, there are about 100 remote sites scattered around the state.  
Still, instructors and administrators agree that faculty will remain irreplaceable. But technology is transforming their role from being "the sage on the stage" to "the guide on the side," serving more as learning coaches, advisors and role models than as data delivery devices.

That new role for faculty in a wired world also will transform the function and meaning of a university, many contend. To begin to discover that new meaning, schools need only to follow one piece of advice, said Charles Colgan, professor of public policy on the Portland campus: "Just do it. The technology is now cheap enough and simple enough. You'll never solve all the problems and answer all your questions in advance. If you try, you'll go crazy. Find a few people who want to blaze the trail in distance learning, give them plenty of incentives and support, and others will follow."

To those who still fear to tread, Levy offers a word of hope. "This isn't a question of 'either distance education or traditional education,'" he said. "Both have vital roles to play. This is about individualized education to an extent we can't imagine today."

Bennett Daviss, a freelance writer, lives in Walpole, New Hampshire.

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