The truth is finally out.
Distance learning is a plot.
Don’t believe it? Read the excellent WCET Distance Education Price and Cost Report.
The key in decoding the meaning of this report is to think about the meaning of its findings beyond online learning.
Ask yourself - what does distance education mean for residential education?
The answer - and the conspiracy that I’ve been a part of for going on two decades - is that distance learning is actually plot to smuggle instructional designer and learning science into higher education.
Those of us who work in online education don’t even really like online education.
Give us a choice, and we would put a (tenured/tenure-track) faculty member around a table with 15 or so curious students.
The reality is that that seminar table model of education is increasingly reserved for the privileged few. What we have are large lecture halls, high enrollment courses, and (increasingly) online learning programs.
The next best thing to a seminar course taught by a scholar-educator is any other course developed in collaboration with an instructional designer.
If we can’t get learning science through the front door - through faculty recruitment and tenure review and promotion - then we will bring learning science through the backdoor of distance learning.
Think about it. How many instructional designers were on your campus before you started doing distance learning courses and programs?
Has your institution witnessed a shift in which instructional designers are thought of as educators, rather than technologists?
Are faculty increasingly turning to the people who work in academic computing units to help them design learning objectives, assessments, and active learning exercises - rather than to untangle the LMS gradebook?
Understanding our distance learning conspiracy may help you make sense of the WCET report. We should try to reframe the costs to create online learning programs as investments in improving institutional capacity to advance student learning.
We should be sending thank you notes to all those students who enrolled in distance learning programs - as it is their tuition and fee dollars that enabled our institutions to bring a critical mass of non-faculty educators (instructional designers) to our campuses.
Every faculty member who has taught in a distance learning program has actually been a part of a disguised initiative for faculty development.
The real purpose of open online education (MOOCs) has never really been to create educational opportunities for lifelong learners and to extend the teaching brand of the institution across the world (although those are nice outcomes) - but rather to engage in R&D (research and development) around teaching and learning.
The real reason that every college president, provost, and dean should support traditional and open online initiatives is not that these programs will bring in new students, revenues, and brand building opportunities (which they will) - but because distance learning is in reality a catalyst for organizational change.
Whenever we think we are talking about distance learning - in reality we are having a very different (and much more interesting) conversation.
How have you smuggled instructional designers and learning science on to your campus?