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LARGER SCALE DISTANCE LEARNING INITIATIVES
by Diane Vines, Ph.D.
The involvement of multiple campuses in larger scale distance learning
initiatives significantly increases the complexity of issues which must
be considered in program design. The most significant "system" or
"scale" issues are: interactivity; faculty responsibility/oversight;
choice of technology; ownership/revenue utilization; student assessment;
integrity and credibility of student work; facilities and equipment;
student services; admissions; fees; and articulation. Some issues,
always requiring special attention in a distance learning program, are
favorably affected by the increase in scale. These include: maintenance
of currency; faculty support services; program evaluation; library
resources; accurate marketing and recruiting; student ability to deal
with the technology; and cost effectiveness. Other considerations are
both affected favorably and made more difficult by the increased scale.
These include: faculty training; and long-range planning, budget and
policy development, including fee/tuition issues and articulation. This
paper will describe the larger scale virtual university activities of
the California Virtual University and the California State University
system and deal with the issues listed above. The California Virtual
University and the CSU activities will be cited as case studies of large
scale distance learning programs. The speaker will describe ways in
which the CVU and CSU will approach these issues.
DEFINITION OF DISTANCE LEARNING
For the purposes of this paper, distance learning is defined as learning
in which the majority of the instruction/learning takes place when the
faculty member and the student/s are not in the same place. Both
synchronous and asynchronous learning are included in this definition.
DESCRIPTION OF THE CALIFORNIA VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY
The California Virtual University (CVU) is a cooperative venture
involving the California Community College system, the University of
California system, the California State University system, the
University of Southern California, Cal Tech and Stanford University.
The mission is: to promote workforce preparation and economic
development for California; provide for the global export of California
education and training; and provide expanded access within California to
postsecondary education. The long-term goal is to provide a full range
of offerings. The CVU will be presented globally as the California
"brand" of higher education and will be developed by the participating
colleges and universities in cooperation with the private sector and key
California government agencies. Accreditation will remain with the
participating public and independent colleges and universities.
The CVU will draw on California's unique assets: The high quality of
public and private institutions of higher education within one
geographic boundary; California's world leadership in key industries
such as information technology and entertainment; and the fact that
California has a critical mass of venture capitalists, multimedia and
telecommunications companies and others with special skills.
DESCRIPTION OF CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY ACTIVITIES
The 23 campus California State University (CSU) system is conducting a
planning process that is parallel to the CVU planning process. Like the
CVU, the CSU plans to leave quality and academic control, accreditation,
intellectual property and revenue generation/sharing, and the granting
of credit to the individual CSU campuses and their regular governance
processes. However, the system with the involvement of faculty leaders
and system and campus administrators is grappling with the thorny issues
of articulation and reciprocity, formal faculty support and training,
the provision of student services at a distance, service areas,
governance and quality issues.
ISSUES OF QUALITY AND PROGRAM INTEGRITY FOR LARGER SCALE DISTANCE
Because the accreditation for the CVU and any CSU effort remains with
the individual colleges and universities, issues of quality,
intellectual property and ownership, academic control, student services,
academic policies remain with the local campuses. In this way, many
issues of scale are avoided. However, during the planning process, the
items in the guidelines provided by the Western Interstate Commission
for Higher Education (WICHE), the American Council on Education (ACE),
and the Regional Commission of Higher Education have received special
accommodation/consideration. Those items that must be addressed in some
cases are favorably affected by the largeness of the scale while others
are rendered more difficult by the scale of the distance learning
THE EFFECT OF SCALE ON ISSUES REQUIRING SPECIAL CONSIDERATION IN
DISTANCE LEARNING PROGRAMS
Interactivity: Timely interaction among faculty and students.
In order to maintain appropriate interactivity in the absence of
traditional "office hours", it is important to consider limiting the
student/faculty ratio to allow for timely interactions among students
and faculty. This is problematic if there is undue pressure for cost
effectiveness at the expense of quality. Another alternative is the use
of faculty support persons to perform those routine interaction tasks
(such as handling logistical questions). For large scale operations, it
may be necessary to create an entirely new position which is a hybrid
between graduate student/administrative assistant/part-time
Faculty responsibility/oversight of the educational process.
With increased size, a program will need increased flexibility in the
ability to use support staff appropriately. Such accommodations may
require formal negotiations in a collective bargaining environment.
Choice of technology: Technology appropriate for the program/s.
With multiple programs, multiple media options must be available
to the faculty.
Maintenance of currency of offerings
With multiple programs, currency must be carefully monitored. The
number of students in any one program will not affect the currency
requirements for the program; in fact, the larger an individual program
is, the more faculty who will be involved in providing input in the
maintenance of program currency.
Clarity of ownership/revenue utilization policies
With large scale efforts, policies must be more complex, with multiple
ownership/revenue utilization options.
Appropriate faculty support services
With large scale distance learning programs, there is an economy of
scale that is achieved in faculty support, especially online support
Again, large scale distance learning programs provide the opportunity
for cost effective faculty training. With large scale programs
involving multiple media delivery systems, the training needs of faculty
become more complex but the costs for up-front development and ongoing
training and support can be amortized over a larger number of students,
thereby increasing the cost effectiveness.
Student assessment: of capability and appropriate use of the
information. With increased scale, especially if the increased size involves
increasing the number of programs offered, there need to be multiple
options for student evaluation. For example, in rural settings it may
be necessary for students to seek out local proctors (such as
ministers and librarians) who are willing to certify that a student took
the examination and mail in the exam directly to the faculty member.
Evaluation of program effectiveness
With increased size/scale, program evaluation actually is facilitated
since the sample or cell sizes are large enough to effectively perform
Integrity and credibility of student work
Any distance education environment requires multiple methods for
students to present their work. With an increased number and complexity
of program offerings, the range of options for presenting student
work needs to increase and, therefore, the complexity of maintaining
integrity and credibility increases. Strategies for ensuring such
integrity and credibility must be developed by the program.
In addressing the issues of access to and use of library resources by
contracting with online search and full document delivery services,
there is an economy of scale that allows large scale distance learning
programs to negotiate favorable licensing and service agreements.
Appropriate facilities and equipment
For distance learning programs generally, it is necessary to utilize
off-campus facilities and equipment, often in industry-based settings.
With large-scale distance learning situations, the requirement for
planning and ingenuity increases.
Full range of student services
As the size of a distance learning program increases, it may be
necessary to divert resources generated by off-campus students for
on-campus student support services not used by off-campus students to
provide these services at a distance. Electronic access to these
services is often the most appropriate but consideration must be given
to the provision of such services in a face-to-face environment as
necessary. Often this can be accomplished through contractual services
with local experts or by the working student's employer.
Important consideration must be given to the means for resolving student
complaints. This issue is important for all distance education students
but must be carefully considered in large scale operations in order to
maintain the sense of responsiveness and personal attention.
Accurate marketing and recruiting
With large-scale programs, there is an economy of scale for marketing
Accurate admissions information
With all distant students, accurate admissions information is best
ensured through electronic access to a WEB page. However, admissions
offices can easily be overwhelmed in large-scale operations even if
electronic access is available; since this is the initial contact point
for the student with the campus, it is important that the admissions
function be efficient and friendly.
Student ability to deal with the technology
Again, a good system of education and support, when properly funded, can
serve large numbers of distant learners as effectively as smaller
numbers. In fact, there may be an economy of scale, although the sheer
numbers are larger.
Institutional long-range planning, budget and policy development which
assures program viability and effectiveness. The viability of distance
learning programs is most often challenged by the fact that the student
population is not large enough to make the course offerings cost-effective.
Provided there is adequate institutional commitment to a distance
learning program, increased size increases the likelihood that the highly effective
"cohort" model will be cost-effective for the duration of the "cohort's"
program, in spite of the inevitable attrition of "cohort" members.
Consideration must be given to in-state and out-of-state fee/tuition
issues for any distance learning program although the larger the scale
the larger the significance of such decisions. Articulation and
reciprocity also become significant policy and budget issues for larger