An American teachers' union has fired a warning shot across the bow of the fast-growing web-based higher education market, declaring that undergraduate degrees must have some face-to-face contact and must not be taught entirely online.
The American Federation of Teachers resolved at its annual conference in Philadelphia to call for a set of quality standards for distance education programmes.
It stated that undergraduate courses should include classroom-based coursework, with exceptions for students truly unable to attend a campus, and provide close personal interaction between teachers and students via email and other methods.
Other principles advocated by the union included ensuring academic staff fully control distance courses, be properly paid for their time and retain intellectual property rights.
Assessment should be as rigorous as for conventional teaching and students must be given advice in advance about how to succeed in a distance learning environment.
The motion, passed unanimously by the 3,100 delegates, also said that students should have equivalent access to library materials and research opportunities and counselling.
Union president Sandra Feldman said online courses offered great opportunities for students who could not attend campus, but stressed that they must be academically rigorous and ensure interaction between teachers and students, as well as between students. "If we fail to do this, these degrees and the people who earn them will not be accepted in the workplace and elsewhere," she said.
The union warns that there is a real danger of diluting educational quality in the rush to offer video or computer-based college courses. It regards the internet, video, computer courses and email as important tools professors can use to enhance education, and accepts that distance-learning courses delivered by video or computer can enable colleges to reach new markets and cut costs.
But the union says that distance-based courses vary greatly in quality and work better for some students than others - for many students they are too isolating.
The union has more than 110,000 university academics among its 1 million-plus members, more than any other national faculty organisation, and mostly in public institutions. It is due to release a report later this year that will apply to public as well as private for-profit and private non-profit higher education institutions.
The guidelines will be used as a baseline in contracts negotiated by the union with universities and colleges. The report will include a national survey of academics who teach distance-learning courses.
American Federation of Teachers: www.aft.org