SOME would argue that the pace of change in institutions of higher education is greater today than ever before. But even a casual observer will admit that all of society is facing challenges markedly different from those confronted just 25 years ago. And higher education has not been exempted.
The demographic, economic, cultural, and political winds blowing across society, through campuses, and into the classrooms of U.S. colleges and universities are bringing students who are far more diverse in terms of age, culture, and ethnic origin than their predecessors. Often they are part-timers and view higher education as a necessary but not primary responsibility in their lives. In most cases they do not want to delay the payoff for their investment in education. At the same time, the millions of traditional students are as different from their predecessors of two and three decades ago as they are from their nontraditional counterparts today.
A second and equally important challenge facing higher education is the matter of how best to help these students learn to live productively in a global Information Age in which the demand for current positions is likely to change rapidly and new employment options are as yet undefined. It is not too great a stretch to predict that many people will experience periods of education, followed by periods of employment, followed by additional periods of education, and so on.
Higher education is being told to face these changes and challenges with fewer resources. The banner waved by the general public, by legislators, and by postsecondary administrators reads, "Do more with less." Yet there are heightened demands for accountability. All the players want to know what they are getting for the dollars invested.
These issues combine to increase the pressure on colleges and universities to justify their actions and to explain the "value added" to students' lives as a consequence of educational experiences. The real question becomes how to demonstrate that higher education is of sufficient quality to warrant the continued investments.
It is important to remember, too, that quality is a moving target and that perfection is seldom achieved. Once a desired standard of quality has been met, a new level of performance becomes possible and desirable. However, institutions of higher education generally continue to respond to external pressures by seeking to exact more from their faculties with fewer and fewer resources, while choosing not to acknowledge the inevitable question of how such changes affect the quality of an education.
The members of the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, sensed the changing direction of the winds five years ago and boldly undertook to develop a Distributed Doctoral Program for educational leaders who would encounter new challenges in the future. The effort resulted in the creation of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education in 1993. The executive director of Phi Delta Kappa, Ronald Joekel, headed the department at that time and laid out the challenge for the new center. The center's mission is to conduct research, develop educational materials, provide leadership training, coordinate the Distributed Doctoral Program, and serve as a resource to higher educational agencies and organizations in and beyond the boundaries of Nebraska.
After surveying many existing programs and centers of educational leadership and higher education in the U.S. and other countries and after completing a review of related literature on leadership, the department determined that the Distributed Doctoral Program should have an international flavor to reflect activities and scholarship from the global society. The core of the program was the integration of several specializations around differentially selected academic experiences so as to provide each student with academic and applied learning opportunities that best fit their individually constructed programs of study.
A second focus was ensuring that students were afforded a national and an international perspective on issues, since many situations seem similar but require a different approach because of local conditions. A number of questions seem common to most education systems: Who should pay for higher education? How much should people be expected to pay? Should tuition be high but supplemented by aid programs? How specialized should programs be? What is the role of the faculty in governance? What is the faculty's workload? How should professional development be viewed?
Because of the perceived and real commonalities within the global community of postsecondary education, it was deemed important to discard concepts of traditional (and now artificial) boundaries for delivering and engaging in learning experiences. The result was a Distributed Doctoral Program that could be delivered to learners anywhere in the world and with a new interpretation of the concept of time. Removing these artificially constructed boundaries led to the creation of a coherent program of studies that was independent of location and most temporal constraints. Within specified limits, students could determine when they wanted to be engaged in learning experiences.
Operationally, the Distributed Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and Higher Education addresses the issue of high-quality learning from several directions.
When learning activities and courses are designed - and even while they are being critically reviewed - the paramount concern is whether the experience will contribute to or enhance students' learning; their understanding of issues; and their ability to apply skills and conceptualize new approaches, evaluate existing ideas and literature, and decide how such information does or does not comport with their own ideas.
We attempt to provide greater accessibility by removing barriers of time and place. As a result, large numbers of individuals from outside Nebraska have expressed interest in the program, and the program now enrolls just 40% of its students from within the state of Nebraska, 50% from the rest of the U.S., and 10% from other nations.
Removing barriers of time and location demanded a delivery system that was simultaneously cost-effective and yet supportive of collaborative active learning. Special adaptations to the Lotus Notes groupware program and the use of the Internet have allowed us to prepare and deliver high-quality learning opportunities to participants around the world on a conventional university semester schedule. Since time zones are irrelevant for many participants, students living in Guam have no problem being actively involved with students living in Nebraska or in Europe. Thus we have been able to provide rapid and meaningful learning experiences to many students from diverse environments, which has resulted in an exceptionally high-quality program of doctoral studies.
We have developed learning cohorts with representatives of many cultures and national origins. And such a rich variety of students has certainly enhanced the learning of all participants. The "virtual classroom" enables participants to learn in a diverse and exciting multicultural environment.
Because interactions are not temporally constrained, students have the luxury to do much deeper thinking and are able to devote substantially more time to creating comments or responses in their virtual classroom than in a traditional class meeting. Furthermore, every individual involved in the learning process must contribute to the activities, and there is no way for a person to "hide," as sometimes happens in a traditional classroom. The course syllabi explain what is expected in terms of participation, and instructors can check a student's portfolio at any time during a semester.
In addition to the energetic exchanges of information in the primary learning environment, the virtual classroom, we sought to create multiple pathways to learning within each course. There are six additional avenues by which students can acquire new knowledge or refine old information. All allow for asynchronous interactions, and all provide students with access to the contributions of other participants. A "virtual cafeteria" serves as a meeting place where individuals are at liberty to discuss trivial and non-course-related issues. At times, it serves as a meeting place for posting draft versions of documents and securing peer review. An important but often unrecognized benefit of having students interact on-line is that they can observe how more proficient writers present material, and such models contribute greatly to the intellectual maturation of all participants.
The "faculty office" is a third learning opportunity for students. With the distributed approach, if a student asks an instructor about a specific assignment and receives a reply, that information can be made accessible to everyone enrolled in the course. Such open access results in considerable time saving and the avoidance of much frustration.
A fourth learning opportunity is the use of an electronic "journal." Students are often directed to make designated entries, according to a predetermined schedule, and all members of a class are able to read and comment on the entries and make their own contributions.
A fifth learning opportunity is a course "literature bank." Students share references, summaries, or even entire articles (when copyright is not an issue) that relate to the course. This is a means of further expanding the resources of a course and simultaneously imparting to the participants the belief that they are responsible for furthering the learning of others.
Next to the virtual classroom exchanges, the most dramatic aspect of the distributed graduate program is the sixth learning opportunity, the "course library." In that database are embedded most or all of the required readings for a course, excluding the primary text(s). Proper copyright clearance is always secured. In addition, instructions are included as to how on-line students may access the resources of the university library system and request reference assistance as well as relevant documents.
The results of the Distributed Doctoral Program are impressive. First, we have been able to recruit truly outstanding students from all over the world. The opportunities for them to carry on virtual dialogues has given many of them a chance to participate in learning experiences that they would not have had otherwise. Moreover, the quality of student work has vastly exceeded anything attainable during conventionally conducted courses, and students show evidence of consistently improving their abilities to address increasingly complex issues and to express their thinking clearly.
In the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, we have been refining a powerful technologically based learning tool that enables individuals to participate in advanced studies no matter where they are located. We have been facilitating exceptionally high- quality intellectual exchanges among mature, experienced students the world over. The communication among distributed course participants is unparalleled in traditional courses and stands as an excellent example of using new technology to ensure high-quality education. Those of us involved in the distributed graduate programs find the opportunity exhilarating and exciting.