Report of the Committee on Electronically Mediated Instruction

June 3, 1999


Universities enter into partnerships with businesses to market their courses online. Business writers tout the imminent demise of the traditional university. Studies demonstrate that as much can be learned via distance learning as in traditional classrooms. The din is nearly impossible to avoid for readers of daily newspapers or educational journals.

Brown is neither immune to the concerns being raised nor sufficiently independent of national trends that it can completely ignore them. Under the circumstances, it seemed an appropriate time for Brown to consider what, if anything, it ought to do to respond to the challenges of distance learning using the media technologies now spreading throughout the world.

After an earlier task force report and some preliminary steps towards creation of an advisory group on distance learning, the Provost appointed a faculty committee in April 1999, subsequently designated as the Committee on Electronically Mediated Instruction. See Appendix 1 for a list of the committee members.

The present report is a first effort at gauging the level of faculty interest in, and support for, the use of electronic technology for delivering instruction outside of the traditional classroom. Brown faculty members were among the earliest developers of electronic technology for the classroom in the form of hypertext and hypermedia technologies that have found their way into web browsers. The Committee on Electronically Mediated Instruction realizes that the use of electronic media in teaching does not necessarily presuppose that such materials would be used for distance learning, though we see it as the proper place to begin our discussions.

Above all, the Committee thinks that Brown needs to examine carefully what is currently being done, both on and off campus, has to consider what benefits could accrue to the institution by expanding distance education efforts, needs to be cognizant of risks both to the basic educational mission and to the financial integrity of the institution, and ought also to look for areas in which Brown might have a unique contribution to make. To these ends, we present our report as a document to guide future discussions of the use of electronically mediated instruction at Brown and the potential use of such instruction in distance learning.

We certainly cannot claim to be making a definitive statement of faculty opinion. We have tried to reach everyone whom we knew to be interested in distance learning, but we fully expect to have ignored some. We encourage such individuals to participate in the ongoing discussion that we hope will follow from the presentation of our report. We encourage them to use our web site ( to find out more about what is going on in the field of distance learning. We have been gratified by the response of those colleagues who contacted us after an earlier version of this report was placed on the web site and after this was announced to the Faculty.


Generally speaking, distance education refers to the delivery of instructional materials at a site other than the traditional classroom, either simultaneously at another place (multi-site learning) or asynchronously (and therefore usually also in another place). The main technique for simultaneous multi-site learning is video-conferencing. Brown already has video-conferencing facilities that are occasionally used to deliver instruction off campus, but it is not currently a major component of the University’s instructional efforts. Asynchronous learning in the form of correspondence courses has a long history, but there is currently an explosive growth in the use of electronic technologies to deliver instruction around the world. Techniques include email, the World Wide Web, broadcast television, and audio and video cassettes. Taken together these new techniques constitute electronically mediated instruction (EMI), which can both complement traditional classroom activities through making supplemental information accessible to student and substitute for these activities through distance learning. For a more detailed discussion of types of distance learning, please examine the discussion on our web site at

Charge from the Provost:

In establishing a committee the Provost asked us to keep the following three points in mind:

1. In what ways, if any, could distance learning make a positive contribution to Brown's primary educational mission as a residential university?

2. How could it be utilized effectively to strengthen alumni/ae solidarity?

3. Could it contribute a new revenue stream that would justify its development at Brown?

In interpreting the Provost's charge, we opted to focus on distance learning as it relates to electronically mediated instruction because it is the use of new technologies and their possible application for offering courses in new ways that is the central issue. We think that Brown will remain primarily a residential university, that efforts in distance learning should build on our existing strengths, and that distance learning programs should not do anything that would compromise this primary mission. The second point responds to alumni/ae interest in distance learning and to the fact that the Brown Alumni Association is just completing its own Task Force Report on Alumni Lifelong Learning chaired by Eileen Rudden ’72 in which distance learning plays a prominent role. The third point acknowledges that distance learning could potentially identify new sources of revenue but that these should not be viewed as ends in themselves.

Summary of current efforts at Brown:

A. Courses we have so far identified that are being, or have been given, via distance learning at Brown:

1. Continuing education courses are currently offered under the auspices of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies. See their web site for further information (

2. Chemistry F1, Environmental Chemistry, was offered for summer credit in 1998 over the internet by James Baird of Chemistry (

B. Examples of courses currently presented in a form that would be easily adaptable to distance learning:

1. Chemistry.

a. Chemistry 21. Introductory Chemistry. Jim Doll (

b. Chemistry 31. Chemical Structure, Kinetics, and Equilibrium. Peter Weber (

c. There are also other chemistry courses that are at least partially available on the web (

2. Computer Science.

Many courses in Computer Science are currently available on the web. Further information is available on the "courses" page of the departmental web site (

3. Course web pages.

More than 250 Brown courses (over 13 % of current offerings) have their own web pages ( Many of these have some course material available on the web, including more or less complete lecture notes.

C. Not included in this listing are examples of extensive and often sophisticated use of hypermedia and other technologies in research tools or as parts of courses that do not appear to make them any more amenable to use in distance learning than courses that make much less use of technology. Examples can readily be found through the links made available on our web site.

The national and international landscape:

In the time available to us to write this report, we are unable to give even a brief overview of all the on-line, television, correspondence, video cassette and other kinds of courses and degree programs offered off-site by institutions ranging from prestigious private universities to universities that offer only distance courses and to private organizations that are not accredited educational institutions. Suffice it to say, new courses and programs are being announced almost daily. We refer interested individuals to the links available on our web page at


1. Brown should remain open to experimentation and to innovative applications of distance learning at the undergraduate level but should not commit major resources to making its regular course offerings available elsewhere.

Discussion: A growing number of faculty members are making use of electronically mediated instruction as part of their efforts to improve undergraduate courses at Brown. This process can be encouraged through discussion among faculty members, through seminars on improving education such as those offered through the Sheridan center ( ), and through formal incorporation of questions on EMI into course evaluations. We think, however, that Brown should proceed cautiously in extending these offerings beyond the Brown campus, partly because it is not clear that Brown has any comparative advantage in this area, and partly because the undergraduate education offered by Brown is at the very core of its mission and would be difficult to duplicate without classroom contact. This should not preclude experiments in areas that extend the Brown curriculum, such as the summer school or perhaps study elsewhere when individual students might be offered the opportunity to take certain required courses at Brown, and material that can help to put students with heterogenous backgrounds in a given course on the same footing. Even if distance instruction promises new sources of revenue, Brown should pursue such initiatives only to the extent that they are consistent with the spirit of its undergraduate education.

It has been suggested that selected Brown courses should be made available entirely over the web to students on campus. While this notion deserves further consideration, the University should think carefully about the implications of such a policy. The same holds for other ideas that have been advanced, such as sharing web resources ranging from on-line textbooks to entire courses with colleagues from other institutions.

2. With regard to graduate education, we think that the University should encourage initiatives and should be willing to provide incentives where they seem to promise return on the investment.

Discussion: Graduate students are usually highly motivated and have already been identified as successful learners. Many potential graduate students already have careers and might be interested in conducting at least some portion of their graduate education from a distance. This could mean that portions of degree programs could be offered via distance learning. We encourage decentralization in terms of the design and implementation of these initiatives and believe that bureaucratic obstacles should be kept to a minimum.

Current mechanisms for approving courses and programs seem adequate for ensuring that whatever we do will be of high quality. If additional opportunities for developing programs such as the current one with the Pfizer Corporation should arise, if they make sense to particular departments, and if they promise financial benefits, then the use of distance learning to enhance such programs should be considered. To encourage these activities a policy on returning revenues to the departments in question needs to be developed

3. We recommend the establishment of an electronic communication network for transmission of campus events to alumni/ae.

Discussion: We note the concerns of the Brown Alumni Association as expressed in their Report on Lifelong Learning to which we referred earlier. We think that new ways of increasing faculty and alumni interaction offer great potential benefits to the University. We think that the most appropriate first step might be to build an electronic communication network over which some of the numerous campus events now available could be transmitted via existing technology at little additional cost to the University. Such offerings could be made available at nominal cost, no more than what might be charged for participation in the network (if anything).

If sufficient interest in participation in University affairs could be established, then might be the appropriate time to develop more sophisticated (and possibly revenue-generating) programs. The topic of lifelong learning is likely to be an area of increasing focus in coming years, and there are many unresolved questions about how graduates of Brown can best be linked with on campus programs.

4. Non-credit distance learning courses should be offered on a self-financing basis to the extent that it seems appropriate to offer such courses.

Discussion: The offering of non-credit courses through the Brown Learning Community is a community service that is currently self-financing, and decisions about the offering of non-credit distance learning courses should presumably be made on the same grounds as decisions to offer any other non-credit courses. It should be noted that the offering of non-credit courses also occurs through a number of other University bodies (the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies and the Institute for Elementary and Secondary Education, to name just two), and decisions to offer such courses do not fall under any central review and supervision at Brown. We do not recommend any change in this policy.

5. The Provost should consider assigning someone in the Administration to monitor developments in distance education and to suggest appropriate institutional responses.

Discussion: While information about current efforts in distance learning has not always been easy to find, networking at Brown is such that usually it does not take too long to do so. We think, therefore, that there is no need for the University to create something like an office of distance learning. Nonetheless, we think it appropriate that information be more widely disseminated, if only to assist individuals who might be considering initiatives comparable to some already being implemented. It might be sufficient in the short run to post this report, along with the links contained in it, at an appropriate place on the Brown web site. At the same time, there are many offices and individuals with a potential interest in distance learning, and there ought to be someone to whom people can turn to find out what policies are in effect and where one can get advice and assistance. While we do not recommend that distance learning become the main focus of any University office, we think that a campus-wide conference to be held sometime during the next academic year to discuss the issues raised in this report, and others that we have not yet thought of, could be a useful initiative, but we offer this only as a possibility to be considered by anyone asked to coordinate institutional initiatives on distance learning.



For the Committee on Electronically Mediated Instruction:

William C. Crossgrove, co-chair     John E. Savage, co-chair


Appendix 1

Members of the Committee on Electronically Mediated Instruction


William Crossgrove, Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature (co-chair)

John E. Savage, Professor of Computer Science (co-chair)

Christopher Amirault, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Education and of Modern Culture and Media, and Special Assistant to the President for Educational Affairs

J. D. Doll, Jesse H. and Louisa D. Sharpe Metcalf Professor of Chemistry

Andrew Foster, Associate Professor of Economics and Community Health.

Peter Heywood, Professor of Biology

Appendix 2


We wish to thank the following individuals who have contributed in one way or the other to the preparation of our report: Robert Arellano, James Baird, Liza Bakewell, Peter Bernstein, Roger Blumberg, Allan Bower, Matt Chotin, Robert Coover, Mark Curran, Tom Doeppner, Herbert Fried, Beth Goldman Galer, Maurice Glicksman, Jill Lawlor, Kirstin Moritz, Hannelore Rodriguez-Farrar, Allen Renear, Peter Richardson, Massimo Riva, Geoffrey R. Russom, Karen Sibley, Alex Slawsby, Andries van Dam, Peter Weber, Matt Zimmt.