In the name of distance education


Lindsey Downs, Manager of Communications for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology (WCET), published a blog post today about definitions and distance education. It’s a really good post and you might choose to read that and come back here for more…

I am thankful that Lindsey included me in her round of interviews. She only included parts of my replies to her good questions, so I thought I’d post a slightly modified version of the longer response I sent to her.

If you didn’t click over to Lindsey’s article, here are the questions she posed:

  1. What is your opinion of distance education definitions from IPEDS, accrediting agencies, states, and institutions?
  2. What works and does not work for you regarding those definitions?
  3. How would you improve the definition?

Here is a slightly modified version of how I replied:


When I applied to be the Director of Online Academic Programs at VCU, the cover letter started with the following paragraph:

In my more skeptical moments, I find myself wondering things like: If formal schooling had existed in the United States when Gutenberg invented the printing press, would there have been lots of discussion and hand-wringing about the inevitable move towards print-based learning? Would formal learning organizations have created new units and positions around print-based learning? From there, I begin wondering if, some day, we will look back upon the present time and laugh at the idea that we used terms like “online learning” and/or “hybrid courses.”

Today, though, we wring our hands and bend over backwards trying to come up with definitions of various course modalities. From my perspective, we mostly do this for reporting purposes. I understand the need for various stakeholders to create these sorts of definitions, but I believe we are mostly herding cats. Furthermore, different stakeholders have different goals/needs, thus creating the havoc that we have now.

One group of stakeholders typically not consulted in these definitional efforts is students. No surprise. I’m in full agreement with Marshall Hill who, according to Lindsey’s post says “our focus here should be on how to best serve students. Colleges and universities should not decide how to deliver education based on what they need to report, but rather what will best meet their student’s needs. And then we (meaning accreditors, government agencies, policy geeks, etc.) should figure out how to count that. Not the other way around.”

So, when looking into online programs or considering registering for online courses, what DO students need to know? Well, as best I can surmise, they mostly need to know: Do I need to be in any particular place at any particular time? So, place and time.

From a place perspective, I’d say there are basically two key possibilities: fully or even partially face-to-face (I will have to be in a particular geophysical location at some point during the life of the course) and fully online (I never have to be in one particular place). From a time perspective, I’d say there are also really only two relevant possibilities: fully or even partially synchronous (I will have to commit to doing some part of the course at a specific/particular time at some point during the life of the course) and fully asynchronous (I can do everything I need to do on my own time). From there, we can create a 2×2 grid:


Ever synchronous Fully asynchronous
Ever face-to-face A B
Fully online C D


Most higher ed. courses are Type A (insert neuroticism joke here) – you go to your assigned classroom at assigned times. Additionally, I believe that when most stakeholders talk about “online learning,” they are assuming Type D (or maybe even C). Type D fits the narrative of “flexibility” and taking courses in bed in your pajamas (a narrative that needs to be incinerated in a massive fire).

If a course is designated as A or B, I am geographically constrained in my choices. If it’s C or D, I can be in Timbuktu for all I care. If the course is A or C, I have to be sure that my schedule/calendar/lifestyle allows me to commit to a learning experience at a specific time, even if it’s just a one time event. For example, let’s say a course is a C because there are a couple of instances when, on a given day at a specific time, a guest speaker will be appearing via a videoconferencing platform. Furthermore, the instructor expects the students to participate live though from a distance. Does my schedule allow me to be present for those virtual guest speakers?

If we could start with those four designations, I think we would help students a lot. But, from there, I think it behooves institutions to be crystal clear upfront and early enough in the registration process about what a given course looks and feels like. If it’s an A or C, how often will the synchronous events occur? If it’s an A or B, how often will I need to be in a particular geophysical location? That information should be available via the course registration system and in any other information systems potential and current students might access.

I think these designations could work for programs, too. Over the life of a degree program, will I ever need to be in a particular geophysical location and/or will I ever need to commit to working at a specific time?

I’m sure some key stakeholder could pick apart my classification scheme, but I feel like the more we try to capture the nuances of courses and programs with definitions, the crazier we’ll all get.

So, in the name of distance education love…

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