In Depth Analysis: Distance education and the three cultures of the university
By: Farhad (Fred) Saba, Ph. D.
Founder and Editor, Distance-Educator.com
Distance education is a post industrial endeavor. It defies the mechanical rules of the separation of the learner and the instructor by space and time. It transcends these two dimensions and brings the learner and instructor into a virtual space in which direct communication and collaboration is not only possible, but is enhanced as compared to classroom instruction.
Given the post industrial nature of distance education it is no wonder that the practice is not expanding as fast as it should in higher education.
The reason behind this slow progress is that there are three different cultures at work in higher education.
- The pre industrial culture of most faculty
- The industrial culture of the administrators
- The post industrial culture of the students
These three cultures are not synchronized with each other. This lack of synchronization impedes the progress of distance education.
…moving administrative culture of the university to a future where computers are used for individualized learning experiences for each student is necessary to bring institutions of higher education to the post industrial culture.
Faculty are generally solo workers, the few that have moved into the post industrial distance education not withstanding. They are not benefiting from the division of labor that is required for a post industrial enterprise such as distance education. Rarely, they benefit from the assistance of instructional designers, course developers, evaluators and other professionals, such as, graphic artists and videographers to create and present their courses. They craft their classroom instruction one lecture at a time and do not benefit from the provisions of industrial work that makes their every day chores automated.
Administrators on the other hand are industrial workers. To meet the demand of today’s mass higher education they use post industrial means, such as the computer, to provide a standardized one-size-fits-all educational experience for as many students as possible. They cannot afford nor do they strive to individualize education, as one of the major goals of the post industrial distance education.
Students, however, know either objectively, or intuitively, that they must work in a post industrial society and economy in which industrial standardized solutions are not going to be as much in demand as situation-based context-oriented creative solutions. They, therefore, have begun to design and manage learning experiences for themselves that would provide them with the unique critical thinking and problem solving skills they need in their career. As such, they are individualizing their learning despite the craft oriented non-standard classroom learning experience, which does not necessarily respond to their individual needs. While the administrative structure of the university compels students to move at the same pace with thousands of other students, they also are increasingly in search of alternative means and modes of education that would provide them the pacing with which they are comfortable to proceed.
A major challenge of the universities in the years to come is to synchronize these three cultures. Offering differential staffing to departments and divisions to assist faculty and moving the culture of the faculty to post industrial work is a step in that direction. Also, moving administrative culture of the university to a future where computers are used for individualized learning experiences for each student is necessary to bring institutions of higher education to the post industrial culture.
If this synchronization takes place, not only the quality of learning would increase, but cost would come down too, as students would not be required to move forward at the same pace. Some would move forward faster, thus saving money. Others would move slower, however, they receive personal attention and would not waste resources in remedial education which has proved to be of little value.