Is Distance Education the Meteor and Are Faculty the Dinosaurs?

by Chris Cumo

DEWEY DEFALCO, ASSISTANT to the Director of Distance Learning and Lead Faculty for Distance Learning at Jones College in Jacksonville, Florida, knows that some faculty dislike distance education. DeFalco sees this opposition as the natural inter-generational struggle over an emerging technology. The opponents are older, technophobic professors on the verge of retirement. Their departure will open opportunities for younger, technologically savvy faculty–the cadre of faculty who will shape the future of higher education.

However, there are signs that distance education might not be a springboard for a new generation of faculty. Instead, distance education may provide colleges and universities the option of running their empires without faculty. Faculty, on the other hand, no matter how receptive to distance education, may find colleges and universities no longer need their services. This transition to a faculty-free zone may sound alarmist, but there are signs of an incipient move in this direction.


Distance education exacerbates this absence of solidarity. Adjuncts who teach from their PCs at home have little contact with other faculty. Aside from occasional contact with a department chair, adjuncts who teach on-line are on their own.

The most obvious sign is that distance education weakens faculty by fragmenting them. This is due partly to the fact that so many distance education faculty are adjuncts. English instructor Catherine Daly has taught on-line at West Los Angeles Community College and UCLA Extension. All on-line faculty she knows are adjuncts. They, by nature, feel isolated.

Thomas Vann, Vice President of the University of Louisville AAUP chapter in Kentucky, has had little success organizing part-time faculty, in part because they fear reprisal from administrators, but also because their lack of contact with one another eviscerates the solidarity they might otherwise feel. Distance education exacerbates this absence of solidarity. Adjuncts who teach from their PCs at home have little contact with other faculty. Aside from occasional contact with a department chair, adjuncts who teach on-line are on their own.

Next, faculty who are isolated lack power. Instead, it concentrates in the hands of administrators, a trend distance education accelerates, believes David Noble, a history professor at York University in Canada. He writes in “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education” of the struggle between the managerial class of trustees and administrators who seek to impose distance education on faculty and students who do not want it. Since the trustees and administrators control the money, they can dictate policy. Noble cites the example of UCLA, where administrators require faculty to post content for all courses on-line. This gives administrators the power to standardize content as the medium of the Web forces faculty to standardize the mode of delivery. Distance education debases the craft of teaching, Noble believes, by substituting bureaucratic uniformity for the dynamism of the classroom. Education devolves into a commodity, undercutting faculty prestige and power.

In the process, faculty surrender control over the pace of work. Marie Gould, who has taught on-line for the University of Phoenix and now as an assistant professor for Pierce College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, admits she works harder on-line than in a traditional course. She must be available “24/7” answering e-mails, grading essays on the spot, responding to discussion threads on on-line bulletin boards.

The irony is that on-line faculty may be working their way to extinction. Alfred Bork, Professor Emeritus of computer science and physics at the University of California, Irvine, has developed software for on-line courses that requires no interaction with faculty. His software, which focuses on Newton’s first law of motion (inertia), for example, couples questions with simulations of objects at rest and others in motion. From these, students generalize that an object at rest remains at rest and one in motion moves in the same direction and speed unless a force acts on it, thus learning the law of inertia without any help from a physics professor.

IBM is marketing this software and others like it to universities. Bork believes universities will retain full-time faculty to develop similar software, but they could as easily hire legions of underemployed Ph.D.s to develop software on short-term contracts. Once they had designed the software and completed their contracts, universities could discard them. Education and faculty will both have become the commodity Noble fears.

Faced with the prospect that distance education fragments faculty, overworks them and may threaten to eliminate them, full- and part-time faculty should reconsider their willingness to adopt technology for its own sake. The Web is not a neutral medium. It is a Procrustean bed that stretches faculty or lops off parts of them to fit its own dimensions. As a result, faculty may have more to gain by resisting distance education than by submitting to it. A return to the traditional classroom may not be an anachronistic longing for a bygone era. It may be the only way to ensure the future of faculty in higher education.

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  • AdjunctNation Editorial Team: @Jeffr thanks for pointing out the distinction.
  • Jeffr: Note that adjunct faculty are considered to be on a “term” basis and receives no protection except...
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  • Freddi-Jo Bruschke: An excellent description of this editorial.