Teaching in a Wired World
Maine learns the lessons of distance education
By Bennett Daviss
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).
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