An End to Student Segregation:
No More Separation Between Distance Learning and
Regular Courses


Murray Turoff

Distinguished Professor
Department of Computer and Information Science
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, NJ 07102

A summary of the invited plenary for the Telelearning 99 meeting in Montreal, Canada, November, 1999.


Are we denying the regular student in face-to-face classes the same quality of education that we are providing the distance student? Are the group communications technology and the collaborative learning methodology that it supports producing courses that are better than face-to-face classes? Is it time to stop mistreating the face-to-space student and eliminate the learning inhibitions that the face to face student faces!? In the view of the author these are the important questions and asking the right question is what leads to the best solutions.

Ó Murray Turoff 1999

"institutions are habits of thought".

--Thorsten Veblen


It is time to admit that separate distance learning programs are unnecessary. All such separate programs should be eliminated. If the social and physical technologies being applied to distance learning are applied to regular courses, there will be no distinction in the treatment of students and their resulting educational experiences. There is no resulting technical or physical barrier between the student who wants to attend a face-to-face class and the student who wishes to engage in the same course via modern group communications. Today, those distance students utilizing modern group communications in their distance courses may very well be getting a better quality education than the typical student in a face to face class. It is my view that it is not the distance student who is being mistreated in this segregation but probably the face to face student. Then again, maybe the student sitting in a 500 person lecture hall is also a type of distance student even in the face to face class.

From my research and publications most people assume that I am an advocate of distance learning. However, back in the early 80ís when our research group introduced our research oriented computer mediated communications system to regular face-to-face classes, a number of us felt that the result was a revolution in the teaching of face to face classes. Given all the material that had to be covered, the Computer Science and Information System course could not include much time for discussion. When there was discussion, only the same 5% of the class participated each time. We found that incorporating asynchronous group communications and a little persuasion via software features and participation grade points changed the nature of those classes so that we could generate 100% participation outside of class lecture hours. More importantly, students could take time to reflect on the ongoing discussion and create well thought-out contributions. This generated more comprehensive discussion than what occurred in face to face classes. Furthermore, students for whom English was a second language became equal participants and had the ability to re-read the discussion as much as needed before replying. Our computer based monitor of the types of activity showed foreign students spending two to three times more in a reading mode and re-reading many things far more than American students.

My upper division and graduate courses in design and management of computer applications had a high pragmatic content because of the need for problem solving approaches to solutions that produce tradeoffs in conflicting objectives. Given the amount of material to be covered, I never had time to detect whether students were accurately incorporating the problem solving mental model. With in-depth discussions utilizing group communications, however, this became easy to observe in the transcript of the class discussion.

We were sure in those days that we had discovered a revolution in normal classroom teaching, but no one wanted to hear that or was willing to expend the effort to prove that classroom education could be dramatically improved. Only those interested in "distance education" thought this technology might hold something of interest for education. As a result, our research funding was directed toward the study of distance course offerings. It was fortunate, however, that in the mid 80ís NJIT's distance program was classroom based. Our initial quasi-experimental results used a population of students only familiar with face to face classroom education and compared matched face to face courses with courses offered entirely outside of classrooms. We found no significant difference in the amount of learning or the rate of student satisfaction, a determination much more significant than one based on a survey of a population of distance learners already familiar with traditional correspondence classes. My coworker, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, identified two critical underlying variables that drove the success of this approach: the instructor needed to take an active and dedicated facilitation role different from the traditional class room role ("the guide on the side as opposed to the sage on the stage"), and the educational methodology needed to support collaborative learning and student teamwork (Hiltz, 1994).

Those studies also showed that distance courses could be just as effective as face to face courses when using any of the traditional measures such as exams and grades. As an instructor who has used this technology for teaching for almost two decades, however, I do not believe exams and grades adequately measure the real differences that occur:

Long-term longitudinal studies of student performances would be necessary to confirm statistically what many of us believe we have experienced in teaching these classes. Another form of proof is developing, however, in the marketplace. Collaboratively oriented programs offer a solution to the problems, given recent attention in the press, which are inherent in correspondence coursesóeven in those correspondence courses which tout themselves as modern simply because they use the Web and e-mail. In fact, a collaborative approach offers a level of quality which satisfies the consumer needs reported by the press.

The ability to store lectures on video tape recordings or in small or large chunks integrated into other material on the Web means students can choose freely whether they want to attend a face to face class or take the same course remotely. Face to face students that miss a lecture because of sickness or travel can go to the library and listen to the lectures they missed. There are some foreign students that go to listen to a lecture a second or third time.

My approach for many years has been to integrate my face to face students and the distance students into one class. They may switch back and forth in how they receive the lectures, and all discussion takes place in the same on-line group conference. In my view a student in a face to face class that is not augmented by a collaborative learning approach and by asynchronous group communications technology is not getting as good an education as the distance student who has those benefits. It is the face-to-face student who may be suffering from the segregation of the college system into separate face to face and distance courses.

These observations about the past and the present lead to some speculations about the future.

The Nature of Courses

As instructors our objective is to convey to our students the mental model that we have developed about our field. Even if we want them to build the details of the model on their own we still have to guide them in the right direction and provide a solid starting point. This provides the structure and dimensions necessary for students to organize and understand material for themselves. We also apply the problem solving processes that have been successful to date in dealing with various problems and tasks. It is important for students not only to gain information, but also to develop the ability to gain and apply information in new situations. College level courses should convey the pragmatics of a subject area.

The more pragmatic the course content is, the more important it becomes for the instructor to convey his or her mental models and assess student assimilation. Comparing interpretations among students also helps to correct conceptual errors and to reinforce understanding. The communication processes between the instructor and the students as a group is essential for students to learn pragmatics. Since I mix my distance and face to face students in the same discussion space I am usually mixing students with a great deal of work experience with those who have had none. When I try to get a theoretical concept across and a student with work experience can reinforce it with an example from the work environment it makes the sort of impression the students that encourages them to pay more attention to what I am presenting.

Many of the major components of undergraduate courses can largely be covered by creative interactive software with some sort of back up access to tutoring. Such automated courses are now available at costs far below those of typical college tuition. Colleges and Universities will not be able to sustain introductory courses that are largely skill oriented at current tuition costs. One can find introductory programming courses on the Web from commercial firms in languages such as C, available for a few hundred dollars and based upon the textbook used on some college campuses. The only difference between such commercial products and a college education is that the software doesn't carry college credits.

At the other extreme we have the usual "skimming of the cream" that occurs with every change in technology. New private firms with prestigious academic boards of directors are going to invest a million dollars in single multimedia largely automated courses to provide them to industry that can afford to pay thousands of dollars of tuition for each student. When all the downsizing of outdated professionals was occurring, before the Y2K problem was discovered, one of the first things to go was the elaborate investment these companies had made in internal course offerings and video classrooms and networks. Some companies had created their own internal college and claimed their employees did not need outside education. This type of thinking, like the concept of "just in time learning" which may be a euphemism for "teach them only what they need for their current job," does not prioritize student growth and learning. Unfortunately, some institutions of higher education are no longer certain about whether their client is the student or industry. The fact that Duke can charge double the tuition for its remote MBA compared to its on campus MBA is indicative of attempts to "skim the cream." Until an enlightened consumer marketplace emerges, many transient but prestigious offerings will be available on the market.

Now that we have a national and international competitive market in courses, those colleges that accept skill knowledge from unaccredited sources such as training courses and work experience will obtain a market edge over those that donít. In fact, the student population will begin to expect institutions of higher learning to accept courses from any accredited institution. In addition, institutions with clearly stated credit transfer policies will also obtain a marketplace edge. Individual courses, as well as total programs, will be the basic units in a national and international marketplace for higher education. There are no longer geographical monopolies on higher education. Only consortiums based upon real cooperation among the participating institutions will succeed. Many current attempts to market only the separate offerings of the participating institutions, or to impose added layers of administration between the courses and the students, are doomed to a marketplace failure. The single web site that focuses on distance education utilizing group communications is that of the Society for Asynchronous Learning Networks ( There are numerous group conferences for educators and administrators as well as a newsletter and journal.

Role of the faculty

The faculty member responsible for a given course should have a number of major responsibilities in any meaningful educational program.

Clearly this is an apprenticeship role for the faculty member. Over the years we have seen many responsibilities eroded in the separation of distance/extension and on campus courses, by the creation of separate organizations and even separate instructors. Now, the same technology that allows us to engage the remote students is available to us to engage the instructors responsible for the courses we have created and propagated. I usually sit in electronically on the first few offerings of a course I am responsible for, when a Ph.D. student or a junior faculty member is teaching it. Being able to review a whole class discussion after the class is over has also been useful in the academic review of new instructors.

We are moving ahead full steam toward large populations of distance students, but I have yet to see a university advertise tenured faculty lines that can be occupied by remote faculty. The success of this form of education is largely dependent upon the capabilities of the instructor responsible for the particular course. Given the growing importance of distance education and its competitive nature, the value of instructors able to master this form of education will rise considerably within institutions of higher education. With the support of the technology we are using for distance education, faculty members could live anywhere they wanted to. Outstanding teaching faculty who master distance education will be offered many unique benefits. One of our best full time instructors in programming courses is a mother with two small children who never has to show up at NJIT in beautiful downtown Newark. She is now going to become an instructor for other instructors on how to teach this way. There have been a few master programs drew some or all of their instructors from anywhere in the world. I have always wanted to be able to teach in the Winter from Hawaii but various administrative policies, unions, insurance companies, benefit programs, etc. have not caught up with what is now technically feasible.

Role of the Technology

To many people start with the assumption that a distance course is going to be inferior to the traditional face to face class. The view that I have is that it can be far superior and with this objective one can begin to conceive of the technical functionality that allows the class to accomplish learning objectives that cannot be possible in the face to face mode. Among the facilities that allow this to happen are the following:

Asynchronous Discussions: Promotes reflective thinking and gives each student time to consider, reflect, and polish their comments and replies. Changes the psychology and the sociology of communications. Allows students to address different aspects of the topic or discussion according to the sequence in which they wish to think about it and thereby caters to different problem solving strategies among the individual members of the class.

Conference and Role Control: The ability of the instructor to set up their own conferences (many per course), regulate the membership, assign roles and extend monitor privilege to other instructors for joint teaching exercises involving more than one course. The ability to allow groups of students to set up their own private conferences for team and collaborative work group assignments. The ability to allow joint editing of items when it will facilitate team work.

Question and Answer Communication Protocol: This allows the instructor to ask a discussion question but prevents any student from seeing the answer of the others or engaging in the resulting discussion until they have entered their answer. This was originally developed by us for brain storming in Group Decision Support Exercises it has proven to be a valuable tool in forcing equal participation and the need for each student to independently think trough their answer without being influenced by the other students.

Anonymity and pen name signatures: Having a class that does have a number of working students often means that students will be able to utilize real life experiences to illustrate the concepts the professor is presenting. Such comments from fellow students, rather than the professor, often make the instructors message more meaningful to the students. If in a management course the real life example involves a half million dollar disaster because of an incorrect management decision, the student is not going to contribute that insight unless they have anonymity to sign such a contribution. The use of pen names allow individuals to develop alternative personas without divulging their real identity and is extremely useful in courses that wish to employ in role playing games as a learning method.

Membership status lists: The ability for the professor and fellow students to know what each individual has read and how up to date they are in the discussion. This allows the instructor to detect when a student is falling behind and student collaborative teams to make sure that everyone is up to date.

Voting: The ability to get the reactions of a group to the resolutions of issue or problems is very useful for promoting discussion and the voting process becomes continuous over the discussion period so changes of views can be tracked by everyone. The use of special purpose scaling methods to show true group agreements and minimize ambiguity is also another useful tool.

One of the key indicators of successful use of CMC systems to argument the learning process is that enthusiastic discussions by students leading to the problem of "information overload." Currently this phenomena limits the size of the group that can be in a single CMC class. When individuals are entering things whenever it is convenient for them and no one must wait for anyone else it is physically possible and also very likely to have a great deal more discussion take place and information exchanged among the group than if only one person can speak at a time in the face to face environment. Anything that reduces the need for comments or messages that have nothing to do with the meaningful discussions underway allows greater productivity of the resulting discussion without information overload setting in. Among such functional tools the computer can provide are:

Gradebook: This eliminates a tremendous amount of electronic mail traffic.

Selection Lists: These allow an instructor to set up lists of unique choices so that each student may choose only one and it is clear to everyone who has chosen what. This is very efficient for individualized assignments and reduces a sizable amount of communications.

Factor Lists: Routines that allow the members of a class or group to contribute ideas, factors, criteria, dimensions, etc. to a single list which may than be discussed and modified based upon that discussion.

Notifications: These are short alerts that notify individuals of things that occurred that they need to know about. For example when a new set of grades has been entered in the gradebook, when the vote distribution may be viewed so that a person does not have to go looking to see if that has occurred. The ability to attach notifications to conference comments from a select list that provides alternatives like: I agree, I disagree, I applaud, Boo!. Such appendages reduce significantly the need to provide paralinguistic cues of reinforcement as additional separate comments.

Calendars, Agendas or Schedules: A space to track the individual and collaborative assignments and their due dates in an organized manner which links detailed explanations for each assignments as well as questions and answers related to the assignments.

The State of the Technology

Today's technology is certainly impressive, but even though we have access to about 250 versions of group communication software, most of those suffer from some severe limitations for faculty who may not know how to design a successful course. Historically it has always been true that when transferring an application to computers copying the way it used to be done is the worse choice relative to the opportunities that the computer offers. Clearly the ability to utilize the methodology of collaborative learning is the key to successful use of group communications technology. In some of the simple systems which attempt to impose a discussion thread on top of what is electronic mail technology, the student or the teacher is only allowed to view one comment at a time. They cannot put the hundreds of comments making up a single complex discussion in a single scrolled page so that they can browse the discussion and cognitively comprehend it without having to perform extra operations and loose their cognitive focus. As a result students and teachers using such limited systems will never be able to generate a large complex discussion and will never even realize they are missing anything in their communications with the student.

In an active conference and discussion space, it is very easy to cross the line between wonderful discussions and information overload. As a result some other critical development directions for the future are:

Instructors need to create discussion structures based upon their conceptual map of the course material, organizing discussions better than the comment-response structures of current systems can. In computer jargon, this is the need for semantic hypertext structures that can be tailored by the instructor as the conference discourse structure. Instructors also need to provide Group Decision Support processes to allow the class to extend the discourse structure and vote on the significance of incidents of relationships among factors in the problem domain. For students, developing conceptual maps of their understanding of a problem is useful in itself; however, students also need to detect disagreements about elements of the conceptual map and the meanings of terms. Part of the professional problem-solving process is removing inherent ambiguities in the language used to communicate about the problem.

This calls for the inclusion of routines based upon both scaling and social judgment theories which would improve the ability of larger groups to reach a quicker mutual understanding. Very few tools in current systems support the use of gaming, Delphi exercises, and collaborative model building. Even the simple functions of anonymity and pen names are not commonly available in the current generation of software.

Instructors need complete control over the communication processes and structures used in a course, as well as the ability to use their new knowledge for future offerings of the course. This integration of functions preformed across courses is truly missing in current systems. One of the long-term advantages of teaching in the collaborative electronic environment is that the students create useful material for future offerings and they can aid the instructor in monitoring the new professional literature.

In my design course, I would like ideally to examine several areas with a single question: "Draw me the conceptual map of what you have learned about this particular problem area." There is some evidence in the research literature that indicates that the relative completeness of conceptual maps illustrates directly the degree of expertise that a person has about a problem area. No instructors currently give these sorts of exams because grading 50 independent diagrams would be overwhelming. However, software can be developed to aid the analysis of fifty diagrams of the same problem utilizing problem-oriented and instructor-defined problem icon sets. Allowing a group of students to develop a collective model of a complex situation would also lighten this burden. Many software tools need yet to be developed to aid the evolution of this form of learning. Any commitment to a current commercial software product should be viewed as temporary, given the rapid evolution that is bound to occur with the growing market.

In the future, the material across a whole set of courses could be organized into a collaborative knowledge base by the faculty teaching those courses. Students and faculty would be able to create trails for different objectives that represent a weaving of the material in that knowledge base to suit a particular set of learning objectives for groups of students with similar backgrounds. A learning team could start the process through a degree programís knowledge base and proceed at different rates relative to other teams.

The concept of what constitutes a course could also be modified considerably. The material for the program could be an integrated knowledge web based largely on semantic hypertext structures. The faculty as the domain experts would be developing and evolving their parts of the web over time and waiting for learning groups to come their way. Learning groups may be any mix of distance and regular students who find they share the same learning objectives and needs.

Currently most vendor systems seeking the mass market concentrate on tools to standardize content for a course and to present content. The only forms of group communications are usually disguised message servers that may offer a discussion thread capability but very few of the things we have talked about above. This new industry has yet to recognize the singular importance of the communications and the role of the faculty member in facilitating the process as a guide and as an expert consultant. Faculty should be encouraged to develop content structures that is characteristic of their subject matter, based upon conceptual knowledge maps they design. Ultimately they should be allowed to paste group communication activities anywhere in their professional knowledge bases.

In 1965 Ted Nelson came up with his concept of Hypertext in part by considering the following model of how a Historian goes about writing a book. The original concept of Hypertext is not what we see today in the Web, in that it was all about the creation of material and all links had to be two way rather than one way. When information is being created collaboratively two way links are a necessity as the essence of a communication process.

Hypothetical Hypertext Organization

The illustration below is the conceptual mental model I am trying to explain to students in my Interface Design course. If I could use this as a discourse structure for my class to work together on contributing ideas for a particular design problem we could have a class of thirty designing a single application as a collaborative process. Clearly it would have to incorporate voting tools to allow the group to efficiently make decisions about alternative design options for many of these elements. This now is a conceptual map now being used for a group communication discourse structure in a particular subject domain.

User Interface Design Tasks

On a simpler level even the process of debating which is a common tool in collaborative learning would benefit greatly with the ability of the instructor to impose a discourse structure to support and self organize the discussion. The example below is the standard "Policy Delphi" structure with the appropriate voting dimensions each semantic node type.

A Discourse Structure for Debating and Argumentation

A Discourse Structure for Debating and Argumentation

When one compares the above discourse structures to the simple comment and reply structure that is the nucleus of the standard discussion thread on just about all the group communication systems offered by the vendors, it becomes clear as to why information overload is a common signal of a successful and enthusiastic class. It should be clear that the systems that you are using today are going to evolve and change rapidly as the requirements in this field become clearer in the marketplace.

Educational Consumerism

Today, a majority of the course offerings in distance education still use the correspondence course model but give the illusion of difference by placing materials on the Web instead of providing them through the mail. E-mail is provided for one to one communication between an instructor and individual student. Historically this has been better than nothing, but no one would claim this to be better than college courses. Unfortunately the average distance consumer does not understand the difference between such courses and those that have introduced effective group communication with the appropriate reworking of course content and delivery methodologies.

Today a student seeking a college education in the United States will pay the equivalent of the price of a used or new car every year. College education has become a major financial investment not only for the student but for his family. If the student were buying a car, he or she could pay $25 to a consumer service and obtain a very detailed report on any model of car. I predict the emergence of a successful "consumer report" organization for distance learning, similar to the college guides appearing each year, that will provide details about individual courses and instructors in different programs, unfiltered and direct from other students. This will ultimately support more intelligent consumerism about college education. Consumerism will be an evolving force in the future of educational institutions. Without a geographical monopoly, institutions of higher education will be far more sensitive to consumer pressures than they have been in the past. Since no educational institution or organization has had the foresight, so far, to do this there is now commercial web firm that sells books, student services and other products that has committed to putting up a recommender system to evaluate any distance course anywhere and have the results Web accessible.

Instructors and Rewards

Regardless of what is written down, in most universities the rewards for faculty are inextricably linked with research and external funding, and the quality of instruction merely has to be acceptable to obtain promotion and tenure. Innovation in education and exceptional teaching are not prioritized for young faculty at many institutions. This is clearly a problem with administrations. While administrations focus their attention on competitive research and sponsored funds, the educational process is undergoing an unanticipated, unexamined, fundamental change. The next decade will bring some rude awakenings. Because of the time needed to change attitudes and bureaucratic processes, some of these awakenings may occur too late. Competition in instruction on an international and national basis will become the principle determinant of institutional success or failure in the next decade.

The underlying factor of success in the future will be the quality and talent of the instructors and their commitment to excellence in learning. Many institutions may well have to reassess the relative balance in faculty rewards between teaching and research. In addition, the marketplace mechanisms will make the quality of teaching more visible to the public and perspective students. We can expect the threshold for acceptable teaching quality definitely to rise. Just as distance learning that provides quality education will destroy geographical monopolies, it will destroy in the mind of the student any feeling of a distance education being a secondary choice. Because of the closer communications now possible between the instructors and students it will become the talent of the instructor and his or her facility to guide students that will be the crux for success. Organizations that impose additional layers of intermediaries and levels of bureaucracy will not succeed. The majority of students taking our distance courses at NJIT are our regular students and they see no real difference and in many ways they rate the distance courses higher. They do a mix of face to face and distance courses according to their schedule, family commitments, work commitments and their desire to complete their education in a timely manner.

Alternative Versions of the Future

Students of the future will have many choices, the spectrum of which can be illustrated by examples of two students at extremes:

The Positive Future for the Student

I was offered a scholarship from an Ivy League university but turned it down. I decided to go to eU (Electronic University) after carefully considering my options. I didn't have to move, and I could continue learning the family business part-time. That more than offset the cost of the eU tuition, which was about 25% of the traditional school's, even with the recent 15% tuition reduction which that school just announced. I also knew I didn't want to be separated from my fiancée for long periods of time. What most influenced my decision, however, was that when I examined the international ratings for the degree and the courses I was interested in, I discovered that eU was rated as highly as the Ivy League school for the quality of its courses. The response of over three million students in the "Learning Consumer Database" made the results for most of my courses statistically significant to the .05 significance level. Also, I found the comments of the professors about their courses much more extensive in the eU course ratings. Hardly any of the other school's professors responded.

All of that encouraged me to check the resumes of most of the eU professors. The results were quite surprising. Most of them are retired from other universities where they had tenure before they came to eU. They are all paid the same salary of $150,000 and work out of their homes all over the world. One of them wrote that 95% of his time and effort is devoted to instructional activities because eU has eliminated all committees except one to determine the departmental curriculum.

The eU classes usually range from 20-50 students with a great deal of emphasis on class discussion and collaborative work. The profile of students shows that over 70% are working in professional areas related to their degree programs. As a result, class discussions are high caliber. I got to actually eavesdrop on some ongoing courses once I had submitted an application.

I can take my exams at the local community college, which has a franchise from eU, and I can also use their sophisticated multimedia computers. eU accepts courses from any college and university that has accreditation for the same degree, so I can use another distance program when the course I need is closed at eU or not offered that semester, without pre-approval. With the three semester a year program I can move a lot faster than in most two semester programs.

I am concerned, however, with getting in as I am fresh out of high school and they take very few students like me. Their rejection rate is much higher than most Ivy League schools'. I have tried to convince them that my four years of part time work in the family business should be counted. I hope that helps.

The Negative Future for the Student

I have decided to apply to rather than Harvard. I really must spend the time learning the family business and my fiancée has told me in no uncertain terms that long separations are not in the cards. Oh well, it is a lot cheaper than Harvard and a lot of those video lectures were prepared by top notch professors at places like Harvard and the University of Chicago. They claim having a professor from Harvard on video is far better than just any old professor in a classroom. Most of the instructors for technology courses are from industry and I am told that if you get one from the company you are interested in working for and do a good job you are more likely to get a job offer in the future. Courses in other areas seem to be mostly those tapes and automation. There was some newspaper article about how the companies holding the most stock in had the largest number of instructors, buy hey, so what? They require a computer joystick for the educational software packages, so the school cannot be too bad. Major Hollywood studios produce their multimedia software.

It does worry me that their tuition jumped by 20% in our area as soon as our local community college went out of business. I did not realize their tuition was geographically dependent. Their software costs are quite high since each course uses unique packages, including the ebooks generated by the professors. These materials seem be undergoing constant revision but I suspect that is so the prior yearís material cannot be sold in a secondary market among the students. Even though the average course size is one thousand students, eU does have these small discussion sections of fifty to a hundred students run by the course graders. So at least you can get help when you need it. Still, some courses use automated graders and I am not clear how that works yet.

I was told the compositions in the first writing course and the programs in the first computer course are completely graded by the computer without the need for any human to look at them. An intelligent system not only designs the exam so that every exam is unique to every student in the course, but also uses your past performance profile to tailor the exam to your performance level. This allows even C students to get high point scores so they can feel good about themselves and show good results to their parents, who are probably financing their studies. Students are classified as Outstanding, Above Average, or Average, and then receive grades within those categories. Everyone has a chance to get a lot of A grades.

They sent me this funny form with their acceptance letter, where I must promise to not divulge any of my experiences in courses to any data collection process not approved by, or they can deny me any future access to my records and rescind my degree. I donít understand the reason for that one at all. Oh well, I have no real choice, given my situation.


In the first scenario above, the student will receive the same quality of education whether he studies on campus or at home. He will participate with a group of his peers and will establish a network of relationships to utilize throughout his career. He can also get to know his instructors and his fellow students well.

In the second scenario, the student will participate in a distance learning program set up like a mass production process. This is a clear second choice apparently forced on the student by circumstances and costs. This option sacrifices the quality of education for the ultimate efficiencies and mass delivery of courses.

The real variable which will decide between these future alternatives is whether higher education institutions integrate all their face to face students in the same communication environment, prioritizing collaboration for all students and rewarding faculty who introduce new technology in this way. Regardless of what is written down, in most universities the rewards for faculty are inextricably linked with research and external funding, and instruction needs only to be acceptable to obtain promotion and tenure. Innovation in education and exceptional teaching are not prioritized for young faculty at many institutions.

This is clearly a problem with administrations. While administrations focus their attention on competitive research and sponsored funds, the educational process is undergoing an unanticipated, unexamined, fundamental change. The next decade will bring some rude awakenings. Because of the time needed to change attitudes and bureaucratic processes, some of these awakenings may occur too late. Competition in instruction on an international and national basis will become the principle determinant of institutional success or failure in the next decade. We are entering a free marketplace era for the enterprise of education at the University level. The Web is the first communication system where consumer reaction to experiences with alternative choices is cheap and easy to collect, organize and provide. One of the key premises underlying the concept of a free market is the free flow of relevant information and that is going to happen for individual courses as well as degree programs.

The most important factors for future success will be the quality and talent of the instructors and their commitment to excellence in learning. Many institutions may well have to reassess the relative balance in faculty rewards between teaching and research. In addition, the marketplace mechanisms will make the quality of teaching more visible to the public and perspective students. We can expect the threshold for acceptable teaching quality to rise. Just as is occurring now at NJIT regular students will opt for distance participation in some of their courses, not only because it is convenient, but because they perceive no loss of quality. As long as both versions of the courses utilize the same technology and learning methodology this is going to be true.

Associated Reference Material

The references below are that segment of the NJIT research effort since 1976 that supports the above views expressed by the author. A great deal of recent evaluation studies are beginning to confirm our earlier findings based upon extensive and large scale studies at such places as SUNY, DREXEL, Penn State and others. Some of these may be found in the Journal of ALN (

Harasim, Linda, Hiltz, Roxanne, Teles, Lucio, & Turoff, Murray, Learning Networks: A field guide to teaching and learning online, MIT Press, 1995.

Hiltz, S. R., (1993) Correlates of Learning in a Virtual Classroom, Int. J. Man-Machine Studies, 39, 71-98.

Hiltz, S. R., (1994). The Virtual Classroom: Learning Without Limits via Computer Networks, Human Computer Interaction Series, Intellect Press (

Hiltz, S. R., Wellman, B., (1997). Asynchronous Learning Networks as a Virtual Classroom, Communications of the ACM, 40(9), September, 44-49.

Hiltz, S. R. and Turoff, Murray, (1993), The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer, MIT Press (original edition 1978).

Nelson, T. H., A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Indeterminate, ACM 20th National Conference Proceedings, 1965, 84-99.

Turoff, M., Education, Commerce, & Communications: The era of Competition, WebNet Journal: Internet Technologies, Applications & Issues, Vol. 1, No. 1, January-March 1999, 22-31.

Turoff, M., Hiltz, R., Bieber, M., Rana, A., Fjermestad, J., Collaborative Discourse Structures in Computer Mediated Group Communications, HICSS 32, 1999. Reprinted in a Special Issue of Journal of Computer Mediated Communications on Persistent Conversation, Volume 4, Number 4, 1999,

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