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September 26, 1996

Pitt distance education task force sends recommendations to Maher

Pitt has been offering distance education courses on- and off-campus since 1972 but has never had University-wide distance education policies or procedures.

That will change if Pitt's administration accepts the recommendations of a Distance Education Task Force, appointed by Provost James Maher in fall 1995 to analyze academic, financial and technical issues related to distance education programs.

The task force's final report, dated Aug. 20, recommends steps for promoting Pitt distance education; creating rewards and incentives; monitoring and maintaining academic quality; providing resources, support services and specialized student services; supporting research on new technologies, and forming an advisory board for the University's year-old Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE).

The Pitt Deans Council is scheduled to discuss the task force report today, Sept. 26. "Soon after that [deans' meeting], we'll be prepared to distribute the report more broadly around the University for comment," said Robert Pack, vice provost for Academic Planning and Resources Management.

"Basically, the report provides a broad context within which to conduct distance education, so I don't expect any fundamental disagreements with the priorities that are laid out there," Pack said.

One of the task force's jobs was defining what it meant by "distance education." In recent years, the term has come to be associated with Internet-based courses and interactive television (ITV), which allows for two-way video and audio communication between teachers and students at different sites.

But distance education also encompasses old-fashioned, written study-at-home materials and audiotapes. "In short," the task force report states, "distance education covers all situations where instructors and students are not in the same physical location at the same time." The report cites a survey by the National University Continuing Education Association which found that, in 1993, 69 percent of U.S. doctoral degree-granting universities offered technology-based distance education courses for credit.

A growing number of schools offer graduate degree programs exclusively through distance-ed methods. "The University of Surrey, UK, for example, enrolls more than 700 overseas learners in several postgraduate programs and in February 1997, the British Open University will launch an international master's degree in Open and Distance Education," the report notes.

"Higher education visionaries predict that the term 'distance education' will disappear as the technologies and methodologies currently associated with it are incorporated throughout higher education. It is possible that distance education could change the fundamental character and delivery of higher education. As an extreme example, we may see the emergence of accrediting organizations for decentralized and independent faculty who use technology from their homes to make their courses available to students around the world." The task force concludes that, "In order to attract 21st century learners, the University of Pittsburgh will be required to provide off-campus and distance education alternatives. It is imperative that Pitt expand its capability to provide distance education and conduct the necessary research to acquire and utilize effective instructional technologies." Of the report's seven major recommendations, at least one definitely will come to pass: establishing a CIDDE advisory board, made up of faculty and administrators, to provide academic guidance and make sure the center responds to University-wide needs. Board sub-committees will address specific issues such as copyright and allocations of resources. Vice Provost Pack said he has asked CIDDE Director Diane Davis to begin recruiting advisory board members.

The report's other six recommendations are to: Promote distance education not only regionally, but also nationally and internationally. Deans and departments should identify programs that would be appropriate for distance education and encourage faculty to develop such courses and programs, according to the report.

Establish rewards and incentives for faculty to develop distance-ed courses. "In order to promote faculty involvement, distance education activities must be considered an integral and important part of the evaluation process for promotion, tenure or salary increases," the report states.

To support distance-ed activities that don't generate revenue, the Provost's office should fund a competitive grants program and adopt guidelines for revenue-sharing across departmental lines.

The grants should provide release time, extra pay or summer overload compensation for course development; money for travel and other direct expenses; and technology and/or technical and instructional design support. The report describes detailed revenue-sharing plans for distance education courses offered within the five-campus system as well as courses that Pitt provides to off-campus students regionally, nationally and internationally.

In-state versus out-of-state tuition rates can be a sticky issue for distance education programs, the report notes. "Due to the growing competitiveness of the distance learning marketplace, a balance must be found somewhere between in- and out-of-state tuition to financially support the offerings, yet be competitive with the pricing structures of other institutions for comparable forms of courses and individual classes," the task force wrote.

Monitor and maintain academic quality of distance-ed courses and programs. "In general, a course offered through distance education should be equivalent to its comparable on-campus counterpart in terms of instructional requirements, the scope of content covered, and the credit awarded," the task force recommends.

"Primary responsibility for academic quality rests with the sponsoring academic unit — the faculty of the department, program, school or campus." But CIDDE should consult with Pitt's Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching to develop a basic set of guidelines and procedures for evaluating distance-ed offerings, according to the report.

"To safeguard academic quality," the task force wrote, "any course or workshop taught via distance education should be evaluated comprehensively during its first offering and at regular intervals or situationally thereafter" — when the course is revised, for example, or when new teaching methods are used.

"A two-part evaluation system should be developed such that standard evaluation data is returned directly to the instructor, as it is now, while information about the technical quality of the course and a general assessment as to whether the experience was of high quality and should be repeated can be disseminated to the department chair, CIDDE, and in the case of an ITV course, to the receive site," according to the report.

Provide resources and support services to help faculty and academic units develop, adapt and deliver distance education offerings. All faculty involved in distance education should have access to CIDDE instructional design and technical assistance. CIDDE should develop and operate interactive TV at all five Pitt campuses. Centralized marketing resources should be made available to help units analyze potential markets and promote distance-ed programs.

The report recommends a detailed plan for setting up ITV classrooms at each Pitt campus.

Provide specialized student support services such as academic advising and registration to ensure that distance learners are an integral part of the University community.

"Many of the resources adopted for distance education will support traditional on-campus instruction as well," the task force wrote. "Automated student support and communication capabilities, for example, will facilitate faculty-student interaction and student collaboration for on-campus classes." Support research into new technologies for delivering distance-ed courses. As part of this effort, CIDDE should collaborate with other units to form an Advanced Instructional Technologies Group. This group would investigate and implement emerging and state-of-the-art instruction technologies, among other duties.

The report includes summaries as well as detailed plans for pursuing each of the recommendations.

–Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 3

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