One of the reasons mentioned for the firing of President Teresa Sullivan of the University of Virginia (She has since been restored to the presidency in a highly visible and, embarrassing to the University of Virginia, series of maneuvers) was her slowness in moving the university toward distance education. While distance education is well established as a part of higher education worldwide, it remains somewhat controversial. More important, it is not clear that research universities can or should heavily invest in distance education.
While the technology of distance education and its acceptance by the public have improved in the past several decades, it is worth recalling that several research universities lost millions of dollars attempting to enter the distance education market.
MIT’s open courseware initiative and more recent collaboration between Harvard and MIT in the distance area created a buzz among other research universities. If Harvard and MIT are doing it, we should also be entering this area too. But Harvard and MIT have not quite figured out what their business plan is, and may not be interested in earning a profit.
Research universities need to be concerned about protecting their “brand”—how will the public see a prestigious university entering a market long dominated by the University of Phoenix and other providers concerned exclusively with earning money and providing highly targeted vocational certification—probably in that order of priority? There may well be confusion, with a loss of image.
Observers have noted that those research universities that have made forays into distance education have mainly been offering courses to their own students—providing more choices to the already existing campus community. And it seems that the cost of offering high quality distance education courses is fairly high.
Some observers have argued that distance education and the Internet will fundamentally change the nature of higher education in the coming decades. This is highly debatable for the system as a whole. But for the top tier universities, their traditional missions and the campus-based undergraduate experience is unlikely to change much. Indeed, based on the increased competition for admission to top institutions and the willingness of the public to pay increasing tuition charges, it is clear that the demand for high-end traditional higher education remains quite strong.
Those who criticized Virginia’s President Sullivan for going slow on distance initiative were entirely wrong. Sullivan was wise to carefully consider the options.