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November 9, 1995

Provost appoints task force to look at distance education here

In 1989, the University of Maine became a pioneer in distance learning when it launched the Education Network of Maine, a video- and satellite-based system that enables the university's seven campuses to share courses among themselves as well as beam them to remote sites throughout the state.

This year, Maine Chancellor J. Michael Orenduff proposed to take the network a step further by creating a wholly "video campus" without buildings or professors. Students would have earned degrees from the fully accredited, but physically nonexistent, eighth campus.

University of Maine trustees approved the video campus plan, but professors balked. In April, after faculty groups at all seven campuses passed votes of no confidence in Orenduff to protest the plan, he resigned.

At Pitt, distance education proponents say they will avoid the missteps that led to Orenduff's downfall — which itself has raised questions about the future of distance learning not only at Maine but at other universities across the country.

Diane Davis, interim director of Pitt's Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, said: "I think what happened at Maine was an isolated case, but I think it demonstrates the need for faculty and community involvement in developing distance education programs. It's also a reminder that the technology should be driven by the academic needs of the University.

"Where you get into trouble is when the technology is developed without consideration for what you're going to do with it and how teachers are going to learn to use it once it's in place. What you need to do is decide first which academic programs you want to deliver and then select the technology that meets those needs, not the other way around." University of Maine professors claimed that the proposed video campus would have led to the elimination of faculty jobs and even whole departments, and to situations in which one professor could end up teaching a class of thousands of students at various sites. Maine faculty members also complained that they weren't consulted about technology for the video campus. They said the plan relied too heavily on one-way television and two-way audio rather than fully interactive two-way television (ITV).

In an effort to head off such conflicts here, Provost James Maher has appointed a Distance Education Task Force to examine academic as well as technological implications of expanding Pitt's distance learning programs. The 32-member group will make recommendations concerning Pitt distance learning needs and priorities, funding and personnel issues, and possible partnerships with business, industry and government.

The task force will meet for the first time on Nov. 16. The group is scheduled to make its final report to Provost Maher in April, which would allow for its recommendations to begin being implemented during the 1996-97 academic year.

Davis will chair the task force. It includes faculty and staff with interests and technological expertise in distance education. Among the units represented are the regional campuses, whose personnel will have the option of participating in task force meetings through ITV.

"One example of the kinds of issues we will be discussing is contact hours," Davis said. "A traditional three-credit course is defined, in part, by the fact that you have 45 hours of contact time between students and the instructor. But the whole idea of contact hours changes its meaning with distance education. When students are working on their computers, should that count as contact time? When you're communicating with your professor by e-mail, is that contact time?" In defining contact time for distance education courses, Pitt has at least one precedent to go by, Davis noted. Students who take courses through Pitt's University External Studies Program are required to spend nine hours per course, per term meeting with their instructors; they spend the rest of their time studying off-campus with printed and computer-based materials.

The task force also will consider issues of tuition (should distance learners pay the same tuition as students who meet with flesh-and-blood professors?) and cost recovery ("Some of this technology is very expensive," Davis said. "How should schools and departments be billed for it?") As for two-way video and computer-based instruction replacing faculty, Davis said the issue reminds her of the 1950s debate over whether TV lectures would put professors out of work. "I have yet to see any of these media replace faculty or hear of a case where they do," she said. "What these technologies do is help us to make better use of the faculty we already have. So if we have a professor in Johnstown who has special expertise in a particular subject, he or she can reach students in Pittsburgh and the other campuses without having to drive hundreds of miles." But Davis added: "Let me say that while I don't personally see these [distance education] technologies replacing faculty, that is an issue that should be addressed. And it is something that will be addressed by the provost's task force." In addition to Davis, the task force includes: Carol Baker, of the Bradford campus; Barbara Barnes, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; David Bartholomae, English department; Rita Bean, education school; Mary Kay Biagini, School of Library and Information Science; Ruth Carter, University Library System; Robert Comfort, College of General Studies; Robert Donnorummo, University Center for International Studies; Pat Duck, Greensburg campus; David Dunlop, Johnstown campus; Rob Ewell, nursing school; Daniel Fogle, Katz Graduate School of Business; Lawrence Frolik, law school; Joseph Gil, Office of Student Registration and Financial Services; Michael Gold, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs; Richard Holmes, University counsel; Robert Knipple, Johnstown campus; Kimberly LaScola-Needy, engineering school; Nick Laudato, Office of Computing and Information Services; William Madden, Office of Budget and Administration; Thomas McKechnie, University Center for International Studies; Beverly Michael, mathematics and statistics department; John Mumford, Titusville campus; Helen Petracchi, social work school; Norman Scanlon, Greensburg campus; Larry Shuman, engineering; Tracy Soska, social work; Bruce Stiehm, Hispanic languages and literatures department; Anne Weiss, history of art and architecture department; and John Yeager, education.

After the task force makes its final report, Provost Maher plans to appoint a permanent Advisory Committee on Distance Education.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 28 Issue 6

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