FROM THE PROVOST
Report on Distributed Learning
To the University Community
Last winter, a subcommittee of the Academic
Planning and Budget Committee, expanded to include faculty and staff possessing
particular expertise in information technology, was established to consider
the rapidly growing area of distributed learning and the role that Penn
should play as a premier teaching and research university. The report that
follows describes the potential for distributed learning to revolutionize
higher education and the issues that need to be addressed as part of Penn's
involvement. It also provides a set of recommendations that will enable
Penn to best participate in this dynamic area in a manner that supports
our strategic goals as outlined in the Agenda
--Michael L. Wachter, Interim Provost
Report of the Provost's Committee on Distributed
We have entered one of the most challenging and
creative periods in Penn's intellectual history, due in large part to the
dramatic advances in information technology. The electronic revolution offers
bold opportunities for academic institutions. Nowhere is this more evident
than in the rapidly growing area of distance or distributed learningthe
delivery of educational programs over the Internet, including the world-wide
web and video conferencing.
Penn has begun exploring this new electronic terrain
in a variety of ways, including the creation of engaging 24-hour classroom
among faculty and students, a new pre-freshman
course which introduces students to Penn even before they arrive on campus,
and a variety of new courses for professional, master's and certificate
programs. The value of these new tools is apparentthey allow us to extend
teaching beyond the physical boundaries of the traditional classroom and
provide greater flexibility in how and when students can learn. They also
allow both faculty and students to take advantage of some of the most up-to-date
research results anywhere in the world. In addition to their augmentation
of our traditional residential programs, the new electronic tools also allow
us to reach new students anywhere in the world.
This new environment carries with it both enormous
promise and considerable riskthe inherent risk in doing nothing and the
risk in doing something, but not doing it well. Those institutions that
can change, innovate and lead are likely to thrive; those that cannot are
in danger of losing their preeminence. We affirm that in distributed learning,
as in residential learning, Penn must retain its position as the institution
of choice for the very best students.
The number of distributed learning programs offered
is growing rapidly; over 700 accredited institutions in the United States
now offer some form of distributed learning. However, most of these programs
are held in community colleges or in state universities and represent an
expansion of their traditional extension programs. A few of our peer institutionsDuke,
MIT, Cornell, Stanford and Oxford for exampleoffer master's degree or certificate
programs. Penn, like those institutions, is just now entering this rapidly-emerging
network-based educational field. Although we offer web-based courses and
audio lectures-on-demand, degree-granting and even certificate programs
are still rare.
The new technologies also provide opportunities
to expand continuing or life-long education, including certificate, executive
education and pro-fessional recertification programs. Pre-college programs
and intellectual enhancement courses aimed at older students are of increasing
interest as well.
On the other hand, while distributed learning should
significantly enhance the way we deliver our traditional residential programs,
initiatives currently underway among our peers do not include undergraduate
and Ph.D. programs. For the foreseeable future, undergraduate and Ph.D.
degree programs will remain the domain of residential instruction among
institutions of Penn's caliber.
Penn does have a potential competitive advantage
in distributed learning. We are, and have always been, entrepreneurial.
And we are already strong in the established fields where distributed learning
is making the greatest inroadsbusiness, health, and engineering fields where
knowledge changes rapidly and practitioners cannot easily find time in their
careers to pursue additional education full-time.
The proliferation of distributed learning educational
programs raises a number of important questions: What admission criteria
should be used in enrolling students? Which faculty should teach the courses
and on what basis should they be compensated? Who should monitor the quality
of the programs? What is clear is that in distributed learning
Penn must aim to be among the very best, maintaining established University
levels of excellence.
Distributed learning also raises complex questions
regarding the funding, development, distribution and marketing of such programs.
Their development involves real and recurring costs, including significant
technology infrastructure. Some universities have made expensive investments
in equipment and personnel in order to maintain control of the development
and delivery of their programs. Others have formed collaborative agreements
with for-profit firms raising questions about the control over course content,
admissions, and the choice of learning sites. Finally, distributed learning
also raises significant legal and accreditation issues including copyright
and intellectual property, and the impact of state and international regulations.
Penn is already exploring the new technological
terrain of distributed learning through individual schools initiatives.
As we sort through the significant academic, legal and financial questions
raised by this new technology, we advocate accountable experimentation and
We recommend the establishment of an internal fund
to provide planning and startup costs for new academic distributed learning
programs. In addition, we propose the creation of a small facilitation unit
in ISC to assist faculty and schools with the development and implementation
of such projects and to serve as a clearinghouse for "best practices."
Finally, we strongly urge project developers to seek advice from the General
Counsel's staff on likely legal and regulatory issues, including accreditation
in non-traditional jurisdictions, consistency with rules related to the
University's tax-exempt status, rights to use the University's name and
other trademarks, and intellectual property rights in course content. The
General Council's office must approve all agreements with outside parties,
as it currently does. The use of the University's name, as always, requires
In addition to these central initiatives, we propose
that each school extend its approval and monitoring procedures to distributed
learning courses, certificate programs and degree programs. These procedures
should take into account the novel elements raised by distributed learning.
All distributed learning degree programs, including those having the same
academic content as existing residential programs, should be approved by
the Academic Planning and Budget Committee which will use its established
procedures for approving new degree programs. A three-year school-based
review process should be instituted to assess each distributed learning
program and determine whether it is meeting its stated goals and remains
consistent with Penn's academic mission.
Finally, each school should indicate its plans
for distributed learning degree and certificate programs as part of its
regular report to the Provost's office on the strategic plan of the school
and the Agenda
for Excellence. While there is no presumption
that every school will engage in distributed learning in the near future,
we do hope that each school will give serious thought to the possibilities
Through the Internet, scholars, students, and researchers
can now regularly study, interact and present their work throughout the
world. Recently, there has been a dramatic acceleration in "distance
learning" or "distributed learning"educational programs delivered
from a home site to students in remote sites anywhere around the world through
Penn is committed to innovation wherever it enables
us to strategically position the preeminence of our educational programs.
for Excellence states that the University
"will creatively deploy new technologies, recognizing that technology
is revolutionizing the ways in which knowledge is acquired, created, and
disseminated" and will make "strategic investments" in new
programs across the arts and sciences and in the professions.
Penn is, above all else, a premier academic university.
Our admission policy has long held that selectivity is the appropriate strategy
for maintaining our status as a leading research and teaching university.
This strategic vision should be applied to the challenges posed by the new
technologies. Our preeminent goal must be to offer the finest programs to
the finest students. The world has many superb students who are not able
to study at Penn in a residential sense but would be wonderful Penn students
nevertheless. Distributed education tools can bring Penn to them and, in
the process, maintain and increase Penn's stature as one of the finest institutions
of higher education in the world.
II. The Landscape of Distributed
A. Distributed Learning Defined
Distributed learning takes a myriad of forms. It includes synchronous learning,
such as two-way video and audio-conferencing and asynchronous learning,
where the student and teacher do not need to learn and teach at the same
time or in the same space. There is little doubt that the most effective
learning takes place in a highly interactive personal format. For this reason,
synchronous learning is the most widely used method of teaching in a distributed
format. State-of-the-art video-conferencing technology can mimic traditional
classroom interaction quite effectively. Asynchronous learning also has
a key role to play for students learning at home and at work. New educational
programs that are developed, whether for residential students or non-residential
students, will most likely use a mix of synchronous and asynchronous techniques.
B. Distributed Learning Initiatives
in Higher Education
In the past several years, institutions of higher education have accelerated
the pace with which they have adopted distributed learning tools. From 1991
to 1996, the number of private, four-year institutions with distributed
learning programs more than doubled. Duke, M.I.T., Cornell, Oxford, and
Stanford are now offering distributed learning master's degree programs
and many other institutions are developing such programs.
Clearly, the distributed learning market has great
potential. A 1995 national survey of U.S. adults conducted by Washington
State University showed that regardless of income level, 81 percent of respondents
viewed gaining additional education as important to success in their work.
To this group, the advantages of nonresidential distributed learning are
obvious. For established professionals, enrolling in a residential program
can be disruptive to a career and home life. Distributed learning, on the
other hand, allows students to study wherever they might live and work.
Distributed learning programs are particularly
appealing to those who work in fields where knowledge is changing rapidly,
such as engineering, science, medicine, and business. In fact, a disproportionate
number of the existing distributed learning degree and certificate programs
are in engineering and technical fields. Notably, seventy five percent of
the master's programs offered by the most highly selective universities
are in engineering and computer science.
Another 25 percent of distributed learning master's
programs at research universities are in business administration. As with
engineering, business students are in a field where keeping up-to-date is
critical and where knowledge of the distributed learning technologies is
likely to be high. Both fields also attract large enrollments and produce
graduates who work in a wide range of leading corporations. In these fields,
distributed learning programs can be marketed directly to and through employers.
Distributed learning is also attractive in continuing
education or pre-college programs. In continuing education, such programs
are typically aimed at nontraditional undergraduates who tend to be older
and established in jobs. These students may or may not be seeking a bachelor's
degree and are often solely interested in further intellectual development.
For example, Brown University has just introduced its CyberLearning Community
program consisting of non-credit courses open to all students interested
in humanities courses ranging from Homer's Odyssey to Buddhist Thought
and Practice. In pre-college education, Stanford has an Educational Program
for Gifted Youth offering multimedia, computer-based undergraduate courses
such as mathematics, physics, and expository writing to secondary school
students outside of the classroom. These talented students can then move
into university-level courses with advanced placement credit even before
finishing high school.
By contrast, none of the top undergraduate institutions
offer bachelors degree programs via distributed learning. In undergraduate
education, the residential experience is vital because it brings students
together in a new living and learning format away from home. Residential
undergraduate education will thrive for many decades to come. The real challenge
facing undergraduate education is how to exploit the power of the new teaching
technologies to enhance the quality of the residential experience.
Ph.D. education is also unlikely to move to a distributed
learning format. Outstanding Ph.D. education requires individualized intellectual
interaction between the professor and the student. As of spring 1997, no
distributed learning Ph.D. programs were offered by the top fifty universities
with the exception of an unusual program in engineering at the University
of Virginia. However, distributed learning technologies will certainly affect
Ph.D. education in their ability to create more timely intellectual collaborations
across universities and more flexible teaching arrangements within a university.
C. Distributed Learning Initiatives
Today at Penn, most distributed learning programs are in the experimental
or start-up stage. Individual distributed learning courses are certainly
more prevalent than degree or certificate programs. As successful results
are achieved, individual courses will likely be aggregated to form certificate
and degree programs. For example, Penn's School of Engineering and Applied
Science, supported by Sloan Foundation funding, is converting its master's
program in Telecommunications into web format. At this moment, Penn has
only one degree program offered exclusively through distributed learninga
masters degree program in nurse-midwifery offered by the School of Nursing
to a small number of students across Pennsylvania. The program uses the
Commonwealth's HealthNet video-conferencing network and is generously supported
by the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health.
New information technologies are providing substantial
instructional enhancements for faculty who adapt their teaching techniques
to the new media. Such technologies are beginning to enrich Penn's residential
programs. Entering students who arrive each fall are already familiar with
emerging educational technologies and these students are eager to use computer,
video and audio to enrich the courses they take at college. Students also
have the ability to network with our faculty before they come to Penn. In
the Class of 2002, 64.3 percent of the students admitted early reported
an e-mail address on their applications. Taking advantage of this electronic
accessibility, Professors James O'Donnell and Alan Filreis started a lively
writing course to introduce these students to Penn.
Penn is also experimenting with pre-college programs.
The goal, in part, is to attract the brightest college prospects to our
residential program. Full-fledged distributed courses for pre-college students
under development at Penn include a calculus course and an anthropology
Additionally, a number of schools are entering
the distributed learning continuing education arena with certificate, executive
education and professional recertification programs. Among these programs
is a new Wharton certificate program that targets individuals who hold a
bachelor's degree and are interested in advancing their business careers.
D. Distributed Learning
Initiatives Among For-Profits
Producing a successful distributed education course can be far more demanding
than preparing a traditional course for classroom delivery. Like our traditional
residential programs, distributed learning courses require excellent content.
But given the nature of the student body, the needed content may require
a different mix between theory and up-to-date application. In addition,
they require an effective integration of visual material, text, audio, and
Given these differences, for-profit companies are
increasingly playing an important role in distributed learning. Firms that
own video-conferencing facilities and equipment as well as the necessary
production and marketing expertise are particularly well positioned in this
emerging field. Some of these firms actively seek universities to collaborate
with them in creating distance learning programs. Caliber Learning Network,
for example, does not seek to compete with universities in creating academic
content but instead specializes in converting traditional educational material
into multimedia format, and then presenting it through their network of
remote-site studios. Other companies, although potentially interested in
collaboration, are more likely to be competitors in creating content. Firms
such as Microsoft and Motorola provide advanced technical training to their
own employees and are now interested in attracting professionals in other
firms who wish to upgrade their skills.
Collaborating with for-profit companies has potential
advantages, including their capacity to provide considerable expertise in
visual content and technical abilities. It also eliminates the need to make
expensive investments and costly upgrades. Such collaboration also carries
with it risks. Existing distributed learning initiatives are still in their
early stages of development and as such, important philosophical and practical
considerations need to be considered. Will such programs limit a university's
flexibility? At the other extreme, will the collaborating firm simply be
able to adopt the academic content and do its own programs? Who will have
control over the course standards, admission standards, and the choice of
sites? For these reasons, collaboration with for-profits need to be
closely monitored by the schools and the University.
The landscape of distributed learning programs
is likely to include an array of traditional universities offering their
own programs, universities collaborating with for-profit companies, and
for-profit companies breaking new ground on their own. Based on Penn's goals
of academic excellence, our highest quality and most challenging competitors
are likely to continue to be universities such as Stanford and MIT. Penn
will certainly not compete with the Internet equivalent of the diploma mills
that have long existed. Nor will we compete with for-profit firms that forgo
high content standards in order to appeal to the widest possible audience.
The new tools of distributed learning force us
to rethink our approach to educating students. This is not only a challenge
that must be accepted, but an opportunity that we should embrace. This environment
of enormous promise does carry with it considerable risk and forces us to
address some difficult and groundbreaking questions.
(1) What technologies work and how will they
differ across programs?
The visual and audio content of distributed
learning programs can be critical to their success. To date, distributed
learning programs have experimented with a mix of two-way video-conferencing,
web-based audio and video formats, e-mail, video tapes, and short-term face-to-face
(2) What type of infrastructure will be needed
to support these programs and make certain that they are successful?
Production of any educational program using the Internet will require new
investments in computing equipment and personnel.Video-con-ferencing requires
remote classroom facilities and equipment, and on-site remote technical
support staff. Providing these resources often leads to the formation of
business relationships with for-profit firms or other educational institutions
that possess the needed facilities, equipment and staff.
(3) How will these distributed learning collaborations
The details of the structure are of great importance to the University as
well as the ultimate success of the venture. In general, a joint venture
with a for-profit entity will pose significantly greater legal challenges
for the University than will a more traditional vendor relationship, particularly
in the area of tax law compliance and intellectual property rights. From
the outset, schools and programs should prepare a detailed business plan
of any proposed relationship with an outside entity.
(4) What types of courses should be developed?
Courses can be developed across all of Penn's schools and must meet established
University levels of excellence. Optimally, courses should be based on existing
residential courses and complement scholarly research interests of the faculty.
(5) What standards will guide admission to the
program and how will students' progress be monitored?
It has long been a cornerstone of Penn's admission policy that our selectivity
helps sustain our worldwide recognition as a leading research and teaching
university. The core clientele of distributed learning courses may differ
significantly from Penn residential programs. They are likely to include
busy executives and professionals with many years of on-the-job experience
who may be outstanding students yet not perform as well on traditional measures
as do students just out of college. Schools and programs, however, should
not deviate from Penn's long-standing practice of selectivity in admitting
students. One important way of assuring student quality is to establish
admissions standards of equal selectivity to those applied to students in
residence. A judicious use of some residence requirements should help to
ensure the quality of distributed learning programs.
(6) How will faculty be chosen to teach in distributed
learning programs? If standing faculty
are used, what is the best way to compensate them?
A key indicator of excellence in distributed learning will be the extent
to which standing faculty are involved in the teaching of courses. The essential
research and teaching goals of the University should not be compromised.
Over-load teaching of distributed learning courses has some advantages,
but may be a distraction from in-load teaching and research commitments.
Thus, the mix of in-load and over-load teaching must reflect the needs of
the program and the interests and availability of the faculty.
(7) Who will monitor the quality of the programs
offered to ensure that the reputation and standards of the University are
The faculty of each school must be responsible for the maintenance of high
quality instruction, but the new technologies require a new type of vigilance
over presentation and content. All of Penn's twelve schools have an interest
in maintaining the excellent reputation of their own programs as well as
those throughout the University.
To be successful, distributed learning programs
must contribute to the Agenda
for Excellence's overarching goal of having
world-class students taught by world-class faculty. In addition to this
superordinate goal, the Agenda also specifically envisages the development
of strategic masters programs and the deployment of the new technologies
that are embodied by distributed learning courses. To attain these goals,
we believe it is important to support and encourage accountable experimentation
in distributed learning programs. We thus make recommendations in five broad
areas relating to distributed learning programs at Penn:
1. Create a Penn Distributed
Learning Venture Capital Fund
We advocate that arrangements be made for the University to sponsor an "internal
venture capital fund" for new distributed learning programs. A subcommittee
of Academic Planning and Budget (AP&B), expanded to include faculty
and staff possessing particular expertise in distributed learning, should
direct this fund and oversee its administration. Funds should be used to
provide planning and startup costs for individual schools or groups of schools
with meritorious programs. In providing this funding, the University should
act as a partner with the schools: distributed learning programs that receive
internal venture funding will, in addition to any division of revenues,
in accordance with standing University policies, return a share of their
revenues as a royalty to fund successor programs. Like all good venture
capital firms, the University will actively support and hold accountable
the management of the distributed learning programs it supports.
2. Form an ISC Distributed
Learning Facilitation Unit
To preserve the quality of Penn's entries into new educational markets,
a small working unit should be created in Information Systems and Computing
(ISC), within existing budgetary limits for 1998-99, to support and facilitate
distributed learning programs in the schools. Working under the Vice Provost
for Information Systems and Computing and with the guidance of the subcommittee
of AP&B, this unit should offer a full range of assistance on the technology,
marketing and distribution of distributed learning programs. The unit should
work to help schools define and implement program ideas in the ways that
most effectively meet their particular business objectives. It should provide
information on distributed learning programs offered elsewhere, including
markets, competitors, formats, and media. The unit can coordinate acquisition
of equipment and software across schools to take advantage of possible economies
of scale and quantity discounts. The unit should maintain updated knowledge
and contacts in the areas of vendors and potential collaborators, which
may include both for-profit and not-for-profit companies who offer technology,
marketing and distribution services, or who seek academic content for the
distributed learning market. In sum, this unit should serve as a clearinghouse
for "best practices" and an adviser for programs that need assistance.
In performing these functions, the unit should work closely with the Office
of the General Counsel on legal and regulatory matters, and with the Office
of the Provost on institutional policy and strategy.
3. Monitor Contract Formation
through the Office of the General Counsel and the Executive Vice President
Distributed learning initiatives will often benefit from collaboration or
contracting with for-profit firms that have expertise in areas of visual
presentation and technology or in network facilities and off-site facility
staffing. Collaborations with for-profit firms raise both important opportunities
and novel questions that need to be carefully considered. The business and
legal aspects of all such collaborations should be evaluated by the Office
of the Executive Vice President and the Office of the General Counsel. The
University must protect its right to control the academic content, the form
of presentation of that content, and Penn's tax-exempt status in any collaborative
The General Counsel's office should devote resources
to the development of expertise in and responsiveness to requests to handle
distributed learning contracts on behalf of schools and programs. The office,
using outside counsel when necessary, should be prepared to act expeditiously
on requests from the schools or programs. General Counsel's staff should
advise project developers on legal and regulatory issues, including accreditation
in non-traditional jurisdictions, consistency with rules related to the
University's tax-exempt status, rights to use the University's name and
other trademarks, and intellectual property rights in course content.
The starting point for contract formation should
be the University's existing policies on these matters. The General Counsel's
office, in collaboration with the ISC facilitation unit, should also work
to adapt and streamline these policies to conform to the new realities of
the distributed learning era. Although a single standard form contract is
unlikely to fit the needs of all programs, the interests of the schools
and the University are best protected by a unified approach to the general
issues that are raised. The goal of this effort should be to develop alternative
standard forms that represent the interests of the University and its faculties
and to ensure compliance with all applicable legal requirements.
4. Establish School Strategic
Planning and Reporting on Distributed Learning Initiatives
To maintain high levels of excellence in our programming, it is necessary
to establish a strategic approach to advance Penn's distributed learning
programs. In order to fulfill that need, each school should report regularly
to the Office of the Provost on its plans in the distributed learning degree
and certificate programming areas. The reports should show how the prospective
distributed learning plans address both the strategic plan of the school
and the Agenda
for Excellence and provide answers to the
issues raised above. There is no presumption that every school will
engage in distributed learning in the near future, but there is every reason
to hope that each school will give serious thought to the possibilities
5. Approve, Monitor and Evaluate
Distributed Learning Programs
Each of Penn's schools should adopt school-based procedures for evaluating
all distributed learning courses, certificate programs, and degrees. In
particular, these procedures should address the issues raised above and
explicitly review a detailed academic plan and a business plan of any proposed
relationship with outside entities. We also recommend that for the foreseeable
future all programs be reviewed by the originating school on an on-going
basis to assure quality and to guide planning for the future. Finally, given
the potential global impact for certificate programs taught via distributed
learning, we recommend a careful re-evaluation by school leadership of all
current certificate programs prior to their distribution by these new media.
Through the established procedures of AP&B,
the University and the proposed distributed learning subcommittee of AP&B
should adopt specific, comprehensive procedures for approving all degree-granting
distributed learning programs, even when those programs have the same academic
content as existing residential programs. These procedures should be based
on and congruent with current procedures, but should be expanded to incorporate
the novel elements raised in distributed learning programs. Since the trustees
of the University grant all degrees, the Academic Planning and Budget Committee
should forward all degree programs it approves, including those that are
similar to existing residential programs, to the trustees of the University
for their approval. This would establish extra safeguards on the adoption
of distributed learning degree programs.
For all distributed learning degree programs, the
University should establish a three-year review process to assess their
fulfillment of the stated goals of the programs. These reviews should be
rigorous, normative, academic, and market-based. They should be guided by
the academic and business plans put forward at the initiation of the distributed
learning programs. Finally, the reviews should ensure that all distributed
learning programs are consistent with Penn's academic mission and capacities.
V. The Future of Distributed
Learning at Penn
The future is upon usand it is moving faster and
in far more significant ways than we could have anticipated. Not only are
the new network and information technologies transforming the way we teach
and interact, they are also challenging our traditional student markets
even while they foster new ones. They are also pushing academic institutions
into a convergence with the private sector. Guided by the Agenda For Excellence, Penn will move forward into this new educational era
with a deliberate entrepreneurial deployment of distributed learning technology.
With the curriculum review structure and the technical resources proposed
here, Penn will put forward the best of its educational programs to take
full advantage of the strengths of the new media. We will thereby ensure
that Penn's stature will remain world-class in both its traditional residential
programs as well as its new, innovative distributed learning ventures.
Provost's Committee on Distributed Learning
Michael L. Wachter, Interim Provost (Chair)
Gregory Farrington, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science
Eduardo Glandt, Heuer Professor of Chemical Engineering
Richard E. Kihlstrom, Miller-Freedman Professor of Finance
Walter Licht, Professor of History and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies,
School of Arts and Sciences
Janice F. Madden, Professor of Sociology and Vice Provost for Graduate
James J. O'Donnell, Professor of Classics and Vice Provost for Information
Science and Computing
Jerry Wind, Lauder Professor of Marketing
Michael Eleey, Associate Vice Provost, IS&C (ex officio)
Bernard Lentz, Director of Institutional Research and Analysis (ex
Almanac, Vol. 44, No. 30, April 21, 1998
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