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Taking Off with Distance Learning—
Are You There Yet?  Are You Ready? Is That Where You Want to Go?

Is it only two-three years ago that a tidal wave of enthusiasm for distance learning seemed to threaten to overtake all of traditional higher education?   I find it is good to be where we are today. People are still very interested in distance learning, but we – all of us -- are starting to sort out just where distance learning is a good idea, and possibly, where it really is evolving into something else. 

As part of this sorting out process universities – large and small – are starting to implement the technologies of the web and email for on-campus learning. In fact, some universities are questioning about whether it even makes sense to “differentiate between residential instruction and instruction at a distance.” Kathy Christoph from UW-Madison posed this question as part of a distance learning session this summer. A related comment this summer was from the vendor of software for creating online courses. He said that almost all of the uses of his program – at least initially – is from faculty planning online activities as part of campus courses. 

This trend towards use of technologies in on campus courses can be a two-edged sword. Those who felt comforted that their institution would “never go” into distance learning may face a great deal of “encouragement” to move to online learning for traditional campus courses. Online learning is already here in many forms, and it is may not relevant whether or not it is part of a distance learning program. This means lots of changes for all of us.

Some of the questions that faculty often ask about distance learning focus on the state of campus readiness or department readiness for implementing flexible learning. This column suggests a few questions that can serve as guideposts for assessing readiness and commitment. These questions can serve also as a set of “next steps” that campuses may want to consider on their journey to flexible campus learning programs.

Getting Ready for the IT Journey

This first stage is really a WWWW stage. In this case the WWWW refers to Waiting, Watching, Wondering and Wishing. People are Waiting for a better time; Watching to see what others are doing; Wondering what fits for them; and Wishing they knew what to do. 

This is natural. This is the stage of curiosity and exploration. This is a stage of committee formation. Faculty, staff, students, and administrators come together and talk about what is happening. Administrators feel good when these committees are in place because they feel that they are Doing Something.

A good WWWW committee can actually be a wise thing to do. A good committee will serve as a campus catalyst for change. A committee can explore options, examine what peer faculty and peer institutions are doing, and learn from others’ mistakes.

In the field of innovation theory there are five types of folks classified according to their propensity for change.  The five types are –Innovators, Early Adopters, the Early Majority, the Late Majority and the Laggards. The innovators are the folks who rush to embrace the new technology. These innovators often receive more resources with which to experiment, and some glory.  The down side is that many innovators are considered too unusual to be typical. This is also a good time for administrators and others to go and visit other campuses. And it is a good time to invite IT leaders to campus to support a campus-wide dialogue. 

In late 1998, if your campus is in the WWWW Stage with respect to flexible on line learning, you are probably not reading this. This stage is being described so that it can be seen in comparison with the other three stages. However, here are some questions that can be used to confirm if an environment is in this 4W stage. Maybe you have friends and colleagues who are in such an environments through no fault of their own. Keep in mind that the checklists are not to be considered a scientific tool, only a set of guidelines to support a thought process for moving to a new IT environment.

Checklist Questions for the WWWW Stage:

  1. Was your faculty committee on the use of technology for teaching and learning formed in 1995 or later? If yes, this is a good sign you are a 4W. 
  2. What percent of the faculty in your department, college, or university use email and the web almost daily use in teaching and learning? If the number is less than 30% you are probably in the WWWW stage. 
  3. What percent of your department or college courses use email? If the percentage is less than 10%, you are probably in the WWWW Stage.
  4. What percent of your campus classrooms are connected to the campus network?  If the percentage is less than 15% you are probably in the WWWW stage.
  5. What percent of your students have 24-hour access to a computer?  If it is less than 15%, you are probably in WWWW stage.

Note:  In situations of transformational change such that we are experiencing, it is generally not possible for all parts of a large organization to move forward simultaneously. So these questions may be answered in the context of a department within a university, for example.

Stage of Additive Instructional Technology: Testing and Adding On

This stage of the IT journey is significant, as it is the time when real funds are spent on instructional technology projects. In the 4W stage, funds might be available for small projects, but it was considered very experimental. By contrast in the Additive Stage, this is a time when the committee recommendations of larger pilot projects are implemented. This is the time that instructional technology is added on to existing processes and work and starts being used in operational modes. During this stage, instructional technology is not completely trusted. Rather it is to be tried and tested in limited, but important areas. An exit is always kept in sight.

During this stage, instructional technology is generally in the hands of the innovators, and early adopters. It is also the time that the technology is more expensive to implement and is most likely misunderstood, feared and rejected. Technology for teaching and learning is considered an awkward appendage. It is considered as a curiosity and certainly possibly good for some things, but not much.

This is also natural. The beginnings of any technology are often awkward, unrefined, with many rough edges. Many of us respond to our first look at a new technology with disdain.  Many of us can sympathize with the Western Union person who in 1876 who looked at an early telephone and said that the  ‘telephone’ had too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.

Our new networking technologies share a key characteristic with the early telephone. A telephone owned by one individual is not very useful. A telephone only becomes useful when it is part of a comprehensive infrastructure where the telephone is widely distributed and widely used. As many of you know, we all support universal access to telephones through our phone bills, and will likely be supporting universal networking access as well.

Our campuses are experiencing this same infrastructure phenomenon with computing, networking, email and the www. The work of teaching and learning can only fundamentally change with universal access by all faculty and students. The “in between” stages are expensive and awkward in terms of dollars and time. Also, when new technologies begin emerging, they often do not totally supplant older technologies. Rather we seem to watch in amazement how each of the technologies provides more specialized and differentiated services. So we have more technology to support — at least in the very long short term.

Checklist Questions for the Additive Instructional Technology Stage:

Here is a list of questions to help you assess if your department or college is in the Additive IT Stage.  You are probably in this stage if: 

  1. Your faculty committee on the use of technology for teaching and learning was formed sometime between 1992 and 1995. And if your faculty IT committee has a significant recommendation role in specifying new IT directions.
  2. The percent of the faculty in your department, college, university that are using email and the web for almost daily use in teaching and learning is between 30 and 50%. 
  3. The percent of your campus courses that use email is between 10% and 30%.
  4. The percent of your classrooms that are connected to the campus network is between 25 and 35%.
  5. The percent of your students who have 24-hour access to a computer is less than 40%.
  6. Your department or college has access to a technical support person dedicated to both specific disciplinary and general technical needs.
  7. Your department or college has a webmaster who supports faculty in the creating web courses, resources, and environments

Note: There will no doubt be lots of questions about this, so let’s clarify what this might mean. A webmaster is a person who is responsible for the design and development of the web site for a particular unit. The webmaster is responsible for ensuring that faculty have a secure, reliable and maintained webserver with a website for every course that is offered with online resources and requirements. 

This webmaster does not have to be physically located in a college or department, but the person does need to have the responsibility of supporting the server and the software for the courses within a department or college. One question that needs to be answered for planning purposes is “How many faculty or courses can one webmaster support?” Assumptions as to just what the webmaster will need to do and what the faculty will need to do for themselves will be similar to the older question of how many faculty did one department secretary support? 

No matter what the ratio is —whether it is one webmaster for six courses, 12 courses or 20 courses a semester, or one webmaster for 8 faculty, or 15 faculty, we know that we need to plan for this function. We also know that the recommended ratio will be a range since all environments will differ.  We also know that the ratio will depend on the effectiveness of the tools available, the number of new courses, the experience of the faculty and the number of students in the courses.

Another common characteristic of this Additive stage is that funding of IT is usually accomplished with special one-time monies, grants, or innovation funds, and without any expectation of continuing multiyear funding. The IT projects primarily affect the innovators, and early adopters, but not the larger community of users.

Stage of Integrated Instructional Technology

The stage of Integrated IT is a significant leap forward. In this stage, the value of computing and networking and information technology to the higher education enterprise has been recognized and the organization is doing what it can to make the shift to a Transformational Stage.  The goal of this stage is effective access, support and knowledge out to the full campus community.

This stage is recognized by a complete campus wide networking operation. Nearly 100% of the faculty and staff are communicating by email. Funding for computing—for faculty computers, for student labs, for technical support —is being achieved by mainstream funding. The need for life cycle funding is recognized and is being planned. Student support for computing on campus is shifting from student labs to support of mobile computing, and planning is considering the role of wireless technologies for the future.

Most of the pieces of the new infrastructure to support the new teaching and learning environment are in place. But the structure – because it has been built piece by piece, project by project, is not necessarily efficient, logical, or cost-effective. There has been no opportunity to reengineer from the ground up, with the vision of the new technologies in place.  This stage is an integrated stage, but it may be characterized by patchwork quilt of solutions, programs and people.

Checklist Questions for the Integrated Instructional Technology Stage:

Here is a list of questions to help you assess if your department or college is in the Integrated IT Stage. You are probably in this stage if: 

  1. The percent of the faculty in your department, college, university that are using email and the web for almost daily use in teaching and learning is between 70 and 90%. 
  2. The percent of your campus courses that use email in courses is between 30% and 60%.
  3. The percent of your classrooms that are connected to the campus network is between 40 and 70%.
  4. The percent of your students who have 24-hour access to a computer is between 40 and 80%.
  5. Your department or college has technical support personnel within your unit dedicated to both specific disciplinary and general technical needs.
  6. Your department or college has a webmaster. 
  7. Your faculty and students can access the campus library and a significant set of digital resources from home, dorm or library.
  8. The physical plant committee members no longer ask if you want networking connections to new buildings.
  9. Faculty have access to travel funds for learning how to effectively use teaching and learning technologies. Well, yes, this is far-out, and wishful thinking.

Stage of Foundational Instructional Technology 

This is the stage that is yet to come for most of us.  This is the Stage of the New Place in which our teaching and learning environments have moved through the stages of change and have arrived at a new place—the New Paradigm. This new paradigm may resemble the “Web Gathering Place” where the primary place of organized instruction is a Place on the Web, and where the classroom and other physical places have become only secondary gathering places.

There are a number of institutions that have moved to this place by a simple declaration of a new context. These are the schools that have instituted a policy of full student access to computing—24 hours a day. The total number of these schools is somewhere in the range of a “few dozen”, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education article of 12/5/97.  Combined with other data it is probably safe to estimate that there are between 60 – 70 institutions nationwide with this requirement. These schools have made a strategic decision to create a teaching and learning environment where computing and network access is no longer an issue.

While the action of simply declaring a new context is attractive, it is not wise or easily done without a great deal of planning. Student access is only one part of the full infrastructure that is required for this to work. Some of the other pieces that need to be in place include faculty access and support, technical support for students, campus networking wiring infrastructure, and an atmosphere of trust and willingness to live with uncertainty and a certain level of problem solving for the first years of such a program. Many of the features of the previous stages need to be in place for a campus to successfully be able to “declare” a full access environment.

Checklist Questions for the Foundational Instructional Technology Stage:

Here is a list of questions to help you assess if your department or college is among the very few that are in the Foundational IT Stage. You have probably reached this stage if: 

  1. All faculty and all students (100%) have 24 hour access to computing and networking tools.
  2. Your department, college or campus has designed or renovated campus facilities assuming access to computing, web and in support of flexible online teaching and learning environments.
  3. All courses on your campus have a web site with informational and instructional components, and your faculty know how to update their own course sites.
  4. The percent of your classrooms that are connected to the campus network is between 75 and 100%.
  5. Your faculty and students are all knowledgeable with the basic core of productivity software.
  6. Your faculty and students can access the campus library and a significant set of digital resources from home, dorm or library.  In fact, if a hurricane or snowstorm comes and your campus network is up, the work of the university can proceed almost without interruption.
  7. You have complete certification or degree programs that students can complete without coming to campus or by coming to campus only once or twice per program.
  8. Students can complete admissions information, financial aid applications, and all other administrative details of being a student without coming to campus or by coming to campus only once or twice. 
  9. Your department or college has implemented plans for redesign of curriculum and learning expectations and requirements now that the New Paradigm is possible.

As mentioned above, these checklists are intended as informal starting drafts for discussion and planning. Perhaps we can – together expand—and refine them. I would also like to note that this column is the result of a recommendation from a participant at a distance learning seminar at Syllabus 98 this last summer. I would like to hear again from the person who suggested this.

There is a yearly survey that provided some starting datapoints for these checklists. My thanks to Casey Green for an advance copy of his Campus Computing 1997 report, the Eighth National Survey of Desktop Computing and Information Technology in Higher Education. Another good reference is Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovation, 1995.

 

judith@designingforlearning.org
Revised June 4, 2006
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2010