Distributed Learning is Here: Ask Any College Student

This is a guest post by Jim Farmer for a special issue on distributed learning environments for On the Horizon. Jim is Coordinator, Scholarly Systems Group at Georgetown University and editor at the eReSS project, University of Hull.

This fall more than 17 million students will be using publisher-provided online services. More than 5 million students will be enrolled in distance learning courses. More than 15 million will be using the Internet. 6.7 million will use Wikipedia. More than 11 million students will use the public library propelled by the increased use of libraries by today’s youth—often to use online materials.

image0021.gifAlmost 15 million students work full or part-time; 8.3 million use computers at work. An estimated 4.4 million student employees will receive online training from their employers.

These estimates do not include the several learning and library systems that may be available on the campus. Nor the online tutorial services and learning resources marketed directly to students.

Today’s college students are already in an environment of distributed learning and increasingly they, not their professors, are making decisions about which resources and services they use.

This rich distributed learning environment benefits graduate students who are motivated, demonstrated their ability to learn, and have faculty advisors guiding their learning. The current distributed learning environment may not be best for beginning undergraduate students who are less well prepared, have instructors with large class sizes, and who have less financial resources to purchase access to learning services.

Distributed Learning

Quoting a September 1995 Syllabus Magazine article, Maureen Bowman, California State University Monterey Bay, defines distributed learning:

“Distributed learning is not just a new term to replace the other ‘DL,’ distance learning. Rather, it comes from the concept of distributed resources. Distributed learning is an instructional model that allows instructor, students, and content to be located in different, noncentralized locations so that instruction and learning occur independent of time and place. The distributed learning model can be used in combination with traditional classroom-based courses, with traditional distance learning courses, or it can be used to create wholly virtual classrooms.”

Some of the decisions on what learning resources and services student use are made by faculty, some by students, but increasingly by the decisions of publishers and internet servicers reacting to market demand and economics.

The current distributed learning environment is largely outside the control of either students or their professors. It just happened.

And current legislation may make that environment more market-centric and less under the control of faculty or colleges or universities.

Publishers’ Investment in Textbooks and Publisher-Provided Materials and Online Services

image005.gifTextbook publishers have become the dominate suppliers of learning materials and are emerging as the dominant supplier of online learning. They have partnered with faculty teaching the courses or distance learning providers and their staff to produce needed learning materials and services. Publishers and a few U.S. colleges made the investments needed to create effective online learning materials. Open University U.K. spent US$1 billion developing the course materials for their baccalaureate degree. One publisher will spend between US$1 and 2 billion this year in development—more than 800 full-time employees. The Hewlett Foundation has granted $500,000 to author a course textbook. Effective learning materials are expensive, In most cases these services and resources benefit students and those funding colleges and universities, but not the colleges or universities.

The phrase “textbook” no longer means a printed book, but refers to the materials provided at no additional cost to faculty and students. These include, in decreasing order of use by faculty, study guides, online homework systems, reading lists, online quizzes, online assignments, journal articles, solutions manuals, writing aids, lecture notes, case studies, dictionaries, and independent websites.

The costs of developing these learning resources is borne by students as part of the cost of their textbooks. The California student Public-Internet Research Groups (PRIG) has insisted that publishers “unbundle” these resources from the textbook itself, presumably lowering textbook costs. Unbundling will lower the costs for some and increase the costs for others—development costs are unchanged—and deny them to others. Unbundling creates practical and ethical issues for faculty. Can a professor “require” a student purchase online learning services? And can all students do so? About two years ago publishers began permitting students to “purchase” online learning services direct from the publishers. Typical costs ranged from $10 to $20 per course per term. This year the number of products and services offered directly to students is increased sharply.

Student Selection of Learning Services and Materials

Anticipating unbundling as public policy, publishers are de-emphasizing “cartridges” that provided learning materials for use in the campus course management system and sharply expanded online learning services marketed directly to students. Unbundling essentially moves the decision from instructors to students. Students can immediately use online services, but have limited capability to use “cartridges.” This means a new marketing focus, and costs, for publishers.

Publisher testimony before the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance provided some insight: The publishers now have a detailed record of every student’s effort and performance. This enables them to improve their online services. Because they do not have profiles of the users from student records, they cannot determine effectiveness. Publishers have, however, partnered with colleges and universities so the publishers information about the student can be analyzed with student effort and performance data from the student’s use of the learning services.

One of the disadvantages of the current distributed environment for faculty is the lack of information about detailed student progress needed to intervene and improve student performance. For more than a decade commercial training systems provided data on student effort and progress to a central employee system. The data provides both evidence of course completions and during training, information that can be used to provide assistance to the learning employee and improve instruction. Although standards for “feedback” from commercial training systems has been available since 1997, colleges and universities are now beginning to develop their own data exchanges from the distributed learning environment in an attempt to make this information available to faculty in the institutions learning management system.

Colleges and universities have developed learning resources and services, and teaching methods to aid the under-prepared student. The learning materials most successful in improving completions may be unavailable to the student if the student must pay. The professor then balance the effectiveness of the online learning materials with the ability of students to pay.

A few colleges—typically community colleges–now license these materials or services for their students. These services may also include online 24/7 tutorial assistance as a distributed learning service for beginning undergraduate courses. Licensing by colleges and universities, even if technology fees were charged all students, may be an alternative for making publisher-provided materials and services available to all students rather than just those who purchase them.

The Future

Students already are learning in a distributed environment. They are beginning to learn of services and materials that can be purchased. They know prices, but not effectiveness. Open education resources are being developed, but not at a rate comparable to publisher development. The self-motivated, prepared, and financially secure student will be able to take available of this distributed environment and all of the opportunities it provides. Others may not.

Beginning with educational television several colleges invested in the development of telecourses. This investment create production teams, made facilities available for media productions, stocked a library of learning objects and, even more important, developed expertise in both pedagogy and production. Most participate in the Instructional Technology Council. These colleges shared telecourse development costs through a licensing agreement. These are also colleges that have developed distance learning courses, licensed learning services for their faculty and students, and extended assistance through purchased tutorial services. They are experts at learning and have demonstrated their ability to control costs. The coordination of their efforts comes through the informal activities of the Instructional Technology Council. If this model scaled, it could be an approach to coordinating the use of the distributed learning materials and services and a rewarding future for faculty, students, and colleges and universities.

Without any action the market can make the selection. Unfortunately an uncontrolled market is likely to provide excellent learning services from fewer companies for some students and limited learning opportunities for many others.

It may be useful if faculty, administrators, profit-making and non-profit publishers, and service providers could communicate to identify areas for cooperation and areas for competition. There are some efforts to share experience underway lead by those whose interest is student learning. These should be encouraged.

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Jim Farmer is an engineering economist at instructional media + magic inc. His interests include educational technology, academic research, and information standards. He also writes for Intellectual Property Magazine. For more information, see his profile page.
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5 Responses to Distributed Learning is Here: Ask Any College Student

  1. Concerning Jim’s “Open University U.K. spent US$1 billion developing the course materials for their baccalaureate degree.” be aware that the OU’s annual total spending must be somewhere around US$0.5 billion. The cost of producing the (mainly paper based, distance learning) materials for a single OU degree are much, much less than Jim’s stated US$1 billion. Could it be that the US$1 billion relates to the sunk costs of producing materials for a wide spectrum of OU degree courses?


  2. Jim Farmer says:

    Based on an analysis of OU’s financial statements in 1997-1999, Justin Tilton and I estimated the cost of the entire baccalaureate degree program as US$500,000. Staff at OU assisted in this review. When this number was published, a vice chancellor said the number was US$1 billion (when dollars were worth more). We have used that estimate given at a conference here in the U.S.

    Seb is correct, the costs were incurred over five years or more. There were two components that were exceptionally expensive: One is the BBC video productions that were both broadcast and, by student preference, made available as VHF video tapes. Producers for the Discovery channel here in the U.S. say they typically can be paid no more than US$60,000 per 30 minute segment to meet break-even. In the U.S. a course represents 45 classroom hours; at these rates the cost of video for a course would be $5.4 million. Representatives at Coastline College–one of the quality sources of multimedia instructional materials–estimate the video for one of their online courses is now from $500,000 to $1 million. This is less both because the availability now of low cost and high performance video equipment and their expertise at production. The second high cost activity at OU was employing teams of professors with discipline expertise and those with expertise in teaching and assessment for that discipline. These teams, with production staff from Open University and BBC, typically took one to two years to complete a course.

    Creating effective course materials is expensive. So far few colleges and universities have been able or willing to allocate those resources.

    It is unreasonable to ask faculty to create such materials because (1) they likely do not have extensive background in pedagogy and instructional design and multimedia authoring technologies, (2) they likely do not have the production experience to produce professional level learning materials, and (3) production takes a lot of time and effort.

    For the next decade or so we can expect the costs of production to increase even those the cost of the technology may decrease. Student expectations, as with motion pictures, are constantly increasing. Game-like student/learning system interaction is both very effective and very expensive.

    Forthcoming research will show how few resources are available to faculty. Preliminary estimates show a educational technologist supports more than 100 faculty, or less than 12 hours per academic year per professor.

    Perhaps this both clarifies the estimates and provides some motivation for the estimates

    It is, if course, important to acknowledge the effort many talented and dedicated faculty have made in producing materials for their students, often over several years.

  3. Jon Mott says:

    I agree, at least in some sense, with your assertion that distributed learning is already here. Students are building their own personal learning environments, complete with content from publishers, instructors, libraries and other sources. One of the fundamental challenges, though, is that students lose much of the digital content they “acquire” when access to a CMS-delivered course goes away or their publisher-provided “subscription” expires.

    To create authentic, enduring, learner-centered distributed learning environments, we need to continue to figure out ways to preserve student access to learnign content indefinitely. This one of the most important reasons to champion the OER movement. But we also need to continue to put pressure on commercial providers to come up with subscription / licensing models that don’t artificially cut off access to content when a semester ends.

    Thanks for pushing this conversation along!

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