Exclusive Editorial: Three Cultures in Colleges and Universities and Distance Education

September 2, 2003

We begin this academic year with a marked increase in interest in distance education by students, administrators and faculty in higher education. The U. S. Department of Education recent report indicates that enrollments in courses taught at a distance reached more than 3 million in 2000-2001, and if the same rate of growth has continued in the past two years current enrollments should be about 6 million. Despite this growth, only 8% of undergraduate, and 10% of graduate students take part in learning at a distance. Also, although there are no recent statistics, Distance-Educator.com has estimated that no more than 16% of faculty are involved in teaching courses at a distance. So, there is still a lot of room for growth in the field. That is if the practice fulfills some of its promises.

One of the expectations of adoption of information technology in organizations is reducing costs. In the past few months, institutions of higher education despite investing bullion of dollars in information technology infra-structure have increased tuitions anywhere from 15 to 48% and in some cases much more than that. For example California community colleges increased their tuition by 100%. In its April 2003, BusinessWeek magazine called this situation a “crisis.” Referring to higher education the author said:“…this cornerstone of the U.S. economy is threatened by escalating costs, diminished revenues, and a troubling inability to manage the crisis.” (Symonds, 2003).

There are several types of impediments for distance education in colleges and universities. Among them is how such institutions are structured, and how they have co-opted the practice of teaching and learning at a distance in their current structure, instead of restructuring their organizations to benefit from the field. While educational institutions have co-opted distance education, their organizational structure is not conducive to the development and growth of the field. The challenge of our field, today, is to respond to the following question: How can distance education as a post-industrial information-based idea survive in institutions that were created to serve industrialized mass education, with faculty who are rewarded to remain crafts men and women and work in a pre-industrial culture?

A broad look at education indicates that there are three cultures in each institution. These cultures are very different but work in parallel to each other without the synergy that would make them more effective. These are:

The Pre-Modern Culture of Faculty –Faculty live in a pre-modern environment as craft persons. They are in charge of their course in the sense that they create the entire course, design it, deliver it, and evaluate the results. They are in charge of managing the whole process. There is no division of labor required for what they do, as modern organizations may require. Information technology is not required by them either. Faculty, in general, can do business with a light bulb, a piece of chalk and a blackboard. Any additional technical devices or technological processes, such as instructional design, would simply increase the cost and complexity.

The Modern World of Administration –Administrators in schools and universities live in a modern environment as defined by a bureaucracy. They are responsible for industrial mass education of hundreds, if not thousands of students. They work in organizational structures that are developed around division of labor. They use technology to the point that enables them to sustain the bureaucracy and uphold its operations by making sure that all students receive the same treatment, as if though they had no individual differences.

Post-Modern Entities –Certain groups of professionals work in post-modern structures. They not only benefit from division of labor and technology, but they use these techniques to develop new solutions that would meet the individual needs of learners with flexibilities, and efficiencies that would be expected in a post-industrial society. Some professionals working in continuing, extended and independent studies, distance education and virtual libraries fit this category.

This is not to say that any of these cultures is superior to the other. Faculty are tasked to teach a certain number of students, but they are primarily rewarded if they conduct research, publish and share their ideas throughout the academic world. Administrators, on the other hand, are faced with accommodating thousands of students through a system that is primarily structured to deal with them in groups of cohorts, and not as individual learners. Distance education, in turn, is a student oriented practice and culture. This divergence of interests and goals is partially responsible for distance education not yielding the results that it should. Under such circumstances, the cost of education increases at very high rates.

To deal with this situation we are faced with considering several policy alternatives

    1- Find points of synergy among these three cultures; keep the true character of each of them but try to provide an organizational structure in which all three can prosper side-by-side as parallel universes.
    2- Split institutions to those that are dedicated to teaching or research. (This is a policy consideration that is currently under review in the United Kingdom).
    3- Establish distance education operations as auxiliary organizations to the university in the form of for-profit, or non-profit entities. (This policy has failed in certain institutions, e.g. Fathom.com at Columbia University; but is showing impressive results in other organizations such as The University of Phoenix online).
    4- Reorganize educational institutions to infuse the post-modern culture and prepare the universities and colleges to perform in the 21st century by responding to students as individuals, while resolving the issue of economy of scale through information technology.

As the current academic year unfolds, educators will face one or a variation of these policy choices, and the decision they will make will define the character of distance education for years to come.