Year in Review: Who will Thrive and Prosper in the Pivotal Year Ahead?

December 10, 2001

Farhad Saba, Ph. D.


2001: Year of Consolidation

This was the year that distance education consolidated its position in institutions of higher education, and the corporate world. In 1995, about 30% of institutions of higher education were involved in some form of online education. Today, almost all institutions have students who are off-campus and are reached by the Internet, the satellite, print or a combination of these communication systems.

The corporate world has also invested heavily in online education. Various corporations ranging from auto manufacturers to banks and chain retail stores support training of thousands of their employees online, and via the satellite.

A Closer Look

This rosy picture, however, needs a closer look. While distance education and eLearning has become mainstream 2002 will be a pivotal year in the contemporary history of the practice.

As the New Year unfolds, practitioners and decision makers will increasingly realize that they have to make a strategic decision. In making this decision, they essentially have two choices:

    1- To adopt a model of distance education and eLearning, which is as close as possible to face-to-face instruction, or

    2- To unleash the real power of distance education and eLearning

Those businesses and universities which take a conservative approach will realize that technology-based education is considerably more expensive than face-to-dace education. The challenge for institutions of higher education will be particularly formidable in sustaining a conservative approach to technology-based education as they will have to face decreased financial support from the state treasuries. In fact, towards the end of 2001, we have already seen a few institutions of higher education, such as Columbia University, folding their for-profit distance education operations.

Who Will Thrive and Prosper in 2002 and Beyond?

The organizations that understand distance education is fundamentally a different form of teaching and learning than face-to-face education will thrive and prosper. This is not to say that one of these forms of education is superior to the other, or that they are mutually exclusive. Depending on the subject matter, characteristics of students, and objectives of a program it could include a hybrid approach.

Nevertheless, there are some fundamental differences which make distance education and eLearning very different than the place-bound centralized systems of education which evolved in the 19th, and the 20th century.

In a nutshell, the industrial era needed centralization, uniformity, and a top-down system of management. The post-industrial era, in contrast, will require decentralization, diversity and a self-organized and emergent system of management.

Some institutions will continue to use technology to offer a centralized and uniform system of education. Their graduates will fulfill a particular need in the job market, but a need that will decrease as the new century will unfold. Other organizations which understand the decentralized, self-organized and emergent characteristics of the new market will see an expanding demand for their graduates. They will thrive and prosper.