Harnessing the Power of Innovation in Distance Education

Harnessing the Power of Innovation in Distance Education
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC)delivered this keynote address, titled “Harnessing the Power of Innovation in Distance Education” and delivered in the ABED International Conference on Distance Education. Fortaleza, Brazil.

As the 21st century moves quickly toward the end of its first decade, we find ourselves
living in a world that is far less concerned about who you are, than about what you
know and how well you can use it.

In this new world, knowledge is power and continuous access to higher education, an
economic necessity…at a time when we must constantly sharpen our skills…and even
reinvent our career lives…to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation.

Even more compelling, as our planet becomes flatter, and our global village, larger,
postsecondary education has taken on an even deeper meaning, as the basis for
promoting a future that is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.

Indeed, we look to colleges and universities as greenhouses of innovation and
communities of promising practice…for developing the groundbreaking technologies
and critical alliances we will undoubtedly need… to solve problems that do not even
exist yet.

Not surprisingly then, every nation…whether large or small, developed or
developing…has come to view higher education as both the engine of national
opportunity and the passport to global participation.

And with the advent of digital technology, we can now power that engine and supply
that passport…by achieving unprecedented access to world-class academic programs and services…for learners of all ages and abilities…ethnicities and economic

What’s more, these technologies afford them the freedom to move in and out of the
learning environment…at different times…in different places…and for different

In fact, students everywhere are trading the campus for the computer…logging on to
courses at all hours of the day…exchanging emails with their instructors well into the
night…and connecting with classmates whenever and wherever the need arises.

Likewise, distance educators in every part of the world are preparing for those
courses…answering those emails…and ensuring that those connections are successfully

Yet as they evolve, these very same technologies provide far more than merely a
platform from which to teach. They offer an extraordinary medium through which to
learn…enabling us to engage students and faculty alike in active, collaborative, and
authentic knowledge creation and application.

So why is this important?

Because research has demonstrated time and again that the act of learning is more than
simply a matter of information transfer. It is a process of dynamic participation…in
which we cultivate new ways of thinking and doing through discovery and
discussion….experimentation and reflection.

Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to preparing our students with the
skills they must have to succeed in today’s global economy…with its focus on
information and knowledge….connectivity and communication. Skills they cannot
easily acquire on their own.

For instance, the capacity to discern and disseminate relevant information, along with
the judgment to ensure its reliability and the knack for synthesizing it across multiple
modalities. And the ability to apply new knowledge, while also negotiating across
disciplines and cultures to generate innovative solutions to real-world problems.

That said, distance education is about so much more than merely choosing delivery
platforms, converting coursework, and generating materials. It is about harnessing the
power of innovative technology to create rich learning experiences…dynamic learning environments…and vibrant learning communities. All for the purpose of overcoming
what one American scholar in the field calls transactional distance.

Michael Moore…a prominent distance educator from Penn State University…theorizes
that the physical separation between student and instructor…inherent in any distance
education setting…leads to inevitable miscues and misunderstandings between them.
So to bridge the divide, teachers must choose pedagogies, structure learning
environments, and develop learning activities in ways that are significantly different
from the face-to-face environment.

That means moving away from teacher-directed pedagogy to embrace a far more
learner-centric approach…thus responding more effectively to what students need to
learn, rather than offering only what professors want to teach.

It also means structuring distance education courses and classrooms around active
learning rather than passive instruction…while providing ample opportunities for
students to interact…with the content, with their instructors, and with each other.

But achieving these objectives requires careful planning and effective delivery…within
the context of a systems perspective…to ensure both the academic quality and the
economies of scale essential to realizing our objectives.

It is the approach we helped to pioneer nearly 20 years ago at my own University of
Maryland University College…one of the first universities worldwide to fully embrace
the concept of online distance education…as a valuable addition to face-to-face

Like any working system, the distance learning organization includes certain
subsystems or components…along with a well-defined management process for
connecting them effectively.

At UMUC, our virtual campus development began with a clearly explicit institutional
commitment, which was not only broadly transformative, but also politically driven
from the top down…with both academic leaders and faculty members closely involved
in the effort.

Since then, we have created both the institutional structures and the institutional
policies necessary to embed online delivery across every discipline, department, and
division within our larger university system. That said, distance education has become an integral part of everything we do…from planning academic programs and recruiting
appropriate faculty…to evaluating quality and prioritizing resources.

And to create synergies among all the individual units that support online education,
while ensuring that online offerings meet the highest academic standards, UMUC
established its Office of Distance Education and Lifelong Learning – or ODELL. As
such, ODELL coordinates the university’s 360-degree quality assurance
program….used to measure the extent to which our online students successfully meet
their academic goals.

With this in mind, we have taken a number of important steps to strengthen our focus
on student learning outcomes; faculty teaching effectiveness; curriculum and program
development; service provision and operational efficiency; and institutional integrity.
Moreover, UMUC uses standardized benchmarks and mechanisms to evaluate progress
in each of these areas and provide immediate intervention when failures occur.

Of course, every good distance education system begins with sources of knowledge to
be taught and learned. At UMUC, we choose these sources after thoroughly scanning
the professional environment…to determine both what the market demands and what
our students feel they need.

For instance, in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, U.S.
governments, institutions, and businesses alike began seeking ways to protect their
online informational systems and assets. So we tasked one of our professors, Dr. Jim
Chen….a highly respected scholar-practitioner in the field of information
technology…to determine exactly what the challenges were and how our university
might help meet them.

Several months later, Dr. Chen came back with a plan to create a specialized program
in information assurance…which quickly became and continues to be one of our most
popular online academic offerings.

Open Educational Resources…or OER…offer yet another cost-effective way to
generate new sources of knowledge…especially for fledgling distance education
systems. These resources furnish open and free access to high-quality digitized
learning content and teaching materials, as well as the means with which to implement
them locally.

While building on the model developed by open source software designers, colleges
and universities…led by such icons as MIT and Cambridge University… are working
together to develop high-quality educational content and make it freely available to others. Yet early studies have shown that these resources are not necessarily used to
their best advantage, because of problems with technology transfer; fewer than optimal
production outlets; and a lack of well-conceived business models.

However, by studying such successful open source projects as Linux, Apache, and
Wikipedia, I believe we will actually discover more effective ways of producing and
distributing OER in a way that is more adaptable, pervasive, and collaborative. We
may then override intellectual property concerns….pave the way for producing
knowledge-specific content, as needed…and promote new communities of production.

Once we have determined what we will teach, we must then decide how we will teach
it. And that requires yet another subsystem for assembling content into
courses…which are designed to promote successful learning.

In traditional classrooms, faculty members develop and deliver their own
courses…striving to wear many hats at once…as successful communicators, curriculum
designers, learning evaluators, motivational coaches, discussion facilitators…and,
obviously, content experts. To be sure, very few of us can successfully wear all of
these hats…and so the quality of individual courses varies according to the instructor’s
level of skills.

But in a distance learning system…where our goal is to optimize both teaching and
technology in the service of effective learning…we must take a far more specialized
tactic. Among the many online programs and institutions in the United States, there
have emerged two fundamental approaches to this task. And at UMUC, we have
tried…and continue to use…both of them.

When UMUC first decided to go online, a group of computer-savvy faculty members
from the graduate school proposed using a single professor approach, to structure
distance courses.

This approach involves a subject-matter expert…usually a faculty member….who, after
creating a course syllabus….along with its learning objectives, academic content, and a
list of required reading materials…works with a specially trained distance education
coordinator to bring it online.

On the other hand, UMUC’s Undergraduate School chose to use a team
approach..pairing individual faculty members , with specially trained course designers,
multi-media technicians, editors, and graphics artists. And while this second strategy
is more expensive and time-consuming, it has certainly paid a healthy return on investment when it comes to online quality and adaptability…especially for courses
with multiple sections.

Certainly, the technologies we use form yet another critical subsystem, in our constant
quest to bridge the transactional distance. Moreover, there is no “one size fits all”
when it comes to technology, given wide variations in available equipment and
broadband access, along with the vast spectrum of locations, lifestyles, and learning

However, there are certain criteria we should use in choosing technologies, starting
with the delivery paradigm we use. When UMUC was moving into the process, there
was a continuum emerging between the so-called broadcast model at one end….and the
interactive model on the other.

With the first, communication is largely one-way, much in the same vein as the
traditional large lecture format. Now while this technique is certainly economical, it is
hardly effective or empowering.

For starters, it is passive, rather than active….teacher-directed rather than learnerled….
rote, rather than receptive….and single, rather than multi-sensory. And with few,
if any, meaningful opportunities for student participation or clarification, there is no
real way to gauge the impact on student learning.

That said, UMUC chose to go with the interactive model. Under this scenario, digital
technologies enable students and their instructors to form two-way virtual learning
communities, in which to connect and collaborate.

So like any interactive learning environment, these communities pave the way for
learners to retrieve and exchange relevant information, while also improving specific
skills and developing individual abilities….in a way that is easily transferable beyond
the online classroom and into the real world.

In fully optimizing this learning environment, UMUC has developed a delivery system
that is transparent, reliable, and appropriate to the adult learners we serve…while at the
same time, multi-purpose, user-friendly, and easily scalable.

As such, it is capable of incorporating an ever-widening assortment of technologies,
including Internet, intranet, extranet, satellite broadcast, and interactive TV…using a
broad assortment of such multimedia as audio and video streaming…text, graphics, and

Of course, technology will never replace good teaching…but it can be used to enhance
it within an effective distance education system. Let’s focus once again on the
conventional lecture hall format….a staple for most undergraduate survey courses.

Even when the instructor is a charismatic speaker or extremely adept at using visual
aids, it’s difficult at best to keep a room full of minds from wandering. So students
take whatever notes they can….memorize what they need for the exam…and once
that’s over, forget most, if not all, of what they’ve heard.

Consequently, undergraduate courses we have always considered to be building blocks
of future knowledge are, for the most part, failing to produce the outcomes we desire.

Now at the very least, we might incorporate podcast technology to improve these
outcomes….using audio, video, and graphic elements to upload lecture content into a
format that students can plug and play…anywhere…at anytime.

But even better, why not take that same material and use it to create a highly
interactive and multi-sensory video simulation, using the latest gaming technologies.
One that not only fulfills the contemporary need for intense digital engagement…but
also allows learners to build on previous knowledge and accommodates for individual
learning preferences.

We can even design this simulation to yield all sorts of useful assessment data….from
a student’s demographic profile……to her progress in achieving stated learning
objectives……to the relative ease with which she participates in the learning

In essence then, by incorporating a popular digital pastime, we have greatly enhanced
the teaching process…providing our students with a concrete learning activity…which
is constructive and cooperative; immersive and interpretive; analytical and applicable.

Interestingly enough, this strategy is quickly taking hold….in even the most traditional
American institutions. Dartmouth College, for example, has developed one such
virtual environment to train community emergency response teams…while Harvard
University recently inaugurated River City to help public health professionals identify
the root source of a highly infectious disease, along with a scenario for containing it.

Remote access technology offers yet another extraordinary way to learn by doing….and
one that my university has put to exemplary use in creating its network systems and
security lab.

In looking for something more sophisticated than animation or simulation to support
UMUC’s newly created information assurance program…Jim Chen and his team settled
on remote access.

Having only a limited development budget, Dr. Chen convinced companies like Cisco
Systems, Oracle, and Microsoft, to contribute free….or at least deeply
discounted…hardware and software to the project. He also worked with government
experts and business leaders….UMUC colleagues and advanced level students…to
design and construct the laboratory in line with the programs learning objectives.

And today, this truly innovative lab — which operates without broadband connection -
– affords our students a unique opportunity to truly experiment from a distance, using
actual hands-on, real-time applications and state-of-the-art hardware and software

Needless to say, it creates what we Americans call the ultimate win-win. Our students
acquire real-world experience with cutting-edge knowledge technologies and
applications, while the workforce benefits from hiring graduates who bring this
experience with them.

UMUC is also using the wonders of technology provide instructors with the anywhere,
anytime assistance they need to become good distance educators.

Our Center for Teaching and Learning — or CTL — furnishes online access to an
abundance of professional development resources, in a variety of formats….along with
structured training workshops and peer mentoring opportunities for our faculty. We
have also embedded a Faculty Media Lab, which brings instructors, course designers,
and distance education coordinators together online to create innovative audio, video,
and graphic online learning enhancements.

Last, but certainly not least, we must consider learners as a subsystem, within the
context of their many different locations and time zones…assorted learning preferences
and lifestyles. So the “diversity factor” must play a major role in planning for and
ultimately supporting their success.

At UMUC, we are beginning to develop culturally sensitive distance learning spaces
and activities….combining locally relevant data, textbooks, and case with state-of-theart
technologies and media enhancements to customize virtual classrooms. And in
doing so, meeting local workforce needs, while also accommodating for native
languages and learning traditions.

We are also bridging the gap between what our students see on the screen and what
they need to use it successfully….by putting quality student support services on par
with quality academic programming.

Using 24-hour, full-spectrum system support, we are able to deliver a wide array of
targeted services online…from class registration, tuition payment, and financial aid…to
placement testing, academic advisory, and, career counseling.

UMUC has also made user-friendly library services a top priority… having now built a
vast repository of electronic library resources…which includes more than 100
databases, many of which furnish full-text versions of journal and newspaper articles.

Moreover, we have reference librarians on duty around the clock to assist students by
e-mail; chat room; or telephone….while also obtaining copyright permissions for our
faculty members….and digitizing selected books and articles for them to use in the

And inasmuch as the “campus connection” has always been an important part of any
university experience…UMUC’s Center for Student Success creates a virtual campus
community…which links students electronically with mentors and tutors; clubs and
honor societies; experts and future colleagues in their chosen disciplines.
UMUC is also beginning to embed interactive social networking technologies for
online courses that in the face to face world rely on dialogue, debate, and

Even the most basic of these tools offers an exceptionally flexible and cost-effective
communications platform….potentially linking thousands of learners….within an
environment that allows for both asynchronous and real-time connection. And in
doing so, engaging them in active learning, promoting important critical thinking and
problem-solving skills, and facilitating continuous assessment.

For example, blogging enables students to share and evaluate information and ideas,
while also learning to read and write more effectively. From the instructor’s
perspective, it provides an ongoing record of work from which to measure student
progress. In addition, students who are more or less “invisible” in the face to face
classroom actually flourish in the blogosphere, as they become increasingly more
proficient as communicators and collaborators.

Given these advantages, professors in the United States are using blogs for a wide
range of learning tasks….from creating digital journals and personal portfolios to
coordinating group projects and maintaining discussion boards.

Moreover, this one-to-many technology makes it possible for us to build easily
expandable, online communities of practice…connecting students, faculty members,
and professionals from various institutions and organizations….to create and share
new knowledge…engage in cooperative problem-solving…and promote a sense of
collective enterprise.

Although less popular in academic settings, wikis are gradually emerging as both a
collaborative learning tool and a source of open educational content. As such, they
provide a common digital workspace in which any group of co-producers may
generate, synthesize, and assess subject-specific knowledge. Under this scenario the
wiki originator begins with an initial draft…which is then read, edited, and rewritten
by subsequent visitors…who may also publish new articles and create pages of their

These asynchronous spaces can support virtually any size effort…from a small-group
class project….to a worldwide, mega-document, such as Wikipedia. And contributors
are free to build upon one another’s work…frequently assuming specific roles based
upon individual strengths and styles. For example, one group might check for
accuracy and grammar…while another cleans up the structure and adds new pages.

I believe it’s safe to say that distance learning is more than just a passing fancy, but
rather a permanent dimension of today’s higher education market….which is becoming
more popular with each passing year. Still, an academic shift of this magnitude
demands worldwide transformational leadership of the highest order. International
scholars and distance educators….global business executives and government
officials….all working together to champion the cause…facilitate the coalitions….and
jumpstart the development.

We should also take every opportunity at conferences such as this one…to share
promising practices and build true pipelines for innovation and investment…with other
like-minded, public and private institutions and organizations…both in and out of our
respective countries. Because by reaching beyond our own university walls we may
create a far more inclusive distance education ecology.

One that fully supports this new culture of learning, while exploiting the fluid
boundaries between knowledge producers and knowledge consumers. And one that empowers us to identify critical interdependencies; integrate core learning
technologies; and sustain commonly held values and principles.

It is an extraordinary undertaking….but one that promises an equally remarkable
return on investment. Especially in a world where the only constant is change and the
race for knowledge, more critical than ever.