Avoiding the Quality/Quantity Trade-Off in Distance Education

The promises of distance education to provide high-quality educational programs that can be undertaken anywhere and at any time are not new. Similar promises were made early in the 20th century by correspondence study programs. These programs failed to realize their promises because they were confronted by a fundamental trade-off between quality - personalized education - and quantity - the widespread communication of the message to large numbers of students. When higher education confronted this trade-off, they opted to choose the quantity model. That choice eventually led to a widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of correspondence education.

When higher education decided to choose quantity over quality, it was also electing not to offer a correspondence education equivalent to traditional higher education. Traditional educational models had emphasized small classrooms where the exchange of wisdom and ideas took place. Unfortunately, this model was expensive and now can only be practiced at a few relatively elite institutions. Most institutions, therefore, migrated to the high-volume model of large lectures and decentralized content delivery. This quantity model indirectly became the paradigm for correspondence education.

The Mediation Process

Higher education is now presented with a similar choice in the delivery of its distance education courses. If this trade-off is not resolved, meaning that both quantity and quality can be obtained simultaneously, then distance education will again be forced to pursue quantity-based delivery modes at the expense of quality. Such a choice will doom distance education to a second-class status in higher education. But, the choice between quantity and quality need not be made. Today, technology allows higher education, through distance education programs, to simultaneously achieve high quality while still delivering to a substantial quantity of students. Such an achievement would break the dichotomy of choosing between quality and quantity in higher education. This opportunity can only be seized if a vital element in the educational process is re-examined and transformed. We shall define this vital element as the mediation process.

The historical pattern in higher education has been that as the number of students reached increased, the richness of the information conveyed became diluted. This trade-off is a byproduct of the lost relationship between the instructor and the student or mediation process. When class sizes became large, the inevitable outcome was the reduction in personalized exchanges of insights that occur between the subject-matter expert, the instructor and the student. What is necessary is to understand the importance of the mediation process in knowledge transference. Such an understanding, coupled with an appreciation of the new capabilities offered through technology today, will allow the mediation process to be transformed from a response-driven methodology to a design-based feature of course development. By this, we mean the mediation process must be addressed in the formulation and evolution of distance education programs. Such a philosophical change will enable the quantity/ quality trade-off to be broken. The appreciation and understanding of the mediation process requires a review of the struggle higher education has been forced to endure because of the quantity/quality trade-off. Such a review will make known why this trade-off was inescapable, and why it can now be broken.

Customized Education

High-quality instruction is achieved when each student receives an educational experience custom-ized to their individual learning abilities. The Oxbridge style of education in England achieved such customization through its well-known tutorial system. By having a tutor, a subject-matter expert, meet one-on-one with a student, the individual's ability to digest and understand the information presented could be determined. The subject-matter expert could thus ascertain how to direct the individual student's studies to provide them with the highest quality education attainable. But this method of instruction achieved a richness in education only through a highly labor-intensive system that drastically limited the number of students who could be reached.

The United States, comprising a much more egalitarian and multicultural society, was unwilling to institute such an elitist type of higher education. Thus, an educational system wherein the subject-matter expert communicated information in a class setting evolved. This model both expanded the reach of the instructor and reduced the labor intensity of the educational operation. But as with the Oxbridge tutor, the American subject-matter expert was still expected to be able to sense the receptiveness of the material being presented on the part of the class. Such a sense should reveal that certain topics might require a deeper or fuller explanation; others might require an alternative explanation; still others might require the use of definitions and/or examples; and still other topics might be more quickly disposed of; and so on. This ability to sense the students' reception of the subject matter being presented is at the heart of the mediation process.

The so-called 'Socratic' method is one famous example of determining the type of mediation by sensing how students were receiving the information. Unfortunately, instructors in America are dealing with a class instead of an individual student. Consequently, the American style meant that the mediation process was difficult to customize, necessitating that some richness had to be sacrificed for reach. It was assumed, however, that if class sizes were kept small enough, then the richness that was lost would be more than offset by the increased quantity of students that could be reached. Of course, such a system also dramatically reduced the labor intensity of the educational process, and the cost of such a commitment would be staggering if cost reductions were not achieved. Reducing the labor intensity of education was a means of achieving significant cost reductions, and hence was most welcome. But the trade-off at the level of small class sizes could not be maintained.

Correspondence Education

With the introduction of the GI Bill after World War II, and an increasing emphasis upon the value of a college degree in the marketplace, increased student enrollment in universities forced mass lecture courses to become commonplace. These mass lecture courses, which dramatically increased the number of students that could be reached, were usually inaugurated in introductory classes. This development severely sacrificed quality for the sake of quantity in higher education. Although this model of education achieves substantial efficiency - if efficiency is measured in terms of cost per student - it d'es so at the expense of quality, because the mediation that would have been achieved between subject-matter expert and individual student is virtually eliminated. To compensate for increasing class sizes at the introductory level, students could expect reduced class sizes in more advanced coursework. It was hoped that as they achieved upper-class status, they would begin to experience small classes resembling seminars. Here efficiency would be sacrificed for quality, and the mediation necessary to again produce a quality education could be recovered.

Today, however, as the cost of higher education increases more rapidly than public support for higher education, universities are faced with the necessity to both increase revenues from other sources and to become more cost-efficient. Such pressures make it difficult for universities to permit small classes to survive in their traditional educational programs. As the materialistic concerns of higher education become more and more pronounced, it is difficult to envision the survival of numerous small courses.

To escape this development, an attempt has been undertaken to utilize distance education technology. It is believed that by having subject-matter experts deliver programs utilizing the latest in information technology, quality educational programs could be launched that would generate significant financial revenues. Such financial revenues could be utilized to enable traditional university education to move back toward the quality option. This development will not be realized if the underlying purpose of distance education courses is to generate revenues.

To understand why this is so, recall the history of correspondence education. As originally planned, this educational process would achieve both quantity and quality. Students who found it difficult to travel to specific sites for their education, or were required to undertake their education asynchronously, would be reached by correspondence education. Quality would be maintained because the mediation process would be achieved through frequent written submission that the subject-matter expert would rigorously critique. Thus the mediation process, vital to a quality education, would be maintained.

This model, however, proved to be excessively expensive because it conflicted with the desire to generate significant net revenues. Such an educational process required the investment of large amounts of labor hours by the subject-matter expert, an investment that proved too costly if significant net revenues were to be realized. The result was a model that utilized subject-matter experts to design the correspondence courses, then required a cheaper source of labor in terms of instructors, adjuncts and graduate students to critique the written submissions. But even this model was too labor intensive to generate the desired net revenues. As a result, the mediation process was abandoned and the educational quality of correspondence education deteriorated significantly. The result was a decreased demand for correspondence education, a development that further reduced the net revenues generated from this source.

If distance education is undertaken with the same goal of effectively generating significant net revenues to subsidize traditional education, then its future will mirror the experience of correspondence education. This is because, as has been seen, the mediation process, as it is presently conceived, forces a trade-off between quantity and quality in higher education.

Recall our assertion that modern information technology has presented distance education with the opportunity to escape this dichotomous trade-off between quantity and quality. Presently, distance education can free the student from having to travel to a distant physical site to receive their educational experience. Current distance education can also free the student from having to devote a specific time period to receive their educational experience. All this can be accomplished through an exposure to the same subject-matter experts who oversaw similar courses in a traditional educational setting. What is not recognized is that the mediation process, which works so efficiently in a traditional classroom, cannot properly function within distance education courses as pres-ently conceived. As such, distance education will discover that the quality of its educational offering will deteriorate as did those of correspondence education.

Mediation Problems

One limitation of distance education is that unless the course is made very labor intensive design-driven mediation is not possible. But, what if the student had to go through an exercise prior to addressing the issue? Such exercises would be designed to reveal the student's limitations, and why the student made the mistake he did. Such a mediation process must be built into the design of the course, hence the term design-driven.

The current problem is that as the class size is increased, the mediation process can only be addressed to a specific, abstract student, such as the average student in the class. Often the average student becomes the lowest or highest common denominator of the class because an actual average student d'es not exist. This means that the variance among the individuals who constitute the class would have to be ignored.

Utilizing a mediation process relevant to the class size would allow the wider variance of student abilities in large classes to be addressed. In such a learning process, the students could customize the time and attention they spend on a subject, allowing them to focus on the areas where understanding is limited. To date, however, distance education has only been able to properly address the mediation variable in a limited number of classes. Some advanced distance education courses, with a limited number of students, have managed to entail the combination of a subject-matter expert with a mediation process. But in large classes, specifically introductory classes, the mediation process is not possible with the present design formats. Techniques, such as the increasing use of FAQ lists, are developed to help the mediation process. These techniques, however, quickly inform the student that distance education is essentially a passive exercise with little customized feedback to student concerns.

This is a tragedy. With the information technology available today, distance education is capable of eliminating the quantity versus quality trade-off. This elimination can only be obtained if the mediation process is rethought of in terms of a design-driven, not response-driven, process. This allows a distance education course to customize its content to a wider range of students by replacing average responses to complex student questions.

The problem lies with the functional fixation of the instructor. At the present time, faculty are educated to be subject-matter experts. They then enter the classroom and learn a response-driven mediation process 'on the job.' They present the subject matter to the class, then observe and sense students' responses to concepts. This response determines what mediation is required. Because the mediation process is response-driven, it must be highly labor intensive, especially in a distance education format.

The mediation process d'es not have to be response-driven. If mediation is design-driven, two benefits can be achieved. First, it can be tailored to the individual student. Thus, as the number of students taking the course increases, the quality of education achieved can maintain its richness. Secondly, substantial cost savings may be achieved. Developmental costs are fixed while interactive instructional costs are variable and labor intensive. By investing in substantial course development, we convert the cost structure from a variable expense to a fixed expense. The nature of fixed expenses is that as the number of units produced increases, the average fixed cost per unit declines. Thus, the average total cost of a distance education program can decrease as enrollment expands.

The Threat

Transforming the mediation process in distance education from being response-driven to design-driven will entail a significant investment up front. But, by break-ing the quantity versus quality trade-off, distance education will be able to deliver significant net revenues without sacrificing the quality of education. A quality education will be available to a multitude of diverse peoples regardless of where they live and irrespective of the demands on their time. No longer will institutions of higher education be confronted by the need to expand their student bodies to gain increased revenues at the cost of sacrificing the quality of their educational product. However, therein lie both the promise of distance education and the threat.

The threat arises from the decisions that will be made by both university faculty and administrators. Most faculty have achieved their positions by becoming subject-matter experts and skilled in the mediation process. They have experienced an arduous journey early in their careers as they struggled to acquire the ability to master the response-mediation process. Those who managed to master this art became highly successful teachers and attained a vital role in the traditional higher education model. Having successfully met one challenge, will they now be willing to undertake a new challenge? Will they be guided by the promise offered to higher education in breaking the quantity versus quality trade-off? Or, will they be guided by a perceived threat this transformation of the mediation process offers to their individual careers?

University administrators must also make a fundamental change in thinking. Will they be able to transcend their immediate budget pressures to pursue an investment of resources up front? Or, will administrators continue to wrestle with their immediate budgetary problems in the hopes that distance education will deliver new revenues in the future without requiring a substantial investment up front in a quality-based delivery system? The answers will determine if higher education embraces a future that will afford new opportunities for students. If the answer is negative, then distance education will be forced to follow the doomed path of correspondence education.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.