American higher education from a distance

The rise of the interactive campus

If “the medium is the message” as Marshall McLuhan so famously proclaimed in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, then what is the message of contemporary distributed learning? One can only wonder what McLuhan would say in 2014. Yet, as far back as 1967, McLuhan predicted that “the little red schoolhouse is already well on its way toward becoming the little round schoolhouse,” and importantly that the reach of the traditional classroom would expand to a “global village”.

Today, it is impossible to engage students in purposeful learning and worthwhile inquiry without access to modern distance learning technologies and the World Wide Web. In Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles and Guidelines we gleaned from Garrison and Vaughan that well-designed, integrated learning can be a more engaged and meaningful learning experience than sitting passively in a lecture hall, listening to a talking head. Clearly, today’s students expect the convenience of distance learning, yet, want to meet face to face with classmates and faculty in real time. That’s the reason they call it a blended learning experience.

After our literature search, and in order to gain a larger perspective on the contemporary distance learning scene we decided to take a tour of distance learning venues across the nation. We began our distance learning exploration in St. Louis at the 2014 United States Distance Learning Association Conference. When we arrived in St. Louis we heard from prominent distance learning gurus about the latest in cloud storage, LMS, CRM, Avatars and other educational technologies.

Go west young men

After St. Louis we headed west to Las Vegas for the 2014 UBTech Conference where we had a chance to visit scores of distance learning vendor exhibits. What we learned from our UBTech tour is that American Higher Education has now developed the educational and social media technologies and apps to reach virtually every student and faculty member on campus, at home, at work, and in between. In the competitive higher ed market place, distance learning providers are now co-sourcing with institutional staff and faculty partners to provide richer curriculum content; more innovative instructional design; 24-7 asynchronous delivery and help desk support; self-paced tutorials and homework helpers; and virtual campus tours. All of this happens while students access course registration, class lectures, academic advising, career placement, and even defense of their thesis. Because of this remote access, the days of standing in registration lines are long gone. In fact, the preponderance of student learning and campus life transactions can now be processed anywhere, in minutes, sometimes seconds, from the palm of a student’s hand.

On our return home for the last leg of our distance learning tour, we spotted an advertisement for video exam proctoring. That got us to thinking about totally wireless campuses – with automated student services, flippable classrooms, social media networking, and course simulcasts to multiple enrollment cohorts at regional branch campuses. USDLA Executive Director, Dr. John Flores, capped off our conversation this way: “Over the course of its history, distance learning has supplemented public and private schools from Kindergarten to college and is opening new frontiers for learning for home-schooled children, the military, working adults, and corporate training. Today, another advance in technology – the wireless communication revolution – is taking distance learning to a new threshold by removing the final barriers of time and place that have kept many teachers and students of all ages from educational opportunities they need and deserve.” In order to get the student family perspective, we also spoke with students and parents in Boston, Chicago, and New York during fall orientation sessions. No surprise, what we learned is that nearly all incoming freshman and transfer students depend on their smartphones for access to social media – read as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, et al. – and as their primary mode of communication. That is one of the reasons that building out a customizable, scalable personalized social media community is a significant antecedent to the successful design of 21st Century distance teaching and learning strategies.

Shared academic culture

The last 25 years of distance learning experience has focused primarily on technology, content, faculty adoption, and professional development. Journey forward in time and student centered learning outcomes have become the tools of choice to achieve even better academic and career results. Within the larger institutional context, having a competitive distance learning capacity can produce near term net profitable results – game changers when it comes to effectuating economies of scale, efficiencies in academic programming, non-duplication of faculty effort, and importantly, cross subsidization of conventional course delivery across the campus.

From 30,000 feet up, distance learning technologies that allow people to connect with faculty, other students, family, and staff have democratized higher ed access around the planet In this bold new asynchronous distance learning territory, the challenge is to create a shared academic culture – a community of distance teachers and learners who share a common thirst for interactive knowledge acquisition; affinity for technology enabled learning; and passion for pedagogical innovation.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.


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