The technological advancements of the late Twentieth Century in information management and the use of computers and the Internet has undoubtedly revolutionized the learning experience for all of us. Access to information and connectivity between individuals has opened a new horizon for communication between those who have the information and those who need it. Mobility has become a necessity for success and doing more in less time is expected for competing effectively in all aspects of life.
In our society, higher education is expected and required in all aspects of business, government and academia. An increasingly important component of higher education is the distance learning system. Distance learning is a system that serves those who learn their subject matter away from their facilitator or teacher. This type of learning has gone through an evolution that has included correspondence, satellite broadcast, two-way videoconferencing, videotape and CD-ROM delivery systems. As a result of universal access to the Internet, and the advancement of the learning technology, the web-based delivery system has become the latest and the most effective means of Distance Learning.
Distance learning is now a key component of our way of learning, in which learners must take increased responsibility for control of their learning process. Universal use of technology and the Internet in education has not been free of controversy and legal problems. Ownership of the online courses is one of the central issues in the ongoing growth of conflict between creators of the material and the institutions of higher learning. Ownership of the online courses could be retained by the educational institution, by the faculty members or jointly.
In this paper, I intend to remark on, the existing delivery methods of Web-Based Distance Learning, advantages and disadvantages, and the growing controversy and legal issues related to copyrights and ownership of the intellectual property.
There are three most widely used methods of Web-Based Distance Learning. In the Self study method of learning; the student relies on some structured plan that directs the student through learning experiences without real-time interaction with an instructor. The learner accesses a web site and follows specific steps provided in the site to receive text and or visual information. The leaner is then asked to quiz himself in order to proceed to the next step. Naturally there are countless variations in the formulation of the delivery system, but the fundamental components are delivery of structured information to the learner at the learners convenience.
Instructor-Led Events type of delivery provides for the added benefit of visual access to prerecorded and real time instruction that enhance the learning experience and complement traditional text information. Some sites provide real-time access to the instructor, which could greatly enhance the delivery of the information. The instructor’s ability to react to learner’s questions and comments creates a more interesting learning environment.
Small Group Collaboration is a more complicated but comprehensive Web-Based Distance Learning method where the learner has access to text, real-time interaction with the instructor, and real-time interaction with a small group of other students. (Weblearning Resources)
The most recent survey available through U.S. Department of education shows that almost one third of higher education institutions offered distance education courses and another quarter planned to offer such courses in the next three years.(table 1)
Public institutions especially the 2-year programs offered more courses than others. Survey showed that three-quarters of the institutions that offered distance education courses used courses developed by their subject area departments and the rest used commercial or noncommercial vendors. Of the 25,730 estimated distance education courses offered in 1995, one quarter used Internet based technology and the rest utilized the more conventional tools. More higher education institutions offered distance education courses designed mainly for undergraduate students than for graduate students.(figure 2)
The survey also points out that overwhelming majority of courses were targeted toward professionals seeking recertification, skill updating or retraining. There were an estimated 753,640 students formally enrolled in distance education courses in academic year 1994-95 majority of whom were undergraduate students in public 2-year institutions. In the survey, increasing student access was an important goal for most programs. Making courses available at convenient locations and reducing time constraints was ranked as very important. The most defining conclusion in the survey is the fact that over half of the institutions planed to start or increase their course offerings to remote locations.
Among the factors most frequently indicated as keeping institutions from starting or expanding their course offerings were the costs of developing the program, technological limitations and equipment failures. On the other hand, the ability to receive governmental authorizations, legal concerns and lack of support from administrators were not indicated as substantial deterrents. ( Distance Education in Higher Education Institutions: Incidence, Audiences, and Plans to Expand)
The obvious advantage of Web-Based Distance-Learning is the economic savings to the institution and the student. The savings in facilities costs; administration and teacher compensation could be reduced which in turn should reduce the cost to the student. Additional economic benefits to the student are savings in the cost of transportation and savings in time. The savings in transportation and time for the student could be transformed into work hours and income.
Another benefit of Web-Based Distance-Learning is the freedom it offers from time and space. One can learn at a convenient time and participate in programs that are only offered at a distant location. The economic savings could be magnified when the learning occurs at the distance of another country. The need for revision and updating of the course material is also economically achieved since the material is easily accessible. For instance, Distance-Learning does not require the reprinting of an entire book that would make the previous version completely obsolete. Another benefit is the ease of access for the student to potentially large volumes of information without the need to purchase and repeatedly carry books to and from the classroom. Last but not least, is the advantage for physically handicapped students who could greatly benefit in avoiding the need for traveling to and from the classroom. This would provide students with learning disabilities more time to absorb the information.
There are also disadvantages in Web-Based Distance-Learning. Even though the technology is widely available for those who do not have access to computers, it may discourage those who find it intimidating or difficult to use. Lack of supervision and accountability in addition to concerns for security and accuracy of examination raises doubt about the effectiveness of the learning process. Although there is growing enrollment in courses through Distance-Learning, lack of accreditation negatively impacts the credibility and acceptance of such courses. Distance-Learning by its nature may promote isolation from other students and deprive the students from the human interaction that is so essential in our personal and professional lives.
Not only the new forms of distance learning will provide new opportunities for the student population, but it will also force the faculty to develop new modalities of teaching and the administrator’s new structure of support. As a result of the demand for distance learning many institutions are forced to review and revise their policies and procedures with regards to ownership and protection of intellectual properties.
In order to establish a policy for protecting intellectual property, it is necessary to define it and identify the circumstances under which the institution will assume the costs of protecting intellectual property. It is also necessary to define the rights of the inventor and the author, identifying the guideline under which the institution can use intellectual property generated by members of faculty, describe how the faculty would be compensated, identify who will mange the institutions policy and when faculty can use the institutions name and logo.
Ownership is a critical component in the policy. Web-Based Distance Learning educators have unique dilemma when dealing with copyright laws. Many institutions have addressed the subject of copyright and there appears to be commonality amongst most established policies. The concept of “fair use” was reflected in the Copyright Law of 1976. It specifies situations in which copyrighted materials may be used without express permission of the copyright holder. Still with today’s technology it is very easy to abuse the “fair use” provision. The US House of Representatives suggested that the three major considerations in determining fair use should be brevity of the selection, spontaneity of the decision, and the cumulative effect of the use of the selection. (Copyright and Distance Education)
One question that widens the discussion of ownership rights is as follows. Is an online course module more like an invention, in which case patent policy would apply, or more like a textbook, in which case copyright policy would apply?
It is widely accepted that the copyright for an electronic course designed by a member of the faculty at their own initiative, is owned by the individual. The copyright for a course designed under a contract for an institution is owned by the institution and if the work created is as a result of collaboration by a faculty member and someone under contract will be owned jointly. This view is also accepted by the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) which states in their June 1999 policy document “faculty ordinarily should retain ownership of the distance education courses they create” although it recognizes that when special technological resources of the institution are utilized or work is created in collaboration with a hired third party then ownership should be joint. AAUP also advocates that professors must retain the right of reproduction for online materials, the right of use in future teaching and the right of first refusal for revisions. (Developing a Distance Education Policy for 21st Century Learning)
The legal and practical problems relating to ownership rights and copyrights has become such hot topic that a group of concerned institutions have formed the Online Learning, Research and training Association. The organization is actively lobbying the congress about issues relating to Web-based Distance education. The Association announced “Distance education doesn’t have a voice in D.C., and this will give it one.” The association starts its lobbying work immediately .
“within a few days of its founding, the group submitted comments to the Congressional Web-Based Education Commission, a panel that will make recommendations to Congress about online education.” ( Companies Start a Washington Lobbying Group for Distance Education)
The rapid advancement of computer technology and the Internet coupled with the increasing demand for certification, retraining and degrees in higher education have given rise to the importance of web based Distance Learning in our society. This method of delivery has advantages as well as disadvantages which continue to present challenges for institutions, educators and students. The demand for distance learning is growing continuously and presents new opportunities for all involved parts.
I fully expect that this delivery system will become the predominant method of Distance. Learning for two reasons. First, the technology involved is continuously improving. Speed of operation, connectivity, quality of visuals, sound and real-time video streaming, are all providing new possibilities for better delivery. Second, teachers and students are utilizing this learning system more and more simply because it is efficient, effective and economical. The demand for Web-Based Learning is growing rapidly and as a result it will require advancements not only technologically but also in the formulation of the content and flow of information.
It is widely agreed that the single most important challenge and impediment matter in web based Distance learning is the subject of ownership rights and copyrights. The lack of clarity in ownership of the course material and other aspects of the program creates confusion and reduces the level of motivation for maintenance and upgrading of the material by the faculty. In order for distance learning to continue as a viable alternative to conventional education, it requires focused attention from institutions and lawmakers in defining the rules and motivating all parties concerned to continue improving the course material, delivery methods and accountability to every ones benefit.