Distance Education in Mainstream Higher Education: A Strategic Issue at Conventional Universities

by Ulrich Bernath

in: Internationalism in Distance Education: A Vision for Higher Education. Selected Papers from the first International Distance Education Conference, The Pennsylvania State University, June 1994, ed. Melody M. Thompson with an Introduction by Michael G. Moore. Research Monographs No 10, American Center for the Study of Distance Education. The Pennsylvania State University 1996, pg. 45 - 51


Combining distance education, with its open and flexible approach to teaching and learning, and conventional education, with its research and teaching expertise, has the potential to greatly benefit students and institutions. However, organizational and structural changes will be needed before the two approaches to education can be effectively integrated. Issues of faculty development, student support, application of new technologies, funding, and program and curriculum development will need to be addressed by specialists working in teams and will need to be supported and encouraged by competent institutional leadership. Although this integration is developing in different ways within different European educational institutions, participants in the European Open University Network are working together to give a global dimension to distance and open learning and to ensure quality in an international context.


La combinación de la educación a distancia con su enfoque abierto y flexible en la enseñanza y el aprendizaje, y la educación convencional con su experiencia en la investigacion y enseñanza tienen un enorme potencial para beneficiar a los estudiantes y las instituciones. Sin embargo, sería necesario hacer cambios estructurales y organizacionales antes de que los dos enfoques educativos puedan integrarse de manera efectiva. Aspectos como el desarrollo académico, el apoyo estudiantil, el uso de nuevas tecnologías, la financiación, el desarrollo de programas y currículos, necesitan ser dirigidos por especialistas que trabajen en equipos y sean estimulados y apoyados por un liderazgo institucional competente. Aunque esta integración se está desarrollando de diferentes maneras en las instituciones educativas europeas, los participantes de la Red Universitaria Abierta de Europa están trabajando juntos para ofrecer una dimensión global al aprendizaje abierto y a distancia y para garantizar la calidad en un contexto internacional.


During the past twenty-five years, distance higher education has made remarkable progress and has had ist greatest success in specialized or "dedicated" distance education institutions. Currently, distance education also is a matter of widespread concern for traditional colleges and universities: it has become one of the remarkable forces developing and transforming institutions in higher education to better meet the needs of their students. The significant involvement of conventional universities in distance education is a recent trend that continues to increase importance.

These trends raise new questions that must be answered by universities and their faculties and staff. One of these first and most urgent questions is that of making resources available to support nascent and growing distance education efforts in conventional universities. These and other such questions lead to necessary and far-reaching considerations of the appropriate organizational structures for promoting distance education in colleges and universities.

Assumptions in Distance Education

Distance education is a term that still lacks a common definition among academics and the general public. Distance education comprises a variety of diverse and specialized concepts and methods to reach students who either are geographically separated from their teaching institution or who are not continuously taking part in campus-based classes. Print-based correspondence, teleconferencing, and broadcasting are some of the media used to deliver instruction and to support interaction between teachers and distant students. The media used to reach distant students are highly visible and therefore are more likely to represent "distance education" to the general public than are the actual techniques and methods used to teach students at a distance.

Due to the nature of distance teaching, organizational and technological aspects of delivery to distant students are important, but they cannot be separated from content of the education itself. The educational challenge to distance teaching is to overcome the barriers of time and distance; this is of particular importance in higher education.

The public acceptance of distance education as measured by the number of students involved, the number of distance teaching institutions, and its importance in legislation around the world, is growing rapidly, in part because of the creative potentials and non-traditional practice inherent in the concept. The history of distance education reflects a preference for and expression of non-traditional and innovative methods; this history can be viewed as a series of overlapping eras that currently are having a favorable influence on systems of higher education.First, specialized institutions, which are still in existence, built up a century of experience with correspondence methods. Then, during the past twenty-five years, new specialized open and distance learning universities have developed other distance teaching concepts to deliver instruction to degree-seeking students on a large scale. Finally, a new stage seems to be beginning; distance education is becoming an integrated element in higher education, and, consequently, is contributing to its transformation. This process can be seen as the beginning of a new era in distance education.

The above statement is supported by three observations:

  1. Access to higher education and to education for non-traditional and adult students remains a top political and societal priority. The mere expansion of the existing systems of higher education is limited by fiscal constraints and by the changing student demographics. These factors suggest the need to look for new solutions.
  2. Relationships and interactions between teachers and students are evolving throughout higher education, with the most significant change being a breaking away from the pattern of the teacher as the primary source and the student as dependent receiver of knowledge of information. Furthermore, increased student demands and expectations and the high value placed on individual independence are putting new stress on our educational institutions.
  3. New information and communications technologies are another strong force for radical changes in higher education systems. Although a time lag between development and widespread application can be expected, these technologies already are changing our methods od delivering instructions and for communication between teachers and students. This distance education instructor, in the role of facilitator, mentor, tutor, and counselor, can use technologies to meet the students' expectations and needs - even while separated in time and space - through individual communication and ongoing dialogue.

Dual-Mode Universities and Distance Education

Open and distance teaching universities came into existence distinct from traditional universities. They have demonstrated remarkable new methods that serve the needs of large numbers of students in higher education. These universities are experienced in developing, teaching, and evaluating their educational concepts. They also have created various decentralized models of student support and, in some cases, have collaborated successfully with conventional universities.

The Open University of the United Kingdom (OUUK), based on the concept of large-scale open access to education on the university level, is the outstanding example of a specialized national distance teaching university. During the 1970s and 1980s, the OU pioneered educational developments around the world with the establishment of approximately two dozen specialized distance teaching universities, colleges, and adjunct institutions. Their common feature is large-scale distance education and/or open learring.

Open and distance universities vary in efficiency and quality, and their scope remains limited. Programs need to be expanded, and flexible adjustments to regional and local demands in both national and international programs are indispensable. What is needed for future development is the bridging of appropriate distance teaching concepts to the research capacities and teaching expertise at conventional universities. Conventional universities and colleges also are seeking problem-solving strategies in their own efforts to serve large numbers and a changing make-up of students. Conventional universities represent the source of credentials and potential areas for further program development; some of them are already experienced with large-scale distance education programs characterized by decentralized adaptation and necessary local adjustments of existing distance education programs.

Internationally, many institutions characterized as "dual-mode" universities are involved in distance education. Some operate more like specialized distance teaching universities in implementing distance programs through specialized units as an extension of the university's core academic affairs. Others are being transformed by the integration of distance teaching concepts and a mix of teaching modes into their core programs. New trends and demands will favor the latter approach. One of the challenges in higher education will be for organizational developments in conventional universities to match trends in distance education.

Organizational Challenges for Dual-Mode Universities

Appropriate responses to future developments in distance education and relationships with conventional universities will require attention to fundamental issues. Challenging teachers to accept new roles raises the issue of faculty development. Instructors will face a new type of student, one who expects instruction outside of ordinary classes and schedules. Educators will have to apply new instructional technologies, develop new programs, and rethink curricula. We must create new networks for delivery and communication, as well as for student support. Such a seemingly unattainable list may deter good will and hinder small but decisive steps toward achieving any integration of distance and conventional modes and goals. However, conventional universities must begin to take strategic and well-planned steps in this direction.

The preceding analysis can provide an orientation for new models for the development of higher education in which distance education is integrated into conventional education and in which existing resources are reallocated rather than increased. Institutional models with such a new orientation need to be embedded in rather than added to universities. They should not be conceptualized as supporting individual distance education programs, but rather as a basis and a framework for delivering instruction across disciplines and through a variety of distance teaching media.

The development of distance education programs requires a variety of specialists: faculty with expertise not only in their disciplines, but also in multidisciplinary teamwork; instructional designers; media production and communication specialists; and student support and advising staff. Expertise and resources for most of these functions already exist at most universities, but they have not been applied for distance education purposes in the absence of a clearly defined mission, appropriate concepts, and coordinated plans.

Within a conventional university, a distance education unit that operates as a clearing house rather than an administrative unit, that guides rather than administers developments, cannot successfully incorporate all the faculty, staff, and technical resources necessary to conduct a variety of distance education activities. Distance education units of the latter type are necessary to promote and coordinate the funding, development, implementation, and evaluation of programs. A central unit for distance education must reflect practice and carefully weigh decisions relating to the reallocation of resources for programs and the development of participating faculty and staff. Such distance education units, because they deal with faculty and students, need academic coordination.

Academic coordination is not yet routine in distance education and will depend on competent leadership. Qualified leadership and management will facilitate high-quality, long-lasting developments, including participation in national and international networks of distance teaching programs.

Organizational Diversity and European Networks: A Case Study

These approaches to developments in distance education can be evaluated in the diverse context of European distance edueation and open learning practice. Networking is one of the obvious features characterizing not only the large-scale operations of specialized distance teaching universities but also the activities of dual-mode universities and colleges.

One of the most advanced examples of an inter-institutional distance education network is the European Open University Network (EOUN) created by the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU). Participants in this network are distance and open learning institutions of the following types:

These specialized European distance and open universities provide regional or local bases to support their degree-seeking students. Conventional universities also are taking part in these networks to overeome the limits imposed by state boundaries and campus-based teaching in higher education. The European Open University Network, building on the experience and practice of both types of institutions, is establishing a network of EuroStudyCentres to give support to distant students in international distance teaching programs, promote transnational course delivery, provide a European and global dimension in distance and open learning, and assure quality in an international context.


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Note: These references are arranged hierarchically, rather than alphabetically, to reflect the nature of their influence on the development of the thoughts presented in this paper.

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