It is not difficult to counter the challenges that distance education lacks equivalency to more traditional face-to-face methods in the area of academics, a.k.a. student learning. Distance education is nothing new and there is plenty of published empirical literature on No Significant Difference. Still, when I tell people that I attend Penn State online, I usually get one of a few different looks – confusion, surprise, skepticism. I never considered an online program before Penn State, to be honest, because (at the time) I considered Penn State the only name big enough to cause that pause. I can just see the wheels turning as they work to reconcile their attitudes towards a Penn State education with their attitudes towards an online education. What can I say; there is still much work to be done. For those already working in their chosen field, such precaution may be unwarranted. Those of us looking ahead to graduate programs and mid-life career changes need to work every angle into its most favorable light. That is why I am a defender of distance education. The challenge is not in the providing of proof, it is in the convincing.
Today I read Bill Keller’s OP-ED piece from the October 2 issue of The New York Times, “The University of Wherever.” This was not my first encounter with the news that Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig will take their popular Stanford University “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online and make it open access. Thrun, Norvig, Stanford Engineering – these are big names – and there has been quite a bit of open discussion and backchannel dialog on this and other up-and-coming open access learning opportunities in #change11, an open learning experience known as a MOOC (massive open online course) on change at the epicenter of education, learning, and technology. So what is the Stanford name going to do for open access education and what happens when the exchange of tuition $ for credits earned is removed from the higher education equation? Does it matter? Does anybody care? Higher education as a whole ought to be paying attention, but will they? There may be no formal credit for the majority of participants in this course, but what it is not lacking is interest, with well over 100,000 learners worldwide. You can bet that open access advocates will be watching this experiment closely.
So why does a major player like Thrun take on this challenge? Thrun’s motivation is clear; “Literally, we can probably get the same quality of education I teach in class for about 1 to 2 percent of the cost.” Agreed, and in today’s economy, many (most?) can’t afford the romanticized vision of fountains and bell towers and grass-filled quads. Denial is no longer an option. Change is a given. Change, however, does not equate to removal or replacement. Like Thrun, I am not against the traditional residential experience, nor do I imagine a future without the college campus. I have no interest in replacing ivy halls and ivory towers with cinder block warehouses full of server racks. What I am interested in is the creation of distance education that offers the learner a fuller, more robust experience – an experience with built-in opportunities beyond academic achievement. Not the same college experience, not a mirror image of the classroom, but a community experience just the same. A community of learners for social and academic interaction. This is where Thrun and I part ways. John Hennessy, Stanford’s president, goes so far as to say that “there is nothing quite like the give and take of a live community to hone critical thinking, writing and public speaking skills. And it’s not at all clear that online students learn the most important lesson of all: how to keep learning.” Apparently, Hennessy isn’t familiar with No Significant Difference. Both men portray distance learning as a second-rate option and that message only serves to reinforce the stereotype and stigma that advocates (as well as graduates, students, and instructors) are already working to overcome. Regarding Thrun, he believes that the traditional campus experience has many things which cannot be provided online. I whole-heartedly disagree, Sir. It’s not that they CAN’T be provided; it’s that they AREN’T being provided. The difference ought to astound you. If you’re a distance learner, it ought to enrage you.
The question is what to do about it…
Is distance education just a doorway to a degree?