Distance learning dilemma debated

David Hyland

Interactive television and Web-based teaching is upon us. But some area college administrators, professors and concerned citizens wonder whether the trend is a good thing.
About 100 people attended Wednesday’s forum at Coffman Union to discuss the implications and opportunities, as well as the possible problems that come with an increased role in distance education.
“It really has the potential of doing what the introduction of the book did in the 1500s,” said Victor Bloomfield, professor of biochemistry and chairman of the Faculty Consultative Committee, who headed the panel.
Interest in exploring the possibilities of distance education has increased dramatically with more universities taking advantage of the latest technological capabilities.
Recently, officials at universities in California have begun investigating distance learning as a way to handle the over-capacity of students at their universities, said panelist Laura Koch, University associate director for semesters and associate professor in General College.
Bloomfield said such a program is a potential option for the University.
“If you don’t have to educate people on campus, then you don’t have to build classrooms and parking lots and dorms,” Bloomfield said. “Of course, you sacrifice the human contact.”
But panelist Ann Hill Duin, University vice provost, said learning through distance education has no different an impact on learning than “the truck that delivers our groceries changes our nutrition.”
Traditionally, distance education focused on independent and distance learning through the mail. In recent years, however, the preponderance of Web-based courses and interactive television courses has grown.
Interactive television involves teaching through two-way televisions while Web-based courses involve instruction through e-mail and Web chat rooms.
Currently, the University has a handful of pilot Web-based courses on topics ranging from microbiology to rhetoric, Bloomfield said.
Donald Sargeant, panelist and chancellor of the University’s Crookston campus said his campus offers 360 courses through distance education and an interactive television program reaching 104 sites across Minnesota and neighboring states.
Another aspect of distance education discussed at the forum was the Virtual University initiative. The initiative, being constructed jointly by schools across Minnesota as well as private companies, is to build a “single front door” to all the higher education opportunities on the Internet, enabling people to investigate what courses, curriculum and materials are available throughout the state.
Sargeant said Crookston expects to offer an additional 30 to 45 courses when the Virtual University becomes operational.
The Virtual University program was adopted not only to enhance state educational opportunities but also in reaction to increased competition from other educational institutions’ Web-based learning programs. Bloomfield said private companies might also consider offering courses for classes with large enrollments.
Despite the interest and the potential, many officials have expressed concerns about the programs.
“I’m particularly concerned about the quality of the services, of the learning that goes on,” said Koch.
She added that the University should provide quality education to students but “without jeopardizing what we do here by way of resources.”
Other concerns expressed at the forum ranged from educating and motivating faculty members to the need for a larger infrastructure to handle an increased role and costs.
“It clearly holds a lot of good stuff in it, but there are these problems with it,” Bloomfield said.