A committee of professors at the University of Illinois has concluded that the promised financial returns of distance education may be exaggerated.
The group's report, Teaching at an Internet Distance, contends that serving the same number of students online at the same level of quality as in the classroom is more expensive than assumed.
"Because high-quality online teaching is time and labour-intensive, it is not likely to be the income source envisioned by some administrators," the report says. "Teaching the same number of students online at the same level of quality as in the classroom requires more time and money."
It also says the number of "non-traditional" students nationwide is not as large as United States university administrators appear to believe, implying that the market for distance education in the country may not be as big as thought: "The scenario of hundreds or thousands of students enrolling in a well-developed, essentially instructor-free online course does not appear realistic."
The report is one of the few by university faculty to address this topic and is being widely circulated.
Drafted by a committee of 16 professors, it takes an academic point of view, urging that faculty should retain ownership and control of online courses they teach, and that they should be involved in decisions on how to commit resources to online education.
The committee was established after a complaint from an engineering professor that university faculty were not being included in planning for proposed distance-education programmes.
The report warns: "Administrative decisions made without due consideration to pedagogy or, worse, with policies or technology that hamper quality, may cause much wasted time, money and effort."
Citing figures from the US department of education, it also says the number of traditional-age students expecting a conventional university education is expected to grow more quickly than non-traditional students who might be in the market for a distance-education programme.
The report is online at http://www.vpaa.uillinois.edu/tid/report/