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Developing Strategies for Networked Education

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The raging growth of distance learning extends the reach of traditional educational approaches. Assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, one institution has developed a progressively expanding, networked distance education program. Reports from participants are highly favorable. Future advances in the technology suggest the possibilities of a virtual classroom over a global network, and of reaching markets that were hitherto inaccessible.

With an enrollment of more than 1,700 students, the University of Dallas (UD) Graduate School of Management (GSM) is the largest MBA-granting institution in the Southwestern United States. Founded in 1966, it has a target market of employed professionals. Eighty percent are full-time workers, while 20% are full-time students, mostly international. During the past 33 years, GSM’s educational scope has broadened to serve a wider student clientele with 12 different programs, domestic and international partnerships with corporations and other universities, and a larger student and faculty population. GSM is no stranger to distance learning, having started broadcasting courses in the late 1960s. The purpose of this article is to review the evolution of distance learning strategies, up to and including the extensive use of the Internet.

 

Strategies in Distance Learning

GSM has delivered education using distance learning techniques for over 30 years. At first, this was accomplished by using a one-way educational video network in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Five years ago, GSM began a partnership with PRIMEDIA Workplace Learning, a training company that uses a US-wide satellite network, to deliver a full MBA program in Health Services Management. Students in this program never have to come to campus. More recently, GSM has begun offering courses using corporate video conferencing networks, establishing alliances with these corporations so that graduate management classes can be taught over corporate networks to their employees at various sites across the country. Finally, GSM now offers courses on the Internet. Students may take these courses from anywhere in the world through the use of a Web browser.

 

GSM’s distance learning strategy has evolved from these experiences. The major elements are:

1.          Develop partnerships in which GSM provides the educational courses, while the partner provides the network and access to a relevant target market.

2.          Utilize various forms of delivery, such as video and Internet, to reach audiences that have access to the particular network.

3.          Build a support structure that can deal with the challenges of delivering courses at a distance.

Partially, the GSM strategy for distance learning developed from the evaluation of the relevant strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat (SWOT) appraisal.

 

Discussion of SWOT

 

Strengths

 

•     Experience

•     Qualified professors

•     Existing programs are a natural fit

•     Reach students otherwise unable to attend

•     Partnering

•     Young people grew up with TV

 

When one considers the evident strength of GSM related to distance learning, an immediate element appears in the experience of teaching on the TAGER television net. This one-way video, two-way audio network has been in operation for more than 30 years, serving the Dallas/Fort Worth region. Students working for corporations that are members of this private network sign up for and take the course at the corporate training rooms concurrently with on-campus students. This experience, in part, made GSM attractive to Westcott Communications (now PRIMEDIA Workplace Learning) and offered a springboard to further development of distance learning. A significant number of the faculty have taught courses over TAGER. Quantitative courses such as Statistics and Financial Accounting were taught, as well as softer courses, such as Management Theory and Practice, and Human Behavior in Organizations.

PRIMEDIA has a satellite-based distance learning network that reaches hundreds of health care facilities throughout the United States. They became intrigued with GSM’s experience in distance learning and its willingness to develop a full MBA that could be delivered remotely. By partnering with PRIMEDIA, GSM now offers its Health Services Management MBA to students that otherwise would be inaccessible. Thus, the basis for the partnership emerged.

Additionally, MCI (now MCI WorldCom) had a need to provide advanced graduate management education to its far-flung sites. GSM, with experience on TAGER, structured an agreement whereby MCI provided the equipment and the students, and GSM provided the teachers and the content. Each partner’s strengths created this new opportunity.

Our finding is that the newer generation, which grew up with TVs and Nintendos, seems to accept remote education more readily than the older generation. However, video-based distance learning networks are expensive. Our partnerships have mitigated this potential disadvantage by using after-hours time slots that are otherwise idle. Internet-based classes offer a major strategic difference compared to real-time video based methods: namely, the Internet is much more ubiquitous. Students need only Internet access and a PC with a Web browser.

 

Weaknesses

 

•     Low touch, high tech

•     Lack of “presence”

•     Lack of feeling in the classroom

•     Impersonal

•     Some administrative problems

•     Need to efficiently deliver the programs

•     High cost of start-up for media provider

•     Hard to market

•     Network g'es down

•     Time differences

•     Large class size creates challenges to learning

•     “Generation thing”

•     Accreditation

 

The march of progress inevitably endangers what came before it. Distance learning is not the same as classroom learning. Some students may not believe they can learn in this manner, or believe their learning experience may be diminished. Some professors may feel threatened, as their role changes in the new paradigm. They become facilitators. They spend large amounts of time on the computer or on the phone rather than in lecture, discussion or small face-to-face meetings. All communications with students require the use of technology. Some professors are not “up” on the technology. Others just don’t like it.

When students and professors are connected via technology, weaknesses do appear. The feeling of being together in a classroom may be missing. This lack of presence makes the educational experience seem impersonal. For example, the professors have no way of reading the students’ body language, which, in the classroom, allows them the opportunity to adjust to the audience in real-time. Also, the students cannot interrupt the professors at the moment they have questions. There is a high cost per unit of time when using distance learning technology, requiring the professors to be very concise in their explanations, perhaps at the expense of clarity for some students.

The administrative workload and expense increase with the separation of student and teacher: the administration of examinations, for example. Here, extra effort must be made for the distribution of the tests, their return to the professor, and the delivery of the graded tests to the students.

Students who take a distance learning course for the first time must learn the particular procedures involved. They must learn how to register for their courses, sign up for their user IDs and passwords, navigate through the Web site, enter postings to their class discussions, and reach professors during virtual office hours.

The professors who develop distance learning courses need to translate what they’ve done in the classroom. Some teaching techniques are easier to replicate in distance learning than others. In the traditional classroom, a variety of teaching techniques are used, including lecture, case study, classroom discussion, drill and practice, and small group breakout sessions. Methods must be devised for replicating or replacing these classroom techniques for distance learning. We have found ways to accomplish this for all types of courses in the MBA curricula. However, creativity is required and not every translation method works right the first time.

Another weakness has to do with technology. Students may not be able to connect to the Internet, and if they can, they sometimes face slow response time. With video courses, there are short and long network interruptions. There are times when a particular server is down. Unfortunately, these situations frequently occur during the busiest hours of use: weekday evenings, when many students want to do their schoolwork.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is in dealing with large class sizes. By virtue of using distance learning methods, the universities are attempting to reach vastly larger audiences. The question is how to retain quality in the face of a larger student population. The most practical solution is to have a master teacher for the course, who coordinates the efforts of other teachers in order to achieve the proper degree of interaction between teacher and student. In this way, more assistant teachers can be added to achieve the proper balance in student-teacher interaction.

 

Opportunities

 

·         Go where the students are

·         Extension of the current program

·         Develop industry/education linkage

·         Wider reputation

·         Opens certificate program

·         Opens executive education

·         More pay for faculty

·         A “wave of the future”

 

Universities individually must decide whether distance learning is right for them. For GSM to grow, it must address new markets. Distance learning on a global basis is very attractive to reach this end. The technologies available to us in the year 2000 and beyond are much more powerful than those we used in the 1960s.

The principle guiding the move from the classroom to distance learning is to preserve the learning objectives that have served us well in the past. We want to build on the base created by our faculty, courses, and curricula. In fact, to assure the universities and their accrediting bodies that the distance learning coursesare legitimate, they should be measured against the existing classroom programs. This is also an opportunity to take advantage of the professors’ skills, interests and backgrounds.

Further, distance learning is an opportunity to develop industry/educational partnerships. Our partnerships have forced us to keep pace with the developments within the corporate world. Our distance learning courses are based on technology that our corporate students regularly use in their workplaces.

Finally, distance learning opens a new source of revenue for universities, and provides an additional financial incentive for their faculty.

 

Threats

 

•     Weak interactions with students

•     Distance learning is a barrier to communication

•     A lesser experience for the student

•     More demanding of professor (becomes a facilitator)

•     Partner may cancel or cease support

•     Network g'es down

•     Is there one best professor in the world?

 

Threats abound in this new environment. GSM’s niche is in a regional market in which we have operated for over 30 years. Distance learning is nationwide, or even worldwide in scope. The first threat that appears in this new setting is one of recognition. We are making a leap from a regional to a global institution. How can UD make its presence felt? How can it compete against nationally and internationally recognized institutions?

There are two mitigating strategies in the face of these threats. First is the development of corporate partners who can assist universities in reaching potential students who are not in their geographic territory. The universities would seek partnerships with organizations that are national or global in their scope. Hence, they gain footholds in much broader geographic markets than the ones they currently occupy. When the corporate partner announces the availability of the university’s courses through its electronic announcements, the university receives an implicit endorsement. The university is suddenly visible on the radar screen of potential students throughout the world.

Second is the leveling influence of the Internet. We have seen that new startups can suddenly threaten large, established organizations overnight. An example of that is Amazon.com, which was non-existent three years ago. Now, it competes with old, established companies like Barnes and Noble and Borders. Barriers to entry are decidedly smaller on the Internet, where new businesses can spring to life overnight. However, being first to market is very important as a result of the low entry barrier.

Another significant threat is that a partnership may cease as the entities’ objectives diverge. That may result in students getting caught in the middle. They may be partially finished with their degree when this occurs. The GSM has committed to make it possible, one way or another, for students who find themselves in this situation to complete their degree.

 

Reactions to the Educational Experience

The following quotes from three students are suggestive of the quality experience.1

One student said, “I was very pleased with the content. I was leery when I first started two and a half years ago, only because I thought I may not get enough one-on-one attention that I might need in some of the financial analysis classes. But, I was amazed! I was ecstatic that I could get through it in the time that I did, and still have the communications with the professors. I never had a problem as far as that was concerned.”

Another student said, “We thought the teachers were excellent throughout the curriculum. It is tough when you are sitting in a classroom not being able to talk to them. We did enjoy most of the classes, however. Some were tougher than others, but the overall quality of the programs was excellent. The program was a great way for me to attain my MBA.”

And a third student said, “I think the University of Dallas Graduate School of Management has been a wonderful organization to be affiliated with. All of the instructors and the resource people have been so personable. The contact that we have had with the faculty has been great. Even though they are many, many miles away, you feel that you have grown close to them. I know I can call out there and the next day they’ll call me back, or sometimes even on the same day. It’s worked out very well for me. It has been an excellent program.”

Additionally, survey data reported in T.H.E. Journal2 suggest user satisfaction with Internet courses.

A more recent survey taken by a professor at GSM of about 190 students who have taken one or more classes on the Internet repeated the degree of satisfaction and opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of Internet-delivered classes.

Further, a report from Strayer Education Inc., a for profit institution, indicates that “Our faculty and students think the online classroom model may be a better teaching model than the traditional format. Students seem to pay more attention online, and instructors feel more compelled to get them to participate.”3

 

Grading

One GSM professor who taught the same course on both the main campus and in the distance learning program reported that in blindly grading papers from the two classes mixed together, the distance learning students averaged about three points better. He attributes this to several factors, the most important being that the enrollees in distance leaning programs were, on average, more highly motivated.

One cannot, however, discount the possibility of “creative helping” when taking the test independently and mailing in or e-mailing the results. We needed to map the distance learning course as closely as possible to the classroom version. Since students receive the same credit and it reflects on their transcripts interchangeably, we use the same syllabi, the same professor, the same books and articles, the same written assignments and, to the extent possible, the same exams. One change we made in the testing was to move from a closed book exam in the classroom to an open book test in distance learning. We are sensitive to students doing their own work. The objective test is too tempting when they are on their own. We will continue to monitor and compare results from the two methods to ensure that the learning objectives are not compromised in the distance learning format. In fact, if we err, it is on the side of making the distance learning courses more rigorous.

 

 

Table 1.  Student Reactions to Taking an Internet Based Course

 

Would do again

Yes

8 out of 10 respondents

Time required

Same as classroom

More than classroom

2 out of 10 respondents

8 out of 10 respondents

Was class worthwhile

Yes

10 out of 10 respondents

 

 

Directions for the Future

The technology of distance learning continues to influence the practice of education. Yet the users of technology need to recognize the pitfall of allowing the technology to drive the curriculum. Obviously, the process should work the other way. Professors who are asked to provide courses using the modern technology of delivery systems must fit the topics to be covered, no matter the subject, to the technological tools provided. Stanley Kroder and Robert Lynch, University of Dallas Graduate School of Management, cited an important lesson in their report presented to a conference in Mexico City.4 “Courses should be first designed to use the best possible combination of teaching methods for the topics to be taught, and then an appropriate mix of the various technologies available — including the ‘old fashioned’ tools of presented materials, laboratory experiments, and field experience — should be applied to the educational task.”

Regardless, and while not demeaning the value of the traditional approach, advancing technology suggests the possibility of the virtual classroom over a global network. More and more professors and university administrators are coming to see the student as a customer with particular needs to be met. The combination of new technology with current course content provides a way of offering value to these customers.

As UD learned, there are many considerations involved in the introduction of Internet-delivered courses. Management support is vital. There must be a well-constructed course development plan. The technology and the technical support staff must be in place. Faculty members must be willing to learn a fundamentally new way of conveying knowledge and ensuring that the requisite learning takes place. Administrative systems must be in place to facilitate this new approach. Finally, students must understand the benefits, as well as the challenges, they face in this new environment.

The goal of breaking the normal bounds on graduate education makes this effort exciting and opens new opportunities for the university. In particular, distance learning provides a growth area for the “business” of education, particularly in serving remote or widely geographically dispersed areas of the world.

 

 

 

Dr. Richard Peregoy is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Management, University of Dallas, where he teaches Leadership, Team Building, Management Theory and Practice, Total Quality Management, and Policy Management and Implementation: a TQM Perspective. From August 1994 - January 1995 he was visiting professor at Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA) in Salvador, Brazil. In spring 1995 he was named Human Resources Program Director serving until May 1996 when he became International Management Program Director.

 

E-mail: peregoy@gsm.udallas.edu

 

Dr. Stanley Kroder is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Management, University of Dallas and founding Director of both the MBA Program in Telecommunications Management and the Center of Distance Learning. He is responsible for investigating new methods of distance learning for the Graduate School of Management. Under his direction, the University of Dallas has built an online campus that currently hosts 30 courses. UD offers a full MBA in Telecommunications, E-Commerce and Information Technology and plans to expand to other areas of specialty in the future.

 

E-mail: skroder@alum.mit.edu

 


 

1          The GSM Chronicle, Vol. 13, No. 2, p. 4-5.

 

2          Kroder, Stan et al. “Lessons in Launching Web Based Graduate Courses.” T.H.E. Journal, May, 1998.

 

3          Much, Marilyn. “More of Firms’ Students Earn Degree Online.” Investor’s Business Daily, Oct. 19, 1998, A:4:3.

 

4          Kroder, Stanley and Robert Lynch. 1997. “Learning From a Distance.”

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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