/ Distance Education: The Perils of the Virtual Student in Cyberspace

Until last year, when I thought of "distance education" I thought of a child in an Outback homestead listening as his "School of the Air" teacher spoke to him from thousands of miles away through the crackling noise of the radio. That educational model kept a lot of Outback Australian children with their families, rather than having to be sent to boarding school "in the city" in the 1950s and 1960s.

Now that I have joined the desperate band of professionals who want to upgrade their qualifications because of organisational downsizing, rightsizing, or sheer institutional bloodymindedness, distance education looks quite different. Distance education via the Internet means that universities are no longer limited by state or national boundaries. Through the magic of the Internet, there is a completely new forum for teaching and learning. All students, regardless of their distance from the university can now, like the Outback children in mid-century, undertake their studies without leaving home. Only in the digital age the computer replaces the radio.

There is a new wrinkle, too: Students who are far from the university cannot take advantage of the resources on campus. That is particularly an issue when it comes to library services. Distance-education students cannot browse the shelves, and they even have trouble with document delivery because of the transit times involved. All they really have at their disposal is what they buy or what is available through their computers. This paper looks at electronic publishing from the point of view of the needy distance-education student.

A Student's Point of View

I am currently taking Monash University's Master of Information Management course via the Internet, and have now completed my third subject (each lasts one semester). My experience has been rather varied, just as the subjects themselves have been.

Monash University, in Victoria, Australia, is approximately five hundred miles from Adelaide, where I live. Courses offered by Monash University now no longer come only from Clayton, the original university site, but from a range of other campuses as well. However, for the virtual or cyber student, travel to the campus is a breeze — well, most of the time. As long as our Internet Service Providers (ISP) provide the service, and (despite our proximity to 2001) our computers do not want to call themselves "Hal" and order us about, all is well.

The lecturers present their course notes as HTML documents and mount them on the university server. That provides opportunities for hyperlinking to documents or sites on the Web that illustrate or illuminate the subject. It is up to students to access that information at their own speed and at times that suit them. Asynchronous individual study of the week's classwork is supplemented by e-mail discussions among class members, which substitutes well for in-class discussions. This method of study is attractive not only to students physically remote from the university, but also to full-time workers who want to upgrade their qualifications, and "home duties" practitioners who are trying to rejoin the paid workforce.

As a conscientious student, I followed every link suggested in the course notes. Almost straight away I ran into problems: Some linked items were not there. Was that a clever ruse by my lecturers to see if I was paying attention? A typo in the URL? Or perhaps evidence of the impermanence of Internet information?

I put on my reference librarian's hat, and went sleuthing in the uncharted regions of cyberspace for the answers. My first safari was to track down the reference to an article by Whisler and Rosenblatt. The URL in the course notes didn't work, so I used MetaCrawler (my favourite meta search engine) to find out where the article was. A search for the authors' names and the title did not work. I tried just one author, and found an article, but the title was different. Knowing that authors will often publish bibliographies of their own works, I looked up Susan Rosenblatt, and discovered that the only article she listed in conjunction with Sandra Whisler was the one I had located [1] — the one with the different name. On looking up the article, I discovered it was part of "Scholarly Communication and Technology," a conference organized by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and that we had also been given the conference-section title, not the article title. With some trepidation I posted my findings to the class discussion list, and got a response from the professor, thanking me for providing the correct location for the article.

In some ways that process, frustrating as it was, probably taught me more than if the notes had been correct in the first place. I got to learn a bit more about search engines, and discovered that there were many other papers of enormous interest that were presented at the same conference. As the professorial response was positive, posting corrections to the class discussion list became quite a competition for some of us.

One article, Andrew Odlyzko's "Tragic Loss or Good Riddance? The impending demise of traditional scholarly journals," provoked a great deal of discussion, but we didn't send e-mail to Odlyzko to ask him to explain some points further. In retrospect, it seems the logical thing to do. It never occurred to us. In truth, we had probably always assumed that the writers whose work we studied were dead. I remember my amazement when once I met the co-author of the German grammar textbook we used at the University of Melbourne. With the immediacy of electronic publication, not only are the authors still alive when we read their work, but they often are accessible electronically. The Internet makes possible a relatively easy author/reader interaction. I expect that as we become more facile with the technology, students and professionals will create Internet learning communities — a bonus of the e-learning process. I can't guess how Odlyzko would have responded had we contacted him, but it may well have sparked an interesting debate, and it would have been instructive for the class. The simplicity of e-mail exchanges is an incentive to respond, and it eliminates both national boundaries and time factors from the free exchange of ideas.

One frustrating part of Internet-based distance education is that the technology is still fragile. Students in the Outback could pretty much depend on their radios and the transmissions; we were bedeviled by mainframe crashes on campus, ISP problems, and our own computer malfunctions.

There is another big problem: Despite the material that is available on the Internet, some lecturers want to use material that has never been digitized. That introduces a second delivery method, the post, with its own delays and frustrations, many of them based on a staff shortage that prevents timely mailings. It makes me wonder if distance education is being treated in some places as the "poor cousin" on the university scene. While the university is happy to accept up-front course fees, the attention to teaching resources is not always what would be tolerated by students on campus.

One of the best aspects of the Internet, however, is its immediacy and the potential for the integrated use of text, sound, and graphics. The online classroom is an ideal place to use them, even though being so technologically dependent can be a bit scary, not least because of the speed at which innovations are made and used.

Polyson et al. [2] discuss the creation of interactive learning environments, and point out that while it may be exciting to incorporate all the multimedia possibilities in the learning experience, that has its limitations. Regardless of the advanced technology in the software, unless each student's computing equipment is up to the same standard, incorporating advanced technology may be a waste of time. In my courses we have been asked to be careful about sending attachments via e-mail, as some students cannot open them. The use of JavaScript or RealAudio may cause even greater problems if they were to be incorporated into the course materials. While these are standard multimedia tools, there are many more which are much less well known, and less tested in standard online environments. So, while the technology is there, it may be counterproductive to use it, as the learning environment must be geared to what the virtual students can work with in their homes.

"The equipment purchased by the distance-education student may be outdated long before the student's education is finished"

One of the practical exercises for last semester's multimedia studies was to download plug-ins and use them. It was amazing how many of them would not work efficiently, or at all. One of them even caused a student's computer to crash completely, putting him out of action for a fortnight while he had the repairs carried out. So, while we are learning about how useful various types of multimedia can be, we must also remember that not everyone will be able to use them fully, if at all. One plug-in that failed to work on my computer had, in its FAQ, the interesting observation that it might not work if the sound card was more than six months old. As I bought my computer almost eighteen months earlier, I decided that this plug-in was never going to work for me, and abandoned any further efforts. So, despite the amazing scope for publishing exciting, multimedia resources, the ability of the public to access them may be limited by the technology potential users have on their desks. While cutting-edge technology is constantly changing and evolving with the fantasies of its creators, the average computer owner is not able to keep up with the technical requirements of such developments.

Student Resources

The ability of students to compete on a relatively level of playing field is largely determined by the facilities he has at his disposal. In a classroom, all students can be given the same resources. The distance-education student, however, must smooth his own path to be technologically equipped to deal with a course. The computing equipment purchased by the distance-education student may be outdated and unable to cope with the progress of technology long before the student's education is finished. That means that better performances will be more likely from those who have the money to spend on better computing equipment. In some respects, that seems more like "buying" an education than earning one.

For the university, the inequalities are balanced by the fact that the university is not responsible for providing computing facilities for any distance-education students — unlike on campus, where computer labs and additional library or Internet facilities might be expected to be made available as part of the tuition fee. Where students might once have relied on a large university library to furnish what they needed for an essay or assignment, all we distance-education students have at our disposal is what we have bought and what is on the other end of our computers. The interesting and perhaps unexpected thing is that there is so much good material available for use in an academic situation.

Over the last few years, the Internet has developed as a repository for good-quality information that can be used for university-level study, and the Internet thus becomes a good alternative to the campus library in some ways. As long as the connections are working, we can read or print off/download the references we need, and we don't have to queue for them at the Reserve Desk or put holds on them, as we invariably must do with books or journals. Nor do our reference materials suffer from "razor-blading" — a nasty habit of those who want to ensure that they have advantages over their fellow students by permanently removing the information they will all be looking for. On the Internet, the whole class has completely equal access to all resources, whether they are studying on campus at Clayton or Caulfield, or in Adelaide or Hong Kong. In many ways that is a great improvement on the conventional pattern of library service. However, it is limiting in that not everything is available on the Internet. Fortunately my studies deal largely with computers and the Internet, so the really up-to-date material is more likely to be on the Internet than in the library.

The basis of a library's service is its collection, and collection size is still considered a measure of the library's value. However, the library staff must be guided by the advice of the teaching staff if the collection is to reflect the courses taught. It is all too easy for the academic staff to forget its role in this, and to assume that the books and online resources will just be there. Many times as an undergraduate I experienced the frustration of trying to find the book or paper we had just been told to read, only to discover that the lecturer had it out on 10-week loan and it could not be recalled. These days it is more likely that no one had bothered to make sure the document was indeed still on line. Libraries need lots of coordination and planning to provide good services, whether the material is on paper or online. Moreover, the people responsible for designing the courses should make sure that the library and online resources are adequate if they are required. That should include licence negotiation with publishers to make sections of copyrighted publications available to coincide with the weekly reading and assignments. On campus, human networks can often solve supply problems. When you study physically and geographically alone, any glitch in the supply of reference materials is doubly frustrating.

There will always be some books that a student should purchase because they will be heavily used during the course. However, there will generally be a range of other literature that, although vital to the course, will not be purchased directly by every student. Instead one or two copies will be made available through the Reserve Desk, and each student will photocopy the pages he or she needs. That way the library discharges its obligation to the students, using a totally inadequate line budget supplemented by student-amenity fees that are not keeping up with increasing charges by publishers. On line, the burden may be shifted to an unwilling library that needs to buy several licences; students cannot individually pay the costs of gaining access to a licenced electronic text. I do not see any eagerness among libraries to take on that extra burden.

Another new burden for libraries is providing electronic versions of paper documents to allow access for off-campus students. Universities, and particularly university libraries, need to solve the problem today, while the universities are trying to deliver education electronically, or distance education will be a failure. Publishers must come to the party too, of course. They must be open to the possibilities of cooperating with innovative changes that will not bankrupt their customers. Tailored electronic-delivery methods could facilitate better usage and remuneration levels for the publisher. Such arrangements should take into account that educational needs may dictate a short supply time, and that responses need to be prompt. The use of e-mail to contact publishers, and electronic file transfer to deliver the material, could speed the approval and implementation process.

Here I want to make a plea on behalf of all the libraries in this part of the world: Correspondence with overseas publishers has always been notoriously slow — if we were not ignored outright. If publishers were to respond promptly, setting up electronically accessible reference materials, libraries might find it extremely attractive to supply the materials to distance-education students — especially with materials that take months to arrive if ordered in the normal way. That arrangement is long overdue for the campus library's reserve desk too, although those who wrote the copyright act are capable of finding a legal solution to that problem.

What's On Line?

Governments have been quick to grasp the benefits of Internet technology, and students often find very useful reports and other documentation with a Government imprimatur. The National Library of Australia, for example, has an interesting range of information on its Internet site. Documents such as the Australian Government Locator Service Manual, the Global Victoria Web Site or the Victorian Office of Training and Further Education's enormous volume, "A Planning Model for Innovation: New Learning Technologies," [formerly http://www.otfe.vic.gov.au/planning/model/] are all very easily accessible via the Internet. The publication "A State of the Art Report: Software Design Methods," although produced by ITT Systems Corporation, was prepared for and published on the Internet by the Air Force Research Laboratory - Information Directorate. The fact that the military are obviously satisfied with the document carries a lot of weight for a student deciding what information is worth selecting for study.

When I'm wearing my medical-information hat, the literature searching resources provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine are absolutely indispensable. This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Internet publication of government documentation, while making the reports and other resources funded by public money available more readily, also cuts the cost of conventional publication and distribution. And it is good publicity, showing that government is not merely about the disgraceful behaviour of parliamentarians during Question Time in the House of Representatives or the Senate. (The name calling, interjecting, shouting down and frequent refusal to actually answer the question, leave you wondering how these people got elected in the first place.)

Some monographs can be found online, and a few of them have proved to be extremely useful to me. Perhaps the most useful of them, from my point of view, has been the "Scholarly Electronic Publishing Bibliography,"[3] available as a Word document, an HTML document, or a PDF file. This has been a project of the University Libraries of the University of Houston, and it is updated regularly. The HTML version also has active hyperlinks to those articles that are available on the Internet. Other monographs that I have found useful include "An Internet Guide for the Health Professional" by Michael Hogarth[4] and "Redesigning Library Services: a Manifesto" by Michael Buckland.[5]

The other major source of student information is the academic journal. Over the last few years journal publishers have increased their Internet presence astronomically. Most of the major publishers are now represented in some form. However, the amount of information available from the journals varies according to the level of payment. A contents page is often free; some journals make abstracts or a selection of full-text articles available free. Some journals have all their print articles on line for subscribers, others provide digitally enhanced versions of their journal with datasets or links that are not available in print. For most distance-education students, individual subscriptions are impractical, so they rely on libraries' abilities to negotiate site licences that are not limited to the geographic site. Those subscriptions are often quite expensive, cutting into the acquisitions budget fiercely. I suggest that with the growth of distance education, libraries should set a priority on acquiring journals that have electronic versions, to meet the needs of off-campus students. If the concept of digital or virtual collections and electronic-information sources is to be followed through seriously, the spatial restrictions of paper-based information must be abandoned — and the sooner the better. As education and business become more geographically distributed, resources tied to one location will become less useful, and therefore less marketable.

"The point of view of people whose articles require payment may no longer be well represented in scholarship"

Another word to publishers: There is no question that good information is worth paying for, but the price needs to be realistic for the purchaser. What has that to do with the virtual student? For distance-education students, the Internet is the library. When a range of similar references is available, and any would do the job quite adequately, there is no reason to go after the more elusive and expensive material. The availability of information is the only important variable when analyzing what the students read and what they learn. Distance-education students go through the same process as students in the university library. They establish the bona fides of authors or publishers, select the references that look as though they have something worthwhile to say, and then determine which ones are accessible. Subscriptions or per-article costs lessen the chances that a student will choose a resource, as does the difficulty of getting something through inter-library loan. So for distance-education students, freely available information on the Internet — all other things more or less equal — will prevail. In essence, free information will drive out costly information. Moreover, the free access to and use of certain articles may in time have a discernible effect on the way that people think and act. The point of view of people whose articles require payment may no longer be as well represented in scholarship as it should be.

The Bastard Child of Economic Rationalism

Economic realities are forcing universities to minimise the university's financial outlay while maximising its income. Distance education fits that model well. The postgraduate distance-education student pays a fee to take the course. As part of that fee, the student gets access to whatever course materials are mounted on the university server. There are no classrooms to be prepared, equipped, cleaned, air conditioned, lit, or maintained. No such facilities as student cafeterias, common rooms, recreation and sport facilities, lockers, bike racks, security, or landscaping need to be provided or maintained.

The distance-education students' only university-provided necessity is information. I do not believe that this issue has been adequately addressed in the planning of the courses. Full-text references typically are not part of the course notes made available by the lecturer on most universities' distance-education Web sites. The best that students can hope for are references to URLs that work. And too often even those references are not accurate. There must be a better way for distance-education students to obtain better access to library resources. Libraries and publishers need to work together to make off-site licences a reality. Many distance-education students would be willing to pay a per capita fee for the use of specific publications (but they might demand a discount for the demands they do not make on other campus resources — it's probably better for universities to deliver the electronic information without charging extra). As I understand it, this discussion between libraries and publishers for access for distance-education students has already started, and I certainly hope it grows. With a bit of common sense, there could be a win-win situation for publishers and libraries. Until then, universities have to stop ignoring the needs of students who are not physically beating at their doors to get some value for their course fees. Distance-education students should not be left to find their own library materials.

It is not just the libraries that are guilty of ignoring the needs of distance-education students. From my experience of working in libraries, there seem to be teachers at all educational levels who have a distorted view of their responsibilities towards their students. When teachers assign work, they should ensure that it is feasible to complete the work to a reasonable standard. Distance-education students should not have to spend their time scouring other libraries and other sources of information because the materials are not easily available. If the testing of resourcefulness and library or Internet skills are the object of the exercise, well and good. If not, that lack of attention to availability of information shows a failure on the part of the teacher to prepare adequately for the classes. With distance education there is no face-to-face interaction with the students. The lecturer can become almost invisible, and perhaps psychologically less accountable for the course content and how the students complete their work. That could eventually sink distance education.

Organising my own personal loans and library access, and doing my own work to find needed information on the Internet, was a cost saving to the university and its library. The financial advantages of getting the reader to be self-sufficient are significant. If the library does not have the material on its shelf, it must borrow the book or obtain a photocopy of a journal article from another library. That costs between $5 and $30. Depending on the weight of the book, it could cost another $20 to post it to the requesting library. Then the borrowing library incurs further costs in managing the loan and returning the book. There is also a substantial waiting time for the reader. Both inter-library loan and making readers find their own resources on the Internet are bleak prospects for publishers, too, as library revenues are being spent on administration and postage, and readers tend to use free material rather than pay for it. If education is to be based firmly on good-quality information, some kind of affordable alliance will need to be forged between the publishers and the libraries to meet the needs of distance-education students.


Undoubtedly Internet technology has been important in facilitating distance education. The ability to gain access to good-quality, useful references via the World Wide Web determines how much study can be effectively conducted at a distance, without reliance on libraries to supplement the resources made available via the course Web site. The direct costs for this, however, should be borne by the university, not the student, and the reason goes beyond economics to the quality of education. The availability of "free" information, without subscriptions or toll gates, will determine what students read and use in their learning. That may cause the direction of opinion (read and discussed) to be skewed toward the individuals or publishers who choose to make their information free to all. For the sake of knowledge in its own right and the application of that knowledge in practice, it is important that the information available be sound and of good quality. Universities need to ensure that the providers of Internet information products are remunerated when they provide valuable information.

Publishers and libraries need to work together to set fair access rates or per-capita rates to encourage students to use quality information. Libraries could negotiate licences and allocate passwords for electronic access to the products as appropriate, and still provide a valid service to their students. They also should find ways to easily transmit electronic copies of non-electronic references. Whatever the system, it will not work unless it is extremely simple and the costs can be factored into existing budgets. Libraries will have to be involved in a coordinating and negotiating role, and university administrators need to recognize that even providing "free" information costs money. Distance education has come a long way in the last forty years, and it has an enormous future if the information resources that undergird it are provided as part of the standard service to those distant students.

Julie Hooke may be reached by e-mail at jhooke@camtech.net.au.

Julie Hooke spent 23 years as director of library services, Royal Adelaide Hospital. As a result of an institutional amalgamation, she changed career direction early in 1999, moving to a position as Project Officer, Information Technology Services Department, Royal Adelaide Hospital,where she worked on intranet, Internet and telemedicine projects. She is currently studying for a master of information management and systems degree with Monash University, Victoria, Australia, using Internet-based distance education. You may contact her by e-mail at jhooke@camtech.net.au.


1. S. Whisler and S.F. Rosenblatt, The library and the university press: Two views of the costs and problems of the current system of scholarly publishing, 1997. http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/15/1c/57.pdfreturn to text

2. S. Polyson, S. Saltzberg, and R. Godwin-Jones, A practical guide to teaching with the World Wide Web, 1996. [Editor's note: Link removed August 2001 because it was no longer active.]return to text

3. . C.W. Bailey, Scholarly electronic publishing bibliography, Version 25, University of Houston Libraries, 6/1/99. http://info.lib.uh.edu/sepb/sepb.docreturn to text

4. M. Hogarth and D. Hutchinson, An Internet guide for the health professional, 2nd ed., 1996. [Editor's note: link removed August 2001 because it was no longer active.]return to text

5. M. Buckland, Redesigning library services: a manifesto, ALA, 1992. http://sunsite.Berkeley.EDU/Literature/Library/Redesigning/pdf.htmlreturn to text

Links from this article:

Australian Government Locator Service Manual, http://www.naa.gov.au/recordkeeping/gov_online/agls/user_manual/intro.html

Global Victoria, http://www.mmv.vic.gov.au/

ITT Systems Corporation. "A State of the Art Report: Software Design Methods," https://www.thedacs.com/techs/design/Design.ToC.php

MetaCrawler, http://www.go2net.com/search.html

National Library of Australia, http://www.nla.gov.au

Odlyzko, Andrew. Tragic Loss or Good Riddance? The impending demise of traditional scholarly journals," http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/doc/tragic.loss.txt

U.S. National Library of Medicine, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/

Victorian Office of Training and Further Education's "A Planning Model for Innovation: New Learning Technologies," [formerly http://www.otfe.vic.gov.au/planning/model/]