This paper was presented at the 1997 CAUSE annual conference and is part of the conference proceedings, "The Information Profession and the Information Professional," published online by CAUSE. The paper content is the intellectual property of the author. Permission to print out copies of this paper is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage and the source is acknowledged. To copy or disseminate otherwise, or to republish in any form, print or electronic, requires written permission from the author and CAUSE. For further information, contact CAUSE at 303-449-4430 or send e-mail to [email protected].


by Diane Vines, Ph.D.


The involvement of multiple campuses in larger scale distance learning initiatives significantly increases the complexity of issues which must be considered in program design. The most significant "system" or "scale" issues are: interactivity; faculty responsibility/oversight; choice of technology; ownership/revenue utilization; student assessment; integrity and credibility of student work; facilities and equipment; student services; admissions; fees; and articulation. Some issues, always requiring special attention in a distance learning program, are favorably affected by the increase in scale. These include: maintenance of currency; faculty support services; program evaluation; library resources; accurate marketing and recruiting; student ability to deal with the technology; and cost effectiveness. Other considerations are both affected favorably and made more difficult by the increased scale. These include: faculty training; and long-range planning, budget and policy development, including fee/tuition issues and articulation. This paper will describe the larger scale virtual university activities of the California Virtual University and the California State University system and deal with the issues listed above. The California Virtual University and the CSU activities will be cited as case studies of large scale distance learning programs. The speaker will describe ways in which the CVU and CSU will approach these issues.


For the purposes of this paper, distance learning is defined as learning in which the majority of the instruction/learning takes place when the faculty member and the student/s are not in the same place. Both synchronous and asynchronous learning are included in this definition.


The California Virtual University (CVU) is a cooperative venture involving the California Community College system, the University of California system, the California State University system, the University of Southern California, Cal Tech and Stanford University. The mission is: to promote workforce preparation and economic development for California; provide for the global export of California education and training; and provide expanded access within California to postsecondary education. The long-term goal is to provide a full range of offerings. The CVU will be presented globally as the California "brand" of higher education and will be developed by the participating colleges and universities in cooperation with the private sector and key California government agencies. Accreditation will remain with the participating public and independent colleges and universities.

The CVU will draw on California's unique assets: The high quality of public and private institutions of higher education within one geographic boundary; California's world leadership in key industries such as information technology and entertainment; and the fact that California has a critical mass of venture capitalists, multimedia and telecommunications companies and others with special skills.


The 23 campus California State University (CSU) system is conducting a planning process that is parallel to the CVU planning process. Like the CVU, the CSU plans to leave quality and academic control, accreditation, intellectual property and revenue generation/sharing, and the granting of credit to the individual CSU campuses and their regular governance processes. However, the system with the involvement of faculty leaders and system and campus administrators is grappling with the thorny issues of articulation and reciprocity, formal faculty support and training, the provision of student services at a distance, service areas, governance and quality issues.


Because the accreditation for the CVU and any CSU effort remains with the individual colleges and universities, issues of quality, intellectual property and ownership, academic control, student services, academic policies remain with the local campuses. In this way, many issues of scale are avoided. However, during the planning process, the items in the guidelines provided by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Regional Commission of Higher Education have received special accommodation/consideration. Those items that must be addressed in some cases are favorably affected by the largeness of the scale while others are rendered more difficult by the scale of the distance learning operation.


Interactivity: Timely interaction among faculty and students. In order to maintain appropriate interactivity in the absence of traditional "office hours", it is important to consider limiting the student/faculty ratio to allow for timely interactions among students and faculty. This is problematic if there is undue pressure for cost effectiveness at the expense of quality. Another alternative is the use of faculty support persons to perform those routine interaction tasks (such as handling logistical questions). For large scale operations, it may be necessary to create an entirely new position which is a hybrid between graduate student/administrative assistant/part-time faculty member.

Faculty responsibility/oversight of the educational process. With increased size, a program will need increased flexibility in the ability to use support staff appropriately. Such accommodations may require formal negotiations in a collective bargaining environment.

Choice of technology: Technology appropriate for the program/s. With multiple programs, multiple media options must be available to the faculty.

Maintenance of currency of offerings

With multiple programs, currency must be carefully monitored. The number of students in any one program will not affect the currency requirements for the program; in fact, the larger an individual program is, the more faculty who will be involved in providing input in the maintenance of program currency.

Clarity of ownership/revenue utilization policies

With large scale efforts, policies must be more complex, with multiple ownership/revenue utilization options.

Appropriate faculty support services

With large scale distance learning programs, there is an economy of scale that is achieved in faculty support, especially online support systems.

Faculty Training

Again, large scale distance learning programs provide the opportunity for cost effective faculty training. With large scale programs involving multiple media delivery systems, the training needs of faculty become more complex but the costs for up-front development and ongoing training and support can be amortized over a larger number of students, thereby increasing the cost effectiveness.

Student assessment: of capability and appropriate use of the information. With increased scale, especially if the increased size involves increasing the number of programs offered, there need to be multiple options for student evaluation. For example, in rural settings it may be necessary for students to seek out local proctors (such as ministers and librarians) who are willing to certify that a student took the examination and mail in the exam directly to the faculty member.

Evaluation of program effectiveness

With increased size/scale, program evaluation actually is facilitated since the sample or cell sizes are large enough to effectively perform statistical analyses.

Integrity and credibility of student work

Any distance education environment requires multiple methods for students to present their work. With an increased number and complexity of program offerings, the range of options for presenting student work needs to increase and, therefore, the complexity of maintaining integrity and credibility increases. Strategies for ensuring such integrity and credibility must be developed by the program.

Library resources

In addressing the issues of access to and use of library resources by contracting with online search and full document delivery services, there is an economy of scale that allows large scale distance learning programs to negotiate favorable licensing and service agreements.

Appropriate facilities and equipment

For distance learning programs generally, it is necessary to utilize off-campus facilities and equipment, often in industry-based settings. With large-scale distance learning situations, the requirement for planning and ingenuity increases.

Full range of student services

As the size of a distance learning program increases, it may be necessary to divert resources generated by off-campus students for on-campus student support services not used by off-campus students to provide these services at a distance. Electronic access to these services is often the most appropriate but consideration must be given to the provision of such services in a face-to-face environment as necessary. Often this can be accomplished through contractual services with local experts or by the working student's employer. Important consideration must be given to the means for resolving student complaints. This issue is important for all distance education students but must be carefully considered in large scale operations in order to maintain the sense of responsiveness and personal attention.

Accurate marketing and recruiting

With large-scale programs, there is an economy of scale for marketing and recruiting.

Accurate admissions information

With all distant students, accurate admissions information is best ensured through electronic access to a WEB page. However, admissions offices can easily be overwhelmed in large-scale operations even if electronic access is available; since this is the initial contact point for the student with the campus, it is important that the admissions function be efficient and friendly.

Student ability to deal with the technology

Again, a good system of education and support, when properly funded, can serve large numbers of distant learners as effectively as smaller numbers. In fact, there may be an economy of scale, although the sheer numbers are larger.

Institutional long-range planning, budget and policy development which assures program viability and effectiveness. The viability of distance learning programs is most often challenged by the fact that the student population is not large enough to make the course offerings cost-effective. Provided there is adequate institutional commitment to a distance learning program, increased size increases the likelihood that the highly effective "cohort" model will be cost-effective for the duration of the "cohort's" program, in spite of the inevitable attrition of "cohort" members. Consideration must be given to in-state and out-of-state fee/tuition issues for any distance learning program although the larger the scale the larger the significance of such decisions. Articulation and reciprocity also become significant policy and budget issues for larger scale programs.

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