GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR DISTANCE EDUCATION IN SOUTH CAROLINA
As the state coordinating board for higher education in South Carolina, the Commission on Higher Education bears responsibility for setting progressive instructional policy that enables public colleges and universities to meet the demands of an ever-changing educational environment. Certainly one of the most widespread developments to affect this environment in recent years is the practice of delivering academic coursework by electronic means. Most simply defined as electronic instruction delivered at a different place than where the instructor is located or at a different time than when the instructor teaches the class, distance learning presents higher education with opportunities and challenges of a magnitude seldom encountered in the last 50 years.
On one level, the proliferation of distance education programming provides an unparalleled chance to strengthen and give added meaning to the concept of lifelong learning, to realize our commitment to the citizenship demands of a complex, pluralistic democracy. And yet, on another level, the extension of academic programming anywhere, anytime tempts us to ignore the qualitative concerns that safeguard the integrity of higher learning. If we succumb too readily to this temptation, we risk abrogating, at least in part, the critical collegiate role of helping society determine knowledge worthy of transmitting to successive generations. As a means of charting a direction towards the former goal that skirts the latter danger, the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education endorses the following set of principles, responsibilities, and priorities related to distance education. Through these statements, the Commission hopes to set a context in which public higher education can effectively seek answers to the questions that distance education will prompt in the coming years. In this way, the agency also hopes to begin the process outlined in the most recent Strategic Plan for Higher Education (approved in June 1998) of developing state-level plans and policies for distance education.
II. Principles Underpinning Distance Education in South Carolina
In February 1998, the Commission endorsed two important documents that provide part of a framework for distance education in South Carolina: Principles of Good Practice and Common Standards, both published by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). The Commission fully supports the language contained in these documents. However, since both of these publications address institutional participation in the SREBs Southern Regional Electronic Campus rather than distance education as a whole, the Commission has tailored a broader set of statements related to distance education in South Carolina. Specifically, the public higher education community in South Carolina agrees on the following principles:
- Quality instruction is the linchpin to the success of distance education. While distance education plays a vital role in providing access to higher education programming, that access is meaningful to individual students and to the state as a whole only when programs develop and meet rigorous academic standards. For this reason, coursework delivered by distance technology must meet the same standards as coursework offered on-campus and must be held accountable on an on-going basis to the expectations of faculty, students, employers, and the general public.
- Equitable access to higher learning is one of the primary goals of distance education in South Carolina. For higher education to perform the important function of providing the education needed for social and economic mobility in the next century, public colleges and universities must widen the scope of their efforts to involve students of every age, race, and social background. Because of its innate ability to reach into hundreds of communities around the state, distance education technology can help achieve this goal.
- Collaboration between and among public and private colleges and universities in the offering of distance education programs is essential if students are to receive comprehensive, affordable instruction. Wherever possible, institutions should work to deliver programs via consortial arrangements as a means of holding down costs and providing the widest scope of faculty expertise. At the very least, individual colleges and universities should value cooperation with their sister schools around the state and the region as a means for providing the best possible programming for South Carolina students.
- Underserved geographical and programmatic areas should receive first priority from colleges and universities in determining which programs to offer at which locations. In this fashion, public higher education can make sure that it reaches first those students with the most critical program needs.
- Some academic programs are better suited to distance education delivery than others. Colleges and universities should take care to ensure that they offer programs via distance education that can provide high quality, comprehensive learning experiences relative to the demands of the disciplines involved.
- Market demand, as reflected by valid, reliable sources, will serve as the primary determinant for the development of distance education programming. One of distance education's greatest possible advantages is cost effectiveness - the offering of the most coursework to the most number of students per dollar spent. In order for this to hold true, colleges and universities must offer those programs that meet student demand in a fashion that best uses the positive attributes of distance technology.
- Compatibility of technology is essential to enhance collaboration and cooperation between and among institutions and to enable delivery of instruction in the most effective formats. Such compatibility is critical to students ability to access distance education programming from a variety of sources. It is also desirable as a means of promoting collaboration among colleges and universities, thus restraining costs. Institutions must also look to develop distance education capabilities that provide the best possible modes of delivery for the types of programs offered via distance technology.
- Investment in infrastructure, on the part of the state and individual institutions, is crucial to the effectiveness and efficiency of distance education. The Commission and the public colleges and universities must work with the General Assembly, the Office of the Governor, and with private business and industry to develop the technological foundation needed for a statewide distance education initiative.
- Individual student success is the single most important outcome of any education initiative, including those delivered by distance technology. While colleges and universities must be accountable to the needs of business and industry and to the citizens of South Carolina as a whole, their first responsibility is to their students, and specifically, to each student on an individual basis. The offering of programs by distance education, to whatever degree, does not change this fundamental tenet.
III. Responsibilities of the Commission and of the Colleges and Universities
The Commission on Higher Education and the public colleges and universities in South Carolina agree to work together to develop comprehensive distance education initiatives within the context of the above principles. For this to occur, both the Commission and the institutions must perform important functions relative to their own discrete missions. The sections below delineate what these functions should be for both the Commission and the colleges and universities.
Responsibilities of the Commission on Higher Education
- Serve as an open forum for the discussion of issues related to distance education, including curriculum, financing, planning, and accountability.
- Where appropriate to the CHE mission, set statewide policy related to the development and delivery of programming via distance education. With a goal of providing coherent shape and scope to the future of distance education in the state, Commission policy will encourage quality of programming, collaboration between and among institutions, and accountability to students, business, and the general public.
- Provide needed oversight that ensures quality of programming by reviewing and approving new programs offered via distance education and by reviewing and suggesting modifications to existing programs offered via distance education technology. (Note: As stipulated in the Commission's Guidelines for Academic Program Approval, extension of existing academic programs off-site solely by distance education does not require additional CHE review or approval.)
- Review and approve institutional mission statements relative to distance education.
- Determine, in conjunction with colleges and universities in the state, underserved geographical and programmatic areas.
- In conjunction with the colleges and universities, the General Assembly, and business and industry, serve as the chief advocate for raising funds to finance the use of advanced technology in the delivery of distance education programming.
- Collaborate with the public colleges and universities in the state regarding policy on degree completion using course credits earned from multiple distance education sources
Responsibilities of the Public Colleges and Universities
- Design and implement, in keeping with institutional mission, quality distance education programming that meets the needs of all the citizens of South Carolina as determined by market demands.
- Where appropriate to the institution's mission, develop a distance education/technology plan that outlines the institution's goals and aims relative to distance learning.
- Maintain high academic standards and rigorous coursework requirements in all distance education programming and ensure that these standards and requirements are the same as those applied to on-campus programming. Program components should include access to faculty advising, library resources, and opportunities for interaction with other students.
- Provide in-depth professional development opportunities for faculty to enable them to make the most effective use of distance education technology.
- Provide appropriate technical assistance to students enrolled in distance education coursework.
- Assess student outcomes in and student satisfaction with distance education programming.
- Collaborate with other public and private colleges and universities in South Carolina and in other states in the development and offering of distance education programming.
- Collaborate with the Commission on Higher Education in developing and implementing statewide distance education policy.
- Provide information to the Commission, students, and other interested stakeholders on the characteristics, costs, and benefits of distance education programming.
Some of the responsibilities above are long-term or on-going while others require immediate attention if South Carolina is to establish a coherent distance education initiative. In order for the state to realize the benefits of distance education, a proper infrastructure in terms of policy, financing, and technology must exist. From the Commission's perspective, the initiatives proposed below are the most important, immediate statewide priorities related to distance education in South Carolina. Of course, these goals will change over time: some may be achieved and thus replaced by new goals while still others may be subsumed by broader activities initiated by the Office of the Governor or by the General Assembly. In any case, the Commission believes the following initiatives remain critical to making distance education work in the most effective manner for all South Carolinians.
- Work closely with colleges and universities, the Governor's Information Resources Council, business and industry, and the General Assembly to create a comprehensive electronic network (a "backbone") that crosses current regional boundaries within the state and that provides true compatibility among distance education networks.
- Develop, as part of a combined effort of the Commission, public colleges and universities, the Office of the Governor, the General Assembly, and business and industry, a Technology Trust Fund designed to enable colleges and universities to meet the costs of upgrading their distance technology infrastructures.
- Secure programmatic articulation between colleges and universities that allows for degree completion by using coursework from several distance-delivered sources.
- Create distance education consortia that are comprised of public and private colleges and universities in the state as a means of ensuring the most effective and efficient use of financial and technological resources.