Quarterly for Education and Technology: Online Learning in the Academy: The Conundrum That May Divide Us

Online Learning in the Academy: The Conundrum That May Divide Us

Lynne M. Schrum

Educators have shared an ultimate dream–the potential of anytime, anywhere learning, with lifelong learners determining what they want or need to know, and then having just-in-time access to whatever models of learning suit them. In this dream, all individuals reach their greatest potential. Younger learners have the option to learn in their homes when they cannot, or choose not to, attend traditional classrooms. Online learning holds out the possibility of the dream becoming reality. Moreover, many of us see the larger good that online learning may hold for society. For example, a medical worker in a remote village could solve a complex problem with the aid of online resources, or farmers can learn of new strategies to increase food production. All of these things appear to be within the reach of our technological society, and many of us have devoted our lives to pursuing these dreams through experimentation, exploration, and research.

The goal of this article is not to recount this dream, nor to describe the myriad success stories or efforts at reaching equity and access to the tools that will allow this development. If we look at the abundance and growth in the number of online degrees, credit and non-credit courses, and the burgeoning informal learning opportunities, and count the number of articles and conferences devoted to this subject, then we should all be thrilled. Rather, its purpose is to raise the issues that may threaten the realization of these worthy goals. Further, it is to encourage educators to fulfill our responsibility by maintaining pedagogical strength, academic rigor, and intellectual standards in online learning.


Around the world, learners are demanding education anytime and in convenient forms, and institutions are responding by committing substantial resources to providing online distance learning. The transition to this online environment is not a trivial matter, and the challenge for faculty members is to understand the relationships between user and technology, instructor and participants, and among participants (Gibbs, 1998; Palloff and Pratt, 1999; Schrum, 1998). This is complex enough; however, other factors further confound the development and growth of online courses. It is worth looking more deeply at the current state of this process.

Online learning has undergone rapid development. Estimates are that by 2001, “more than 75 [percent] of traditional U.S. colleges and universities will use distance-learning technologies and techniques in one or more `traditional’ academic programs” (Zastrocky, 1997; cited in Radford, 1997). We know the stated reasons for the growth in this area. Public media have raised individuals’ expectations, the digital economy has created a demand for technical expertise, and adults are demanding greater flexibility and control over their learning. Moreover, business and industry have begun to challenge the traditional models of learning and teaching, through corporate universities, for-profit institutions, and other less formal opportunities.

Even more significantly, it appears that “the economic functions of higher education have moved to the foreground, the educational functions to the background” (Slaughter, 1998). As energy is put into identifying funding sources and building corporate relationships, a tension has evolved within higher education institutions. The pressures on the institutions come from two main sources: demands for greater access from government and learners, and competition from industry and for-profit companies. If one institution designs and offers a program to be delivered online, other institutions will most certainly feel compelled to join the efforts and compete (and make money doing so).

Recent news reports show some disturbing events. First, the UCLA administration launched an initiative that required all arts-and-sciences course faculty members to construct World Wide Web sites. This decision was made during the summer, with no faculty input or safeguards for support or intellectual property protection. Moreover, the university created its own for-profit company to promote online education, the Home Education Network. Soon after this, York University in Toronto tried a similar effort. Its administration made demands on faculty without safeguards or faculty input, and also formulated a similar for-profit arm of the university, called Cultech, that was perceived as a threat to the traditional university. Faculty members staged a historic two-month strike that finally ended when formal contractual protection was secured against this type of action.

Noble (1998) called these efforts by administrators “commoditization” and identified two important implications. First, intellectual property embedded in online courses would be placed into a currently ill-defined zone of accountability and control. Theoretically then, administrators might hire less skilled and cheaper workers to deliver the courses. Examples of this already exist in for-profit companies funded by venture capital. These companies, lured by the promise of huge profits, have employed well-known experts to design courses, and then hired less skilled “tutors” to run those courses. It is worth asking, then, if any protection of faculty members, particularly non-tenured faculty, exists in traditional post-secondary institutions.

Second, students may become “guinea pigs” in trials of products and procedures “masquerading as courses” (Noble, 1998). We might wonder if these students should be paid for their participation, or at least whether they should be paying tuition for the privilege of providing feedback to the development of these courses. Are any protections for students and their learning currently available? This may be seen as “a battle between students and professors on one side and university administrators and companies with educational products to sell on the other” (Noble, 1998).


In recent research focused on a primarily online MBA program, Schrum and Benson (2000) found faculty members had significant concerns about the pedagogical rigor left in their courses after modifications for online delivery had been mandated. This program, funded by a large corporation, expected that the students were to be considered “clients.” Students were promised a maximum of 15 hours of schoolwork per week, and when that was exceeded, students loudly voiced their displeasure. Toward the end of the first cohort’s program, the students spoke about their ability to easily determine the minimum effort necessary for each assignment, reading and responding only to what had to be completed, and expressed little intellectual curiosity about the larger issues of their education. Faculty members expressed distress that, in efforts to cut back homework hours, they may have inadvertently minimized the content and quality.

Over the past few years, I have participated in several workshops with groups of professors who were “encouraged” to put their courses online. Sentiments similar to those of the MBA faculty were echoed repeatedly. With little knowledge or experience of online content delivery, they were uncertain about their efforts at being able to provide significant educational experiences and opportunities, design meaningful interaction, and meet the needs of all their students, rather than just the few who were extremely well motivated. They worded about the extra time demands necessary to successfully teach in this manner, and specifically if meeting those time demands would be counted toward the yardstick of promotion and tenure. Further, librarians have voiced concerns that students who have few skills in evaluation of Web information, bibliographic searching, or retrieval strategies may take online classes. Their worry is that this lack of knowledge would negatively impact students’ success and learning.

One might reasonably say that faculty are simply protecting and defending their attachment to the traditional classroom practice (Jaffe, 1998). Faculty members appear to be willing to explore and experiment with the new technologies, Jaffe insisted, but may not embrace them as completely legitimate for all university learning. And many faculty members may argue that the value of a post-secondary education far exceeds the sum of its coursework. Regardless, these issues must be addressed openly, bringing faculty concerns into the discussion, if meaningful change is going to take place.


Distance education has long been considered an excellent way to learn by those who have been involved in designing and developing quality distance learning opportunities. They are well aware that it is intensive, demanding, rewarding, and as with all educational experiences, offers enormous potential. Unfortunately, distance education has also been inundated by those who see it primarily as a way to save money by reducing staff, faculty, and building resources.

Good reasons exist to move toward online learning, not the least of which involve pedagogy and productivity. However, safeguards must be institutionalized. Faculty members have a right to stable technological and support infrastructure, initial and ongoing pedagogical assistance, and careful safeguarding of their intellectual rights. Students have a right to understand the challenges they may face, to expect interaction and support from faculty and institution alike, and to be treated fairly.

Perhaps we might consider the difficulty of balancing the needs and goals of all the stakeholders in the move to online learning, by considering measured and reasoned progress with a modicum of caution and good sense. We might also balance the desires and access of potential students with the needs of the academic community. Finally, we must remember the real concerns of institutions and the expectation of society that learning will be of high quality and that knowledge must be for more than gaining new work skills.


Gibbs, W. J. (1998). Implementing online learning environments. Journal of Computers in Higher Education 10(1): 16-37.

Jaffe, D. (1998). Institutionalized resistance to asynchronous learning networks. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Environments 2(2).

Noble, D. (1998). Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. First Monday 3(1).

Palloff, R. M., and Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Radford, A. (1997). The future of multimedia in education. First Monday 2(11). [Available online at: http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/ issue2_11/radford/index.html.]

Schrum, L. (1998). Online education: A study of emerging pedagogy. In B. Cahoon (Ed.), Adult Learning and the Internet (Vol. 78, pp. 53-61). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schrum, L., and Benson, A. (2000). A case study of one online MBA program: Lessons from the first iteration of an innovative educational experience. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

Slaughter, S. (1998). Federal policy and supply-side institutional resource allocation at public research universities. Review of Higher Education 21 (3): 209-244.

Lynne Schrum is an associate professor in the Department of Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia. Prior to her university work, she taught in elementary schools. She has taught courses on distance learning, telecommunications, research methods, and introduction to instructional technology. Schrum’s research and teaching focus on online and distance learning, implementation of technological innovations in education, and appropriate uses of information technology in K-12 education. She has written two books and numerous articles and monographs on these subjects and consults and speaks with post-secondary educators, K-12 educators and administrators, and policy makers throughout the United States and in many countries around the world. Schrum is the immediate past-president of the International Society for Technology in Education.

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