The Evolution of Policy and Practice: Telecommunications-Based Instruction in Oklahoma

Beginning with the establishment of a state microwave network in 1970 and extending through present time with the implementation of the OneNet plan, the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education has been an active player in the field of distance education.[1] Individual institutions in Oklahoma have pioneered telecommunications-based instruction as well, with the Oklahoma State University Educational Television Services, Rogers State College KXON and others as examples.

Much has changed since the early 1970s, with technological advancements far outpacing the expectations of most leaders in higher education. While enhancements in telecommunications systems can be described as revolutionary, the policy mechanisms and processes that have accompanied the technology have been important determinants in the evolution of systems.

This paper examines the evolution of the telecommunications systems in Oklahoma higher education and the state policies that developed at the same time.

Early Televised Instruction

The entry of Oklahoma higher education into the telecommunications arena grew out of a combination of economic factors and state leadership. In response to needs expressed by state industry for access to higher education, leadership in the state system advocated expansion through the use of televised instruction rather than creating all new campuses. In 1970, the Oklahoma State Legislature directed the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to:

  • establish and maintain, as a part of the state system of higher education, a system of televised instruction designed primarily for persons living in industrial communities remote from the campuses of colleges and universities, and for the interchange of classes and teachers between the campuses of the Stateís public and private colleges and universitiesÖ (59 O.S. 2166).
  • Additional legislation gave direction to the State Regents to plan a complete state system that would interconnect all colleges and universities in the state.

    The Oklahoma Higher Education Televised Instruction System (commonly known as Talkback Television or TBTV) was developed as an analog microwave transmission system that provided one-way video and two-way audio. From its modest beginning in 1970, it developed into a system that reached most areas of the state, involved almost one half of the system institutions as originators of programming, and included over 60 receiving locations. The network utilized both point-to-point microwave and ITFS.

    Key policy issues during the early development of the TBTV system addressed academic issues such as residency and transfer of credit. The plan provided for a free exchange of credit, with courses taken via the microwave network fully transferable among institutions. An academic advisory committee composed of representatives from each of the graduate credit providers and regentsí staff was created to aid in developing relevant state policies.[2]

    Other early examples of state policies involving televised instruction were related to what we now think of as institutional and technical issues. For example, state policies determined that only regular faculty who volunteered would teach on the system, and that there would be no additional compensation. Technical issues covered under the policy included a requirement that all instruction be conducted ìliveî; no videotaped instruction was allowed. Additionally, classes offered via the system were required to have additional on-campus students enrolled and present in the transmitting classroom with the instructor.

    Many of the policies were intended to expand educational opportunities while keeping the televised offerings from adding instructional costs.

    Efforts were made in many areas to stress equivalency and parity of experience between students taking televised instruction and that of students physically present on campus, much like state policy for traditional off-campus offerings. Thus, admission and retention standards, course assignments and other academic requirements were specified to be the same for both groups. Equating the effectiveness of distance learning with traditional on-campus instruction was a priority.

    Policy Development & Evolution

    In October, 1977, the State Regents approved a new policy for extension and public service programs that included provisions for courses offered via electronic media or other non-traditional methodologies. The policy itself listed various media and technologies, and acknowledged they would bring growing complexity to the educational process.

    Explicit concerns related to quality control and the need for inter-institutional coordination. Specific provisions dealt with authorization procedures and criteria for approval. Revising the policy in 1981 gained some recognition for the state, and the revised policy was also cited in an analysis of exemplary states published in 1990.[3]

    In the early 1980s, some reorganization occurred at the State Regents office that consolidated policy and administration into a single division for educational outreach. About this same time, requests began to be received from institutions desiring to further their offerings using cable TV and satellite (telecourses).

    In response, State Regentsí staff developed guidelines for courses offered by means of electronic media and included provisions for orientations, minimum contacts, student services, fees and class size. Though policy revisions were approved about this same time, these standards and guidelines were not made a part of the official state policy.

    One of the most significant events to affect instructional telecommunications in Oklahoma occurred in March of 1985 with a grant of $5.8 million from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. With contributions from two other foundations and the state legislature, an ambitious project was undertaken. A significant portion of the funds was applied to major enhancements to the network. Portions of the system were converted to digital microwave, and some voice and data communications capabilities were added.

    Toward the end of the flurry of activity associated with the Kellogg grant, the regents approved a revised policy for educational outreach in 1988. More than an edited revision of the earlier policy, this new policy was organized in a far different manner and was more comprehensive.

    The standards that had previously been recommendations from staff were now incorporated into the official policy. The policy included a statement of purpose, definitions, and sections on educational standards and statewide coordination. Provision was also made to review the new policy after the first year.

    The Educational Outreach General Policy underwent additional revisions in 1990. Many of the more control-oriented features were removed, allowing some institutional flexibility in certain areas and reducing the specificity of Regentsí planning functions. The outreach policy remained a subject of study and revision in 1991 and 1992, with an advisory committee continuing to work with the regentsí staff in revising it.

    In 1994, an off-campus policy was approved that removed all references to electronic media courses. The next year (1995), a new Policies and Procedures Pertaining to the Electronic Delivery of Courses and Programs was approved.

    As with many other states, educational telecommunications in Oklahoma continued to be an area with a great deal of activity in the years following. Each year seemed to provide one (or more) reports from state agencies, legislative committees or consultants. In most cases, developing the technology infrastructure was the focus. A very few gave much attention to the policy issues that would develop along with the technology. And those that did seemed to have little or no effect on state policy.

    The most recent of these reports (ìA Survey of TBTV StudentsÖî in 1995) was a product of a study of the state TBTV system by the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.[4] While the study may have limited usefulness in that it describes operations and perceptions about a system that has been virtually phased out, there are some system-wide policy recommendations included that could be significant. Most of the recommendations relate to policies that may be best addressed at the institutional level, such as faculty rewards, instructional support and operations. System coordination, planning and quality control were also mentioned.

    OneNet, Today's Statewide Network

    In 1992, citizens in the state passed a capital bond initiative that provided much needed resources for higher education, and a portion of those funds was designated for telecommunications. After a very deliberative process involving numerous studies, reports and recommendations, a plan was approved to build an information and telecommunications network for education and government -- OneNet.

    OneNet was developed in part from the State Regentsí previous efforts in telecommunications, and is a partnership between the State of Oklahoma and the stateís telecommunications companies. A portion of the network utilizes infrastructure and investments that have been part of the Regentsí network. OneNet also utilizes existing facilities of telecommunications providers through leasing agreements.

    The OneNet network utilizes digital fiber-optic communications, deploying high-bandwidth services to hubsites across the state. Initial design provided for 33 hubsites, but that number will soon grow to more than 70. Each hubsite has a minimum of one DS-3 circuit capacity, with additional capacity provided as demand grows.

    Full-motion interactive video services are expected to use most of the bandwidth, but circuit capacity provided is sufficient for compressed video, voice, data and Internet services at each hubsite as well.

    Such radical changes in the technology have precipitated changes in the policies and procedures of the State Regents. For example, a digital network promotes a less centralized approach to programming and scheduling. Each site can originate and receive, and an increasing number of public schools are being connected. Conversely, the TBTV system centrally administered the scheduling of the network with a limited number of courses and a broadcast approach.

    In the new system, institutions and schools are empowered to be more involved in determining their own programming and scheduling, and have the capability to partner and collaborate with others across the state as well.

    Policy Challenges

    Despite the currency of the academic policy that regulates electronic media courses, concerns remain among many of the stakeholders, and there is a growing recognition that the policy and its processes should be dynamic. Turf issues, service areas, institutional missions, cooperation, competition and issues of quality are among the concerns. The Electronic Media Policy Committee continues to meet to discuss subsequent revisions. With the emergence of the OneNet plan, there is a renewed interest in the policies that will guide the expansion of educational opportunity in the state and across the globe.

    In the approximate 25-year period that has been described above, state policy has developed from one that was very prescriptive and grounded in the traditional classroom paradigm, to a policy that has begun to examine distance education as something different and worthy of consideration in distinctive ways. Early policies were also more control-oriented; todayís policy has provided for somewhat more flexible approaches. Current considerations of revisions to the policy will most likely result in even greater flexibility.

    The challenges that remain for those charged with policy leadership are difficult: the disappearance of geographic boundaries through telecommunications, the need for institutional flexibility and responsiveness within a coordinated state system, and the myriad threats and opportunities that information technologies present. The solutions that may be required will call for boldness in thinking and an openness to new ways of organizing and coordinating teaching and learning.


    Phil Moss is the Director of Instructional Technology for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. He has been a participant and leader in Oklahoma educational telecommunications for over 20 years, and is a past president of the Higher Education Telecommunications Association of Oklahoma (HETA). Moss holds a Masters degree in Educational Technology (1977), and is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Adult and Higher Education at the University of Oklahoma. E-mail: pmoss@osrhe.edu


    References:

    1. Millard, R. M. (1991), Todayís Myths and Tomorrowís Realities: Overcoming Obstacles to Academic Leadership in the 21st Century, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
    2. Dunlap, E. T. (1975), ìTalkback Television: Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education,î in S. V. Martorana and E. Kuhns (Eds.) Managing Academic Change, pp. 63-69.
    3. England, R. (1990), ìThe Alabama Project,î in M. G. Moore (Ed.), Contemporary Issues in American Distance Education, New York, NY: Pergamon Press, pp. 365-374.
    4. Faculty Advisory Committee to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1995), ìA survey of TBTV students, instructors, and faculty in Oklahoma: Fall semester, 1994-95,î Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

    This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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