Michael Wachter

Penn gets ready for the Next Big Thing -- distributed learning.


In the first collaboration of its kind, the University recently announced it has teamed with Baltimore-based Caliber Learning Network Inc. in a distributed-learning agreement that will propel traditional classroom experiences into the age of the Internet

Interim Provost Michael L. Wachter talks of distributed learning -- formerly referred to as distance learning -- as being transformational, a word he doesn't take lightly. He sees the pairing of high-tech learning devices, such as integrated satellite, video conferencing and PC networking, with live instruction and traditional classroom philosophies as a revolutionary new way to teach -- and to open new markets.

A priority in the Agenda for Excellence, distributed learning raises numerous issues which have been actively investigated by the Provost's Committee on Distributed Learning at Penn. Those issues, including admissions standards and funding sources, were outlined in a recently released report (available online at the Almanac Web site).

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"This truly is going to be revolutionary. It will open up new markets in a way that hasn't happened in decades."

Photo by Candace diCarlo

"Wharton Direct," delivered through Caliber centers throughout the country, is a distributed-learning program that starts up next semester , and Wachter said it is in direct response to the needs of business organizations and executives who cannot afford the time and travel associated with traditional campus-based programs.

Q. What's the difference between distance and distributed learning? Just a new buzz word?
A.
Distributed learning is more than a new buzz word. It better captures what the issues are. We can have distributed learning that takes place between College Hall and the College Houses -- and that's not much of a distance, but it's distributed in the sense that distributed computing refers to everybody linked together on a network.

Q. What has the feedback been like since the announcement?
A.
The feedback I've been getting is, "How do I do it?" I've received a number of requests as to whether we have a system up and running and how people can tap into it, who to contact if they want to do this. So, there's a certain amount of excitement.

Q. What are some of the reactions? Is anyone resistant to the technology?
A.
I think the main thing is to think about what the market is for this, and, by and large, the market is going to be concentrated in business and engineering at the master's level and it will be used by the people who are not resistant to technology, who are part of the current technology, who understand it, live in it and think it's very natural to learn in that environment.
   Our students coming in are very much tied into the Internet and using the computer to gain information that you might have gained before by going to the library or going to a professor. This group, as well, will take easily and appreciatively to the Web-based, additional help that professors put on the Web, as a part of the traditional residential courses.

Q. Do you surf the Web?
A.
Somewhat. Not as much as I probably will a year or two from now, but I do a little bit. I'm a little too methodical for "surfing"; I know the sites I want to go to. I do pull information off the Web, but I do it in a more concentrated way.

Q. How will the schools approach distributed learning?
A.
This truly is going to be revolutionary in terms of its impact on higher education. It will open up new markets in a way that hasn't happened in decades. A few decades ago, we moved toward an educational system that stresses graduate as well as undergraduate education. As a greater percentage of students went on to graduate education, this university and, of course, others moved to offer a vastly expanded array of graduate course offerings and degree programs.
   Executive education and continuing education became a small piece of that market. All of those markets were within the confines of the University, bounded between 33rd Street and 40th Street. The next piece of this will be classrooms without fixed geographical sites. There will be the home site, only in the sense that that's where the professor will be. But there will be classrooms with students in them in 50 sites throughout the U.S. and, in no time at all, in sites around the globe. And the results of that are potentially revolutionary in the sense that much of what restricts Penn's size is its residential campus. We're competitive with the other Ivies when we admit students, but once you're admitted, you're either at Penn or Dartmouth or Harvard. Once we're freed from these geographical boundaries, we're all potentially in the same market.

Q. How do you mean?
A.
If you're a computer engineer in Boulder, Colo., and you want a master's degree, one of your choices today would be, "Do I get the degree, which means leaving my job and living in a different city, and take my courses in that different city?" But, in a new world, you'll stay in Boulder and go to MIT or Penn.

Q. But preferably Penn?
A.
Penn has a real advantage in this -- it's a "made-for-Penn" development. We are strong in the areas where distance learning is going to take off -- namely in business, engineering, medical and technical fields. In addition, by having 12 schools on a compact campus, we can experiment across a greater range of options, learning from our experiences and adopting the best practices that much faster.

Q. What are the advantages of the agreement with Caliber?
A.
What Caliber provides are classrooms around the nation, and the technology and sophisticated two-way video conferencing to make it work. They're also skilled at visual presentation, which is something we don't usually worry about in traditional residential instruction.
   Much of what we have at this point is going to be synchronous -- the professor and student will not be in the same place, but in contact at the same time -- rather than asynchronous. It is clear that people learn best that way. Virtually every type of education today is interactive.

Q. What's most valuable about it?
A.
The great advantage of this, the critical point, is distributed learning opens new markets because the people who are in these classrooms are people who cannot come back to college. They just can't afford it in terms of where they are in their careers.
   But as the pace continues to speed up, more of us will need continuing, very high-level graduate instruction to keep us up to date. We're 40 to 50 years old, we have families, full-time jobs and careers. We can't go back to college; we can't take off a year or two for the residential experience. So we'll be the distributed learning new market.
   Traditional college-age students will still want and have the residential experience. The current group of MBAs at Wharton who are now four years out of college -- they will come back to Wharton for the MBA. None of the current programs will view these programs as competitive. Our offerings will be enriched by this.

Q. What are some of the biggest risks?
A.
One is that we do nothing. This market will develop quickly and those who get into it first will be able to establish much more of a presence and a recognition for doing this. You don't have to be first, but you have to be in there early.
   The other risk is that it's going to be very easy to do this badly. This requires much more technology for it to work because the classroom has not changed in several hundred years.
   Distributed learning requires not only academic content, but visual content and visual presentation. We don't know how to do that in terms of what we've learned from traditional residential teaching.

Q. Is distributed learning the Next Big Thing?
A.
It sounds cliched to say that this kind of thing can be transformational, but it is. This is going to be big. It's going to expand markets and change the way we teach in a way that hasn't happened in decades. And it will start happening quickly.

Originally published on May 14, 1998