The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Distance Education: What Is It? Utilization of Distance Education in Higher Education in the United States

Diane A. Matthews 
Carlow College, USA

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.


Technology-based distance education is emerging as an increasingly visible feature of post-secondary education in the United States (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). Educators have the opportunity to define, design, and manage effective and robust teaching and learning systems, programs, and courses. As distance learning becomes a serious alternative to the standard classroom environment, enormous opportunities and dilemmas present themselves for the players. This chapter examines the technology used in distance education; the type of student utilizing distance education; advantages and disadvantages for the student, the instructor, and the institution in the use of distance education; and the players involved—including higher education institutions, virtual universities, states, and consortia.


Technology-based distance education is emerging as an increasingly visible feature of post-secondary education in the United States (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). Technology is changing the way the university functions as an institution of higher learning. Publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly feature articles about the distance education efforts of various higher education institutions and systems, states, and consortia. Distance education specialists and academic policymakers expect technology to help higher education institutions provide a wide range of programs, including degree programs, to larger proportions of the student population (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).

In distance education, or distance learning, the students and instructors remain geographically apart. Today, the ability to take courses from a remote location utilizing the Internet is referred to as “e-learning” (Quan, 2000); elearning is the dot-com term for distance education. Concepts of lifelong learning, individualized or personalized learning, and time-free, space-free, “just-in-time” learning arrangements have emerged, all of which allow learning away from the traditional campus (American Council on Education, 1996). Distance education is a key strategy in meeting the massive demand for higher education.

Distance education is first and foremost a movement that sought not so much to challenge or change the structure of higher learning, but to extend the traditional university in order to overcome its inherent problems of scarcity and exclusivity. Second, distance education developed as a creative political response to the increasing inability of the traditional university structure to grow bigger (Hall, J., 1995). Distance education dealt with the problem of too many students in a single physical space.

The increasing diversity in demand for education means the virtual campus is a model for the future. Developed societies are moving further from the traditional model, where people complete their education at an early age and then dedicate themselves solely to work (Warden, 1995). Simple desktop computers can now function on the Internet as powerful, multimedia, interactive communication centers. New Internet tools, such as bulletin boards, electronic tests, hyper-linked texts and sources, and enhanced computer systems with greater speed and more memory, allow viewers to see more information and tune in on discussions, meetings, theatrical performances, even operas, around the world (Gallick, 1998). Such features offer rich opportunities for distance education.

Distance learning is emerging as part of mainstream education (American Council on Education, 1996). So, “What is distance education and what is its use in the United States?” To answer this question, we examine the media used in distance education, the type of student utilizing distance education, advantages and disadvantages in the use of distance education, and the players involved.


Distance education employs media in many forms and to varying degrees. It uses mail, facsimile, radio, television, satellite broadcasts, videotapes, teleconferencing, electronic mail, chatrooms, bulletin boards, CDROM, the Internet, and the World Wide Web.

The “first generation” of distance education technologies included print, radio and television. The “second generation” added audiocassettes, videotapes, and fax. Both generations of technology were primarily one-way (asynchronous) communication from the faculty to the student.

In 1985 and for the next ten years, CD-ROM technology was developed and used to deliver instruction. We also witnessed two-way interactive capabilities (synchronous or simultaneous, real-time communication) utilizing computers and computer networks, including the Internet and the World Wide Web. Audioconferencing and videoconferencing came into being. High-quality interactive videoconferencing provides additional enhancements to distance teaching. In videoconferencing, a faculty member teaches a class in a traditional classroom setting while concurrently instructing a different group of students in another classroom via interactive video. Introducing an audio link from the remote site back to the lecturer allows live interaction and enables questions.

The use of the “virtual classroom” is a growing development in distance learning. It is usually based on computer groupware, but can be operated over the Internet. Both groupware—or “courseware”—and the Internet utilize synchronous and asynchronous instruction. In general, the student uses a local computer (usually from home) to access a range of services and facilities. These include online registration, dissemination of prepared course materials (such as the course syllabus, assignments, and practice tests), access to online video materials, and communication with instructors, tutors, and other students via electronic mail (email). Frequently, courses have their own Web page where instructors post their syllabi and assignments, as well as links to other informative Web sites, periodicals, and shared audio and video files. “Classes” and discussion groups are conducted in online chatrooms; assignments and exams are emailed to the instructor. Discussion topics are posted to discussion or bulletin boards (“threaded discussions”); students comment on the selected topics, and they may also post new topics.

The Web is used in teaching in two different ways. A Web-Assisted Course (WAC) has a traditional classroom setting and uses the Web to exchange email for communication between students and instructors in chatrooms and to download course materials and obtain grades. A Web- Based Course (WBC) is a stand-alone course delivered to students who do not meet in a traditional classroom; these students take the course from a remote location via the Web.

The United States Department of Education (1999) conducted a survey on distance education and found the following regarding the then current use and the planned use of technology:

Distance education courses were delivered by asynchronous Internet instruction at 58% of post-secondary institutions, by two-way interactive video at 54%, and by one-way prerecorded video at 47% of the institutions in the 1997-1998 academic year. Nineteen percent of the institutions offered courses using synchronous Internet instruction. Thus, more institutions used several types of video technologies and the Internet-based technologies than other modes of delivery. (p. 38) Institutions planned to start using, or to increase their use of asynchronous Internet instruction as a primary mode of delivery more than any other type of technology, with 82% of the institutions planning to start or increase their use of this technology. Two-way interactive video (cited by 61%) and synchronous Internet instruction (cited by 60%) were also indicated as technologies planned for an increasing role in delivering distance education in the next three years. (p. 39)

The methods by which higher education institutions provide instruction are changing rapidly. The integration of computers into teaching as we are now experiencing may be one of the most significant contributions to education ever known (Buikema & Ward, 1999). Now faculty have a growing range of distance education tools allowing them to bring information resources, simulation capabilities, and other enhancements to instruction.


Distance education has a long history of serving isolated and remote learners (American Council on Education, 1996). Today, in addition to serving the learner who lives far from campus, distance education is aimed at part-time students, time-strapped adult learners, and students trying to work full time while earning degrees. Virtual classrooms are not aimed at the traditional market of young college people, but rather are meant to serve disciplined adult learners (Guernsey, 1998). Students are typically older than traditional undergraduates (On Line, 1998, May 22). Interestingly, the typical distance learning student is a 43 year old woman, with a $73,000 household income, who is looking for a career change or career enhancement (Lucas, 1998, as cited in Buikema & Ward, 1999). The age profile of students, whether men or women, suggests that many will have family commitments. It is unlikely that they would be willing or able to leave home to attend a fulltime, campus-based course (Miller, Smith & Tilstone, 1998). Distance learning primarily attracts women with children. Sixty-six percent of the adult distance education market is female, and 80% of them have children (Bremner, 1998). As a rule, the distance learner is serious, disciplined, conscientious, and demanding (O’Leary, 2000). According to professors who teach online courses, virtual classes require unflagging self-discipline, self-motivation, and efficient time management by the student.

In a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education (1997) in 1995, more higher education institutions offered distance education courses designed primarily for undergraduate students (81% of the institutions) and graduate students (34% of the institutions) than for any other type of student. Professionals seeking recertification were targeted by 39% of institutions offering distance education courses, and other workers seeking skill updating or retraining were targeted by 49%.

In the fall of 1998, another student population emerged—students already enrolled in regular classes eager to ease their schedules by taking courses online. Many colleges and universities find students enrolled in distance education courses simultaneously enrolled in on-campus courses (“The Costs of Teaching,” 2000). Many of these students work part-time or full-time jobs and they need the freedom to manage their time ( Guernsey, 1998).


There are benefits and drawbacks to offering distance education. Advantages accrue to both the student and to the institution; however, there are numerous disadvantages that must be considered.

Benefits to the Student

Benefits to the student include: increased access to higher education (particularly for the nontraditional student), flexible scheduling of personal time, convenient location (students can attend class from any corner of the globe), individualized attention by the instructor, less travel, and increased time to think about and respond to (via email or discussion boards) questions posed by the instructor (Matthews, 1999). Shy students can anonymously speak up in chatrooms. Often students who participate in online courses say they get to know one another better than in a traditional class (Buikema & Ward, 1999); chatrooms build a sense of community. Increased access to certificate and degree programs can have the further benefit of encouraging students to undertake these programs or to complete them more quickly (Turoff, 1997, as cited in U.S. Department of Education, 1999).

Benefits to the Institution Offering Distance Education

The institution also reaps benefits from offering distance education. It increases enrollment, attracts more qualified students, increases retention and graduation rates, and increases institutional prestige (Buikema & Ward, 1999). In addition, offering distance education attracts new teaching staff (those interested in distance education), allows instructors freedom to be more creative in the classroom, reduces the need to build and maintain university campuses and buildings, offers a new level of communication with students, requires the university to keep abreast of new technology, and signals the public that the institution is forward thinking and technologically advanced (Matthews, 1999).


There are numerous disadvantages to the student, the instructor, and the institution that must be considered when deliberating distance education. These disadvantages include, but are not limited to, the following:

Costs of Entry and Ongoing Support

The entry and ongoing support costs to quality distance education can be substantial. Distance education is a capital-intensive business. Investments in state-of-the-art technology, computers, virtual libraries, central servers and data networks, program development costs, ongoing technical support, equipment maintenance, hardware and software upgrades, and marketing can be expensive. Early results from a study conducted by the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications on the costs of alternative forms of instructional delivery suggest that modes of delivery that rely on technology consistently cost more than face-to-face instruction (“The Costs of Teaching,” 2000).

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commissioned studies at six universities to explore the financial costs and potential profitability of distance learning. The universities included Drexel University, Pace University, Pennsylvania State University, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, and the University of Maryland-College Park. The researchers who conducted the studies concluded that “universities aren’t losing a lot of money on distance learning, but they aren’t making much, either. How well the programs appear to be doing depends, in part, on how their costs and revenues are defined” (Carr, 2001, p. A42). The costs of expanding programs are, in some cases, greater than anticipated. “Several distanceeducation leaders predict that some administrators will slow or stop their expansion into online learning as they develop a better sense of the costs” (Carr, p. A41). Robert E. Myers, executive vice president of the University of Maryland’s University College, states that it is a myth that online learning is cheaper to produce and cheaper to deliver than face-to-face instruction (Carr). “After proclaiming that distance learning would save money, business schools are now discovering that ‘presence’ teaching is less expensive” (Ramanantsoa, 2001, p. 12).

One sobering reminder of the extent of the difficulty in implementing distance education is California Virtual University (CVU). CVU served as a clearinghouse for distance education programs for 98 public colleges and universities in California. Less than one year after its creation in 1997, CVU ceased operations. Although CVU faced a number of difficult issues, the decision to cease operations came after the venture’s partners—the state’s three public college systems and the Association of Independent Colleges— balked at putting up $1 million a year for three years to cover proposed operating costs for advertising and marketing (Blumenstyk, 1999; Young, 2000, June 30).

Accreditation and Quality Assurance

According to Emmert (1997) in New England’s Journal of Higher Education and Economic Development:

One hindrance to globalization of distance education is the issue of quality control—an area in which U.S. institutions begin with a disadvantage. Today, quality in American higher education is assessed by a complex, some say arcane, system of accreditation. The American accreditation system relies heavily upon the assessment of proxies for educational quality, such as hours spent in classrooms, student-to-faculty ratios, availability of facilities, and total resources spent on each student. Many other nations, particularly in Europe, approach quality control through competency examinations for each discipline. Such competency assessment de-emphasizes time to degree, instruction mode, and the reputation of the institution providing the instruction. These nations therefore may be better positioned to adopt quality control in distance education. (p. 21)

Furthermore, the Internet is an ideal breeding ground for diploma mills; a school could be fraudulent (Terry, 2000). Students must determine if a school is properly accredited.

Concern for Online Course Quality

The overall lack of standards in distance education is an issue (Imel, 1996). There is no standard format for conducting an online class; therefore, course quality is a concern. In January, 2001, the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest unions of educators, approved 14 quality standards for online colleges. The guidelines call for, among other principles, clear standards for content, technical support and counseling for students and faculty, and training for professors in effective online teaching methods (“Is Online Education Off Course?” 2001; Carnevale, 2001).

The quality of instructors in the online environment is an issue. Research has shown that some virtual universities require minimal qualifications when hiring instructors. “The instructors hired …need only a master’s degree; they do not enjoy tenure; they are replaceable cogs in a profit machine” (Stross, 2001, p. 37). Hiring distinguished faculty is a luxury when evaluating the profitability of online education. “In fact, it is the opportunity to not hire fulltime Ph.D.’s [sic] that makes the online university such an attractive financial proposition” (Stross, p.37).

In addition, business leaders, whose needs are often cited by promoters of online education, seem less certain about the quality of virtual degrees. In an October 2000 survey, 77% of human resource officers did not consider a degree from an online-only institution to be equivalent to a campus-based diploma (Press, Washburn & Broden, 2001). As participation in distance education by prestigious universities increases, and students with online degrees join the work force, business leaders will be able to reevaluate their position.

Other critics argue that online learning could “facilitate the rise of a two-tiered educational system—prestigious campus-based diplomas for the children of elites, and mass-marketed online degrees for those less fortunate” (Press, Washburn & Broden, 2001, p.35).

Labor Intensity

Distance education is more time-consuming (Guernsey, 1998); it is more labor intensive to teach an online class than it is a regular chalk-and-talk class (Bremner, 1998). It takes an average of 18 hours of personal time to create one hour of stand-alone Web-based instruction. This is a two- to fourfold increase over a traditional classroom lecture (Boettcher, 1998, as cited in Buikema & Ward). The conversion of curriculum from classroom to Internet is not easy or intuitive. “It is vastly harder than preparing a classroom course, 20 times the effort,” says Eli Noam, professor of economics and finance at Columbia Business School (Svetcov, 2000). In addition, there is usually more time spent corresponding (email, chatrooms) with students enrolled in an online course than in a traditional classroom (Buikema & Ward, 1999). An American Federation of Teacher’s survey revealed that 90% of those polled found a significant difference in preparation time necessary for the development of a distance learning course (“Is Online Education Off Course?” 2001). A recent University of Illinois study found that “high-quality online teaching is time- and labor-intensive” (Press, Washburn & Broden, 2001, p. 34).

Effectiveness of Distance Education

The effectiveness of distance education is a hotly debated issue. An oftcited report compiled by Thomas Russell in 1999 entitled The No Significant Difference Phenomenon indicates that learning outcomes of distance education students are similar to the learning outcomes of traditional on-campus students. Russell compiles this information from 355 research reports, summaries, and papers. This body of work also suggests that the attitudes and satisfaction of distance education students are generally positive. Other reviews of this body of evidence are more critical, arguing that there is no conclusive evidence to indicate this. Still others argue that the existing evidence on the effectiveness of distance education is generally inadequate because of experimental design flaws in the research (Van Dusen, 2000). In addition, other studies report that students see distance education as a convenient but less effective and less satisfying alternative for delivering education. Among academics, the debate continues to rage about the effectiveness of distance education.

Commercial Versus Pedagogical Forces Driving Distance Learning

“While most educators support using technology to broaden educational opportunities, a growing number fear that commercial rather than pedagogical considerations are driving the distance learning trend” (Press, Washburn & Broden, 2001, p.35). A number of universities are determining how this technology can be used to generate a profit, rather than how this new technology can enhance the quality of learning. Many universities have launched for-profit subsidiaries to market online courses, which has aroused strong opposition among professors. Virtual education threatens to shift control over the learning process from college educators to administrators and marketers.

In addition, government officials, anticipating a boost in demand for post-secondary degrees, but reluctant to commit resources to public education through increased taxation, embrace distance learning as a way to expand “cheaply”—by using technology rather than bricks and mortar (Press, Washburn & Broden, 2001).

Need For Faculty and Staff Training

Distance education requires a high level of instructor and staff training (Connell, 1998). Staff and faculty need to be trained in the use of technology (Hall, P., 1996). Faculty also need formal training in curriculum design and development, and in the development of techniques that promote learning for distant students.

Development of Educational Materials

There is a need to develop world-class educational materials (Emmert, 1997). Learning materials must be constructed that anticipate the learning problems of the isolated student and provide a wide range of activities that will support learning (Hall, P., 1996). Pedagogical adjustments are required, particularly in the areas of class participation and course-related activities.

Inaccessible Libraries

Most academic and corporate libraries provide remote access to materials, including journals, newspapers, magazines, and reference books. To serve distance learners, institutions will have to digitize local materials, such as course-related print sources. In addition, students need to have access to books and other print sources for research; a recurrent difficulty with the distance learning institutes is providing access to libraries. Consequently, there is a need to convert existing physical collections into digital form (Lynch, 2000).

Faculty Compensation Issues

There are significant and substantial challenges to faculty compensation practices and existing norms of faculty development, including issues of promotion and tenure, release time, course load, course updating, publishing, faculty mentoring, and consistency across departments (U.S. Department of Education, 1999).

Inadequate Infrastructure and Technical Support

In many institutions there is limited technological infrastructure to support distance education (U.S. Department of Education, 1997). Communication systems can be unreliable (Hall, J., 1995) and equipment failures numerous. In addition, ongoing technical support for students and faculty is lacking or insufficient at many institutions.

Technology Limitations

Vagaries of the Internet, such as dropped connections, network congestion, and software incompatibilities, are an issue. In addition, current bandwidth in most homes is limited to 56K; therefore, interactive video may be too choppy and distorted for student use. Performance limitations of the Internet inhibit the full use of rich multimedia content and communications.

Equity of Access For Students

Distance education requires that students have access to technology. The cost of equipment and access charges are issues for lower-income students.

Inadequate Reflection, Conversation and Intellectual Dialogue

Distance learning might be inadequate for deliberation and discourse among students, their instructors, and their peers. Distance education limits the extent to which students can reflectively browse in their subject matter with their peers and engage in exploratory discussion of their discipline (Curran, 1997). There is value in being at a university campus interacting socially and intellectually with fellow students and teachers (Plant, 1996).

Maintaining Sufficient Student Contact

A fundamental problem with distance education is how to maintain sufficient student contact, including timely assistance and adequate performance feedback (Hall, J., 1995). The Further Education Funding Council, in visits to 50 colleges during the year 2000, and in surveys of 1,400 distance learning students, found inadequate guidance and support, leading to “ unacceptably low” achievement rates. The report stated that most colleges do not take the initiative to keep in contact with students (Tysome, 2001).

On the other hand, recent research also indicates that through email and chatrooms, faculty are establishing better contact with students than through a traditional classroom environment.

Possible Fraud in Authenticating Submissions

There is always the problem of authentication (Hall, P., 1996). How do we verify that persons sending assignments and tests are who they say they are? Distance education offers a unique venue for academic dishonesty and requires a software infrastructure to support authentication.

Legal Issues of Intellectual Property Rights

Traditionally, teachers have been considered the owners of lectures and course materials. The market potential of online education has led numerous schools to attempt to claim these rights, prompting protest from faculty organizations (Press, Washburn & Broden, 2001). In addition, syllabi or course outlines on the Web might be absorbed into the public domain and could be used and adapted by others (Gallick, 1998). Ownership of intellectual property is a source of debate.

Inadequate Financial Aid Policies

There are restrictions on financial aid availability for distance learners (Selingo, 1998). The “50% rule” prohibits the granting of federal aid to students who are not in a classroom seat at least 50% of their academic program. This class-time requirement has effectively barred online colleges from arranging federally backed financial aid for enrolled students.

Global Issues

When looking at distance education from a global perspective, translation remains an issue. In addition, because of differences in culture, the content of the educational materials, the values implicit in the materials, and the underlying assumptions about educational processes need to be reviewed and might need to be transformed (Hall, P., 1996).

Underdeveloped countries might not even have access to technology. In a keynote address concerning global distance education to officials from 30 nations, Jacques Hallak, assistant director general for education of UNESCO, states, “There are political concerns about sovereignty and control, important differences in education policy and regulatory environments and in the ways education institutions are chartered and governed, as well as the realities of language, culture, and geographic perspective” (Young, 2000, September 29, p. A46).

It is a dynamic time for post-secondary education institutions facing the opportunities and challenges brought by technological innovation. There is no question that the use of technology has advantages and disadvantages for both users and providers of distance education.


Distance education in the United States is offered by individual institutions as well as a range of new, some may say “unconventional” providers of education. According to the U.S. Department of Education (1999), other providers include:

Consortia or collaboratives that represent cooperative pooling and sharing arrangements among institutions (typically, traditional colleges and universities). In these arrangements, multiple institutions join together to provide distance education on a statewide or regional basis. The authority to award degrees and credits, however, remains with each member institution and does not shift to the consortium…. Contracted or brokered arrangements that are configurations of institutions, faculty, or other providers brought together solely for the purpose of delivering distance education. In contrast to consortia or collaboratives, the authority to award degrees and credits rests with the contracting or organizing entity, not with the originating institution….

Virtual universities, or institutions that offer most or all of their instruction via technological means and are distinguished by their nearly exclusive use of technology as the educational delivery device. (p. 6)

A sampling of the various types of players in distance education in higher education follows.

Many states have active distance education programs. For example, the Education Network of Maine is an independent arm of the Maine university system. Colorado established the Colorado Electronic Community College as the state’s 12th community college ( The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1995, December 8, as cited in U.S. Department of Education, 1997). Among the other notable education systems are EdNet in Oregon, the Iowa Communications Network, the TeleLinking Network in Kentucky, and BadgerNet in Wisconsin (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).

California State University (CSU) is one of the leading practitioners in distance education (Primary Research Group, 1997). CSU is the largest system of state colleges in the country, with 23 campuses and 255,500 fulltime students. CSU embraces the digital revolution, including the virtual classroom and online applications. To finance educational technology, CSU is proposing the California Educational Technology Initiative—a 10-year, $4 billion revenue partnership with four private corporations: Microsoft Corporation, Hughes Electronics Corporation, GTE Corporation, and Fujitsu Ltd. (Gallick, 1998). This initiative will have a major impact on distance education at CSU.

Universities, such as Columbia, Cornell, Duke, NYU, Temple, Maryland, and Nebraska, have all established “for-profit” subsidiaries to market distance education programs. Many more schools are collaborating with commercial and nontraditional providers. For instance, Columbia Business School, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science have agreed to develop content for Cardean University, a virtual school for business education (a division of UNext) launched by Oracle CEO Lawrence Ellison and former junk-bond magnate Michael Milken (Terry, 2000).

Other states and institutions have joined together in cooperatives and consortia to support and offer distance education. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation is an example of such a cooperative. It consists of 12 large institutions including Pennsylvania State University, the University of Iowa, Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Illinois ( The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1995, December 8, as cited in U.S. Department of Education, 1997).

As more colleges consider collaborations as a way to move quickly into distance education, two notable models are Western Governors University and the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus. Both span huge geographic regions, but their approaches and records diverge (Carnevale, 2000, May 19, p. A53).

In the west, 13 members of the Western Governors Association created Western Governors University (WGU), a degree-granting virtual university (Ashworth, 1996). WGU has administrative headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and academic headquarters in Colorado (Gallick, 1998). The university was founded in 1997 and began enrolling students in September, 1998. This virtual university has no campus and relies on computers and other technology, such as interactive video, to deliver instruction (U.S. Department of Education, 1997). Students can gain knowledge in courses offered by 40 colleges and universities in 22 states and Guam. WGU brings together, under a single academic banner, courses created at a variety of member institutions, and awards degrees under its own name. WGU promises to revolutionize higher education by offering degrees—based on a new, competency-based testing system—that will compete with those offered by existing colleges.

On the other hand, WGU found, as have other players, that entering into the distance education environment can be arduous. “WGU…has failed to meet any of its enrollment targets, is running a deficit, and lacks accreditation” (Carnevale, 2000, May 19, p. A53). Today, WGU enrolls 200 degree-seeking students. When first conceived, WGU anticipated 500 degree-seeking students by the year 2000 (Carnevale, 2000, May 19; Carr, 2001). Utah’s auditor general released an audit of WGU, criticizing it for low enrollment and poor performance in competing with other distance education programs (Carnevale, 2000, October 6). WGU also found that gaining accreditation is a slow process. After two years, in November, 2000, WGU was awarded candidate status in the accreditation process. WGU expects to gain accreditation after further evaluation, which typically takes an additional two to five years. In WGU’s favor, other virtual universities, such as Jones International University and Regents College, have already gained accreditation. In addition, Regents, like WGU, also awards degrees through competency-based assessments (Carnevale, 2000, December 15).

The Southern Regional Electronic Campus is a consortium of 16 southern states. It is made up of more than 262 colleges and universities that enroll 20,000 students in distance education courses. The Electronic Campus lists more than 3,200 courses (it began with 40 in 1998), and 102 degree programs (Carnevale, 2000, May 19). The Electronic Campus is a loose collective that started out providing members little more than a common Web site to publicize online offerings. Students earn course credits and degrees from the individual participating institutions. The Electronic Campus has a policy of not setting strict rules for its member institutions. It is essentially a free-trade zone where states can develop their own online course material and then share it with other states. Its purpose is to share resources and help market the courses that its institutions create.

In contrast to WGU, the Southern Regional Electronic Campus “hasn’t attempted to reshape academe or to compete with anyone, but rather, to give students easy access to online courses offered by participating colleges” (Carnevale, 2000, May 19, p. A53). Many new collaborations are being modeled after the Southern Regional Electronic Campus rather than WGU.

Officials of WGU announced in November, 1998, that they were establishing a distance education consortium with Britain’s well-known Open University. The new organization, called the Governors Open University System, serves as a front end for the two universities, and students enrolled in either institution are able to take courses through the other (McCollum, 1998). In 1999, Britain’s Open University opened a new sister institution in America—the United States Open University.

In higher education, the highest-profile virtual college is the University of Phoenix, which has a complete curriculum and a sophisticated delivery system (O’Leary, 2000). Started in 1989, the University of Phoenix is the largest private school in the U.S., enrolling more than 75,000 students; 13,800 students from 25 countries take online courses. In September, 1999, the Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix, raised $70 million from investors on Wall Street in a stock offering tied directly to the distance education unit. It is the first test of a public offering of stock in a distance learning institution. Table 1 lists a few virtual universities.

Table 1: A few virtual universities


Year Founded


Capella University


500 courses, Certificates, BS, MS, MBA, PhD



100 courses, Certificates, MS



7,000 courses through member institutions

Jones International U.


80 courses, Certificates, BA, MA, MBA

Kaplan College


500 courses, Certificates, AS, BS, JD



100 courses through Cardean University, MBA

Investors are pouring millions into Web education. So far the biggest player is Michael Milken, his brother Lowell, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison. They own Knowledge Universe, a venture hatchery for education and training companies. The Washington Post Company is also knee-deep in edu-ventures, including the ownership of Kaplan College. Wall Street magnate Herbert Allen of Allen & Co. has earmarked $20 million to launch and sustain Global Education Network, a clearinghouse of courses from America’s top colleges, including Brown, Wellesley, and Williams. (Svetcov, 2000). In 2000, billionaire Michael Saylor donated $100 million toward the creation of an online university that will offer an “Ivy League” level of education free of charge.

Technologies for an advanced Internet are now being actively studied for use in higher education by a three-way partnership that includes government, industry, and academia (Houweling, 2000). The “Internet2” project focuses on new technologies and applications and on the convergence, or the unified delivery of services such as text, voice, video, and data. Since it began in October, 1996, the Internet2 project has grown to include over 150 universities, more than 50 companies, and dozens of other organizations focused on advanced networking (Houweling, 2000).

As distance learning becomes a serious alternative to the standard classroom environment, enormous opportunities and dilemmas present themselves for the players in distance education. Software developers, telecommunications companies, hardware makers, publishers, Internet and Web service providers, and many other technology- and education-based services are developing systems for this emerging market that capitalize on the special capabilities of different technologies.


The ever-accelerating growth in information technology and the proliferation of distance education are exciting developments in higher education that could bring about some of the most profound changes to the ways we teach and learn. They provide extraordinary opportunities to transform the when, where, and how of what we teach (Matthews, 1999). Taking a class and ultimately receiving a college degree are being added to the list of stay-at-home electronic activities.

Educators have the opportunity to define, design, and manage effective and robust teaching and learning systems, programs, and courses. It is no longer a question of whether or not the new higher education will develop, but how fast it will occur (Connick, 1997). Adopting new approaches to education is not an option—it is imperative. No generation will have the opportunity that we have to put a mark on the look of education in the future. Technology has penetrated all aspects of education and will change it dramatically.


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