Minutes of EMI Committee, May 12, 1999

The Committee on Electronically Mediated Learning held its second meeting on Wednesday, May 12, 1999. We began by discussing a tentative report outline. Many suggestions for what to include and for the structure of the report were considered. Rather than summarize this discussion, we offer the tentative outline at the end of these minutes.

One member observed that currently developing electronic technology threatens to impinge on our profession in ways that no previous technology has. There is genuine fear abroad in academia that our value as faculty members could somehow be drastically reduced under some scenarios. Against this argument, another member noted that only one-sixth of the Brown operating budget currently goes to faculty salaries, and we are in fact not the collection of well-paid individuals sometimes depicted in the press. Others observed that perhaps the share of the budget currently spent is less relevant than potential savings imagined to be possible. On the other hand, the Open University employs teams of (non-teaching) faculty members in course preparation and purports to spend one to two million dollars in developing a new course.

There is a variety of answers as to why we should be concerned about electronically mediated learning, and especially distance learning, at just this time. There is a lot of national discussion, commercial organizations regularly approach the University to sell their distance learning products, there seems to be some fear that we may miss out an important trend if we do not act soon, and many initiatives are already underway within the University, even if they are not widely known. We think that our responses should vary, according to whether we are discussing undergraduate, graduate, or alumni issues.

Stanford is reportedly offering web-based versions of some of its courses to advanced high school students, in part as a recruitment tool. This offers one kind of institution-centered outreach to schools. There was some debate over whether or not it was an effective approach, given the emotional component in student admissions decisions. We have also previously discussed some other possible applications of distance learning within the existing undergraduate programs. There was consensus that we would do well in undergraduate education to focus on programs that could enhance what we already do, even when they might involve some modest additional sources of income, rather than to move into totally new areas.

On the graduate level, by contrast, there are many new initiatives nationally, especially for certificate and masters programs. There are also portions of existing degree programs that seem especially amenable to distance learning. We agreed that decentralization was desireable and that the University should encourage initiatives both with incentives where appropriate and by keeping bureaucratic obstacles to a minimum. While quality control is obviously important, present mechanisms for course and program approval seem adequate in this regard. We discussed existing initiatives at Brown that we knew about and initiatives that we have heard about elsewhere.

We also see possibilities for various kinds of faculty-alumni interaction, but we think that a more appropriate first step would be to build an electronic communication network for alums over which some of the numerous campus events now available could be transmitted via existing technology. If sufficient interest in participation 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 can best be linked with on-campus programs.

To what extent should the University provide centralized services to assist in developing new distance learning ideas? The consensus was that more information could usefully be made available, though informal networking also seems to work quite well here. Brown's tradition of decentralization probably encourages initiative and innovation, and we should continue to take advantage of this. It might, however, be desireable to organize a conference for next year to get out more information on what is going on locally and nationally. Some grant funds are already potentially available for this purpose.

Draft outline:
Setting the stage (outside pressures, articles in the press, administrative interest, etc.)
   Desire to help control the outcome at the institutional level
Charge from the Provost
Summary of current efforts at Brown
Landscape (what is going on outside of Brown)

Last modified: Sat May 15 16:40:28 EDT 1999