E-Learning and the Tradeoff Between Richness and Reach in Higher Education

E-Learning and the Tradeoff Between Richness and Reach in Higher Education

Van Weigel

While sober minds have prevailed since the precipitous fall of the NASDAQ in mid-April and the subsequent closing of the IPO window, once-promising initiatives like drkoop.com, toysmart.com, CDNOW.com, Petstore.com, Furniture.com, boo.com, and Reel.com are on the critical-care list, have been taken over, or have found their final resting place. The effects of the dot-com shake-out are now being felt in educational ventures like eCollege.com and VarsityBooks.com.

Through the haze of missed opportunities and dashed dreams, there is an emerging consensus that the current travails of the dot-corn industry will create a more stable foundation for the Internet-based economy. There is good reason for such a rosy outlook. Within the next few years, the convergence of data, voice, and video over the Internet-coupled with residential broadband, wireless connectivity, and a host of Internet appliances-will give new meaning to the concept of being online. For good or for ill, the theological concept of omnipresence will have no better earthly exemplar than the Internet.

The events following “bloody April” have also brought about a renewed appreciation for the old-fashioned virtues of economic performance over market potential. The “B2C” (business-to-consumer) craze that drove the IPO marketplace simply lacked a rational foundation. One only needed to look at the huge discounts and saturated advertising of dot-coin ventures during the 1999 Christmas season to conclude that this was not sustainable.

Academia, too, has had its flirtation with dot-com grandeur. The establishment of “for-profit” subsidiaries to market distance-education programs at Columbia, Cornell, Duke, NYU, Temple, Maryland, and Nebraska is only part of the story. Many, many more schools are collaborating with commercial providers toward the same end.

Are colleges and universities drawn to distance education because they believe it will deepen and extend the learning experiences of students, or are they just trying to get a piece of the dot-com action? The question is admittedly simple-minded, even deceptive; multiple aims fuel the interest in distance education, and many well-motivated people are endorsing it. But if institutions were truly concerned with using distance education to enrich collegiate learning experiences, Internet-based learning, we expect, would look much different from what we’ve seen thus far.


Much of what constitutes Web-based education is little more than porting the classroom-including its less-than-successful ritual, the lecture-to the Internet. The aim is to reproduce the functionality and the “look and feel” of the classroom in a new operating environment, similar to the reproductions resulting from porting a software program to different platforms.

The result, most often, has been little more than an exercise of posting on the Internet an enhanced syllabus that includes lecture content, reading assignments, and practice tests, along with using discussion groups and e-mail to respond to students’ questions. Distance-education providers advertise how easy it is to place one’s course content on the Internet with their software; one provider puts entire colleges online in under 60 business days. To these parties, the Web is primarily a delivery system for that which already exists-not a fundamentally new medium with the potential to birth new pedagogical models.

There is no more eloquent (or disturbing) testimony to the port-the-classroom approach than the so-called “No Significant Difference” literature, critiqued earlier in Change (see Resources). This body of research maintains that the learning outcomes of distance education are the same as those of classroom-based education. Regardless of personal views and conclusions, the significant thing about the “No Significant Difference” finding is that the research question would be deemed significant in the first place. Why hold up lecture-based classroom education as the benchmark for evaluating new educational delivery systems? If there is no significant difference between distance education and classroom-based education, advocates of distance education should hardly trumpet this claim; they should be deeply troubled by it. How could they think of making the status quo the standard for evaluating learning technologies that have so much more to offer? Taken as a whole, the “No Significant Difference” literature may r epresent the most egregious application of benchmarking in the past 20 years.

Further evidence of the port-the-classroom model is seen in the apparent gravitational pull of video technology on educators. This fall, Northwestern University will have completed an upgrade of its campus networks-using access to Internet2-so that students will be able to receive videotaped lectures and other instructional materials in their dorm rooms. More institutions that belong to the Internet2 consortium are likely to follow suit. Northwestern’s vice president of information technology predicts that video will be the next hot technology in higher education.

What explains this interest in video? Perhaps this is Internet2 in search of a “killer app”-an arresting application that justifies all that bandwidth. I suspect, though, that the compelling thing about video is that it is the easiest way to digitize what goes on in the traditional classroom, but is hardly much of an advance over the use of videotaped lectures in correspondence programs. It is as though nothing has advanced our understanding of learning since the days of instructional television in the 1960s. The difference is that you can now receive it on a 24/7 basis in your dorm room-like cable TV.

Proponents of distance education will likely object to the port-the-classroom characterization, citing findings that distance learning can entail a higher degree of student interaction than is possible in the traditional classroom–particularly among students who are less apt to speak up in classroom contexts. This is a legitimate point. Yet, it is striking how advocates of distance learning easily tolerate the dichotomy between distance-learning and face-to-face classroom interaction. Why does such a blatant manifestation of “either/or” thinking go unchallenged–particularly when the vast majority of distance-education courses draw primarily on-campus students?

In The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid argue that the educational payoff of digital technology is evidenced primarily across time instead of space. Digital technology is far more effective in maintaining the interactivity of established communities than it is in creating new communities from scratch. Hence, the authors state, “paradoxically, technologies may do a better job on the conventional campus than on the virtual one.”


One explanation of the forced dichotomy between distance education and traditional education is found in the analytical framework developed by Philip Evans and Thomas Wurster of the Boston Consulting Group. In Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), Evans and Wurster argue that all businesses are subject to a tradeoff between “richness” and “reach.” Richness refers to the overall quality of information (for example, currency, accuracy, interactivity, relevance), and reach refers to the number of people involved in the exchange of information. The significance of the Gutenbergian invention of the Internet is that it “blows up” the existing tradeoff between richness and reach, since information can be exchanged at the speed of light at virtually no cost. Even traditional “brick-and-mortar” enterprises, ranging from small retail stores to large industrial conglomerates, are affected by this change, as “information is the glue that cements ve rtical linkages together and defines a large portion of competitive advantage.” Consequently, entire industries face the prospect of being “deconstructed” because much higher levels of richness and reach can be achieved with the same bundle of economic resources.

Evans and Wurster cite the personal computer retailing business–a business focused on the sale and delivery of physical products–as a good example of the explosion of the richness/reach tradeoff. If you navigate to Dell Computer’s Web site (dell.com), you can build a PC from a stunning array of options, using a configuration wizard that begins with your needs and the applications you plan to use. Dell implements this low-cost, customized approach to selling PCs with only an eight-day inventory of components and finished products! Think of how this compares with walking into a retail store and selecting a PC from a few models that have been sitting on the shelf for months. No wonder Dell is number one in PC sales in the United States and number two worldwide!

Amazon.com provides another illustration of the way the Internet has exploded the tradeoff between richness and reach. Amazon’s success is only partly related to its low prices and its list of 3 million books–exceeding those of the largest chain store by a factor of 20. Amazon does not always offer the cheapest price, and Jeffrey Bezos did not create the database behind Amazon’s book list–it had already been developed by industry wholesalers for the benefit of small bookstores.

Amazon’s success came about because it used technology and a strong commitment to customer service to improve the experience of buying a book. As James Coates of the Chicago Tribune observes, Amazon.com offers most of the benefits of the mega-bookstores while restoring some of the personalized service of the small neighborhood bookstore. When customers log on to Amazon’s site they are greeted by name and informed of new books or CDs that are on sale or in the pipeline that seem like a good fit with previous purchases. The availability of “purchase circles” makes it easy to browse titles of interest based on affiliations, and many people find the customer book reviews to be helpful. “Does all this sound familiar?” asks Coates. “It should. It’s the kind of stuff the folks used to chat about down at the neighborhood bookstore where everybody knew your name, until the giants ate them” (“Book Buying Enters New Chapter with Amazon.com,” Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1999).

In stark contrast to Amazon.com and Dell Computer, institutions of higher education have chosen to fixate on the reach side of the richness/reach tradeoff. This has effectively made e-learning a hostage of “distance education.” The distance-education bandwagon has been propelled by the prospect of not having to build new facilities to accommodate more students and/or by visions of an ever-expanding student marketplace. It hardly seems to register that the very same technologies could transform existing classrooms to offer students more effective learning experiences. This pedagogical neglect of the richness side of the spectrum is all the more puzzling in light of the demonstrable richness that information technologies have already brought to the tasks of research. Is this one more instance of faculty priorities skewed toward research over teaching?

The aims of academic excellence would be well served if administrators and faculty placed a moratorium on the term “distance education”–speaking instead of “e-learning” and making no assumptions of spatial separation. Distance learning would then be reserved for contexts in which some provision for academic extension is necessary due to geographic remoteness. Some may quibble that this is only a matter of semantics. But semantics matter! Anything that deters institutions of higher education from using Internet technologies to add richness to their educational programs will ultimately threaten their institutional well-being, if not their very survival.


It may sound alarmist, but most educational institutions of every size and stripe are unwittingly far down a path that can only lead to self-destruction for all but a few. This path is the commoditization of instruction. Commoditization refers to the process whereby products or services become standardized to the extent that their attributes are roughly the same. Things that were once “apples and oranges” become “apples and apples.” When a product or service is commoditized, it can be more readily compared with other products like it, and competition revolves strictly around the price of the good. Agricultural commodities are the classic case in this regard. Grain standards, which have evolved over 5,000 years, have become very sophisticated measures for comparability. For instance, No. 1 amber durum wheat is a sufficiently standardized measure that it can be marketed globally based on price, regardless of the country of origin or the particular producer.

The commoditization of instruction is increasingly evident on nearly all college and university campuses. This process has been greatly facilitated by two factors: 1) a minimalist definition of education that focuses on information transfer as the defining characteristic of instruction; and 2) the widespread use of adjunct faculty to reduce the cost of instruction. Textbook producers, standardized exams, the increased use of transfer credit, and the tendency among faculty to understand their teaching responsibilities as “covering the material” have further reinforced this trend.

Students themselves have done their fair share to reinforce commoditization, as it permits a “mix-and-match” approach toward credit hours and the purchase of a degree, and it facilitates the strategic comparison of courses (favoring ones that require the least time and hold the most promise for a good grade). The commercial distribution of lecture notes and term papers on the World Wide Web–decried almost universally by educators–is simply a rational extension of this model.

Leaving aside its pedagogical shortcomings–of which there are many–the economic consequences of a commoditized “plug-and-play” academic environment are disastrous. Rule number one in the Internet Age is to differentiate your product or service, because commoditization will rapidly lead to debilitating price competition. This is due to the ease with which price comparisons can be made on the Internet. Unless one is positioned to be a least-cost producer in the marketplace, he should avoid commoditization at all costs.

Colleges and universities are sitting ducks when it comes to their most lucrative source of tuition revenue–their undergraduate core curriculum. A 1997 Coopers and Lybrand white paper, “The Transformation of Higher Education in the Digital Age,” estimated that 80 percent of the total enrollments in undergraduate core curricula were concentrated in just 25 courses (such as Calculus, Biology, and Western Civilization).

There is so remarkable a similarity in the content of such core courses that a company named Final-exam.com is preparing generic study guides for freshman and sophomore college courses that students can access online. Most institutions have consigned these courses to the impersonal environment of the large lecture hall. Commercial firms, with substantial curriculum development budgets-perhaps in collaboration with one or two name-brand institutions–could develop online courses for the core curriculum that could have compelling richness while being offered at a lower price.

Though campuses should be able to defend themselves from raiders of the core curriculum through their retained power to grant or deny transfer credit, this prerogative is, at best, tenuous. First, institutions that join distance-education consortia to market their courses–like the 262 institutions participating in the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus, which offers more than 3,200 courses–will find it necessary to evolve seamless mechanisms for credit transfer. Once these mechanisms are in place (discussions for doing so are already under way), it will be politically untenable for colleges to bar transfer arrangements from a commercial distance-education provider so long as the perceived quality of its courses matches those of the consortium. Second, internal pressure from students themselves–always on the lookout for a good bargain–and the forces of market competition (schools that offer more transfer credit will increase their competitive advantage) will virtually guarantee credit t ransferability and a hospitable environment for commercial firms.


There is nothing wrong with the commoditization of instruction if the practice of teaching has reached its pinnacle. Who would object to undergraduates substituting commercial online courses for classroom-based courses if the former were available at a lower cost and either matched or surpassed the quality of the latter? Anyone would call that progress. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, it is even possible that the growth of e-commerce, coupled with the widespread availability of broadband Internet access, could make possible an era of free college education (“Free Degrees? They’re Only a Matter of Time,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 19, 2000, p. B8). Think of the anguish that most American households would be spared if they never had to ask the question, How do we pay for college?

Obviously, the practice of teaching has not reached its apex. A new continuum between richness and reach, courtesy of the Internet, can afford us wonderful opportunities for enhancing the richness of our students’ educational experiences. Indeed, we may be at a rare moment when the goals of undergraduate reform are backed by economic necessity.

A provocative way to think about this is to locate current classroom-based educational programs along the richness/reach continuum, identifying those programs that exemplify in-depth learning. From there, it’s possible to explore how Internet technologies could be used to reproduce this richness in other educational contexts. If the large lecture classes of the undergraduate curriculum best exemplify the reach side of a pre-Internet richness/reach continuum, then PhD programs of top-tier institutions–particularly within the sciences–would be at the other end. Although PhD programs are narrowly focused on the task of preparing a new generation of researchers, they are incredibly good at achieving what they set out to do. The high degree of interaction between faculty and students in PhD programs approximates the relationship between expert and novice in the traditional model of apprenticeship. Moreover, much of the learning in PhD programs takes place in peer-to-peer contexts, usually involving some sort of collaborative work on real problems in the discipline.

While I am not suggesting that we should remake the undergraduate curriculum after the image of PhD programs, many of the approaches that have proved successful in these programs–such as cognitive apprenticeship, collaborative research, critical reflection, and problem-based learning–could be readily adapted to undergraduate contexts through Internet-based technologies. In place of the tunneled focus and disciplinary specialization of PhD programs, undergraduate curricula could emphasize interdisciplinary knowledge management.

Some may contend that undergraduate students are simply not ready for this. To that I respond, How would we know? I’m reminded of all the teachers and publishers who cluck that young people don’t read anymore; yet when 700-page Harry Potter books appeared, they found millions of starved readers. By the time they reach college, students have been socialized to expect less and less from education. The adventure of learning has been collapsed to what gets on the final exam. Getting the answer right counts for more than intellectual curiosity. More often than not, writing a good research paper means picking a topic that has been done to death. Intellectual risk-taking is only rarely rewarded. But the skills required by the knowledge-centric “New Economy” are not those of exposure and recall; knowledge management requires discovery and discernment.

One example of using the Internet to add richness to the curriculum was unveiled this past June at the Summit on Technology in Liberal Arts Colleges, held at Middlebury College (see “Moving the Seminar Table to the Computer Screen,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 7, 2000) where 13 out of 15 institutions in the Associated Colleges of the South announced their new “virtual classics department”–one of the largest classics departments in the United States. Their first course–Advanced Latin–is being offered this fall. The course, team-taught by six professors, will involve about 30 students. Their goal is not to boost course enrollment, but to enhance the quality of education.

One of the participants at the Summit, Michael McPherson, the president of Macalester College, commented that marketing distance-education courses to off-campus audiences is “just the wrong business for us to get into. We need to deepen what we now do best, rather than to go out into some new business like selling courseware.”

The business of education is learning. No amount of high-tech hype and impressive “bells and whistles” will ever change that fact. Bloody April was not a moment of reckoning for academia. No college president or academic dean saw his or her prized stock options go through the floor. One hopes, though, that its lessons will not be lost on us. Let’s get back to the business of education.

Van Weigel is a professor of ethics and economic development at Eastern College, in St. David’s, PA. He is the author of a forthcoming book on e-learning and higher education from Jossey-Bass.

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