Integrating Distance Education

I’ve just read an interesting paper by Dr. Modupe E. Irele at Penn State on the role of policy in the integration of distance education into the psyche and structure of a traditional institution. Policy, as stated by the author and others referenced in the aforementioned paper, holds the potential to:

“give structure to unstructured events and form a natural step in the adoption of an innovation” or “form barriers to the implementation of distance education programs.”

I’m probably oversimplifying and stating the obvious that trouble abounds when there is a mismatch between policy and the interests of those it is there to serve (mainly students and faculty). In the case of distance education, this kind of mismatch seems to be predominant in a few areas:
* cost recovery, “business” model vs. academic culture.
* individual interests (intellectual property, etc.) vs. shared interests (may be part of the centralist vs. decentralist issue or a value statement: content is of higher value than process).
* Faculty reward system: teaching vs. research.
* students (mainstream) vs. students in distance courses (often policies are different, fees are different, yet the student often crosses these boundaries -and this makes integration challenging.
* management and organization: cost recovery vs. budget funded, incentives for distance education development vs. incentives for other kinds of course development, centralized course development and delivery vs. decentralized activity to the Faculties.

At UBC, it seems that, for some time, centralized distance education activity has served learners reasonably well, allowing us to develop expertise, launch many new initiatives in partnership with Faculty colleagues and advocate for integration of learner support, course delivery and (to some extent) course development where capacity existed outside our unit. As a result of our work in this area, we now have:
* policies and a program in place (Access Studies) to meet the needs of non-degree program learners.
* centralized textbook and course materials delivery from the Bookstore.
* cost sharing agreement with Enrolment Services to provide advising support to distance learners.
* streamlined policies and processes related to course registration, library access and faculty/student access to portals and university systems.
* relationships with colleagues in the Library and Faculty Support units that are leading to collaborations on course development and learning support activities.
* new partnerships with student development colleagues in provision of online learning support.

In our case, the policy has (often) followed the practice. This worked for us – allowed us to get things done and build trust among our partners before dealing with the messy stuff . Upon reflection, I think we were successful because we took some time to build relationships. This took time, tenacity, patience, good will, collective and individual responsibility and a shared vision related a better environment for students and instructors involved in distance education.

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