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Staff Box

At Council on January 28, the Interim Provost reported briefly on progress in the college house system, and on the emerging topic of Distance Learning. His remarks on the latter:

Steps Toward Distance Learning at Penn

by Michael Wachter

As you may recall, Information Science, Technology and Society is one of the University's six academic priorities (Almanac Supplement September 24, 1996). We have enormous strengths in these areas that we are trying to build upon. One of the important aspects of Information Science, Technology and Society is that technology will be truly transformational in the way we deliver educational services.

An important example of this is Distance Learning.

Distance Learning broadly refers to any time that a student and faculty member are not in the same room at the same time as part of the learning experience. What we are finding is that a large number of universities have already started introducing either Distance Learning degree programs or Distance Learning certificates. Indeed, in our twelve schools, most have initiatives of one sort or another--although not typically at the degree level at this point.

I've been chairing a committee that was appointed in December and has been meeting for the last several months to look into the issues posed by Distance Learning. There are very complex, interesting, exciting issues to deal with. There is no question but that this university must lead in Distance Learning--but we must also do it in a smart way. Most of you have heard of Phoenix University; there are other examples of that kind. We are in no way looking to lower our standards to that level or to dilute fundamentally the kinds of courses and degrees that we offer. We believe that ultimately--and shortly--all of our peer institutions will provide some kind of Distance Learning certificates or degrees. Duke already has one, for example, in an MBA program. So we are looking into this very carefully and working with the schools on their initiatives.

At all times, our intent will be to present premier quality distance learning programs. To that end, a number of questions will need to be answered:
Who are the students who will be in these programs?
How will they be chosen?
How will they be admitted?
Who will teach the courses?
Who will monitor the quality of the programs offered, to ensure that the standards of the University are maintained?

In addition, there are a number of significant legal and accreditation issues raised by Distance Learning, and we are looking into those as well.

And finally, there are complex issues involved in the funding, development, distribution and marketing of Distance Learning programs. Certainly one of the important aspects of it is that while we are used to thinking of our courses in terms of their academic content, most Distance Learning will also involve a visual content that will also have to be high quality. We have to make sure that the kinds of programs we develop not only have the substantive, outstanding merit that are typically found in our programs, but also are delivered effectively in whatever form they take to make the most of the new technologies.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, February 10, 1998, Volume 44, Number 21