Digital Dilemma: Issues of Access, Cost, and Quality in Media-enhanced and Distance Education
reviewed by James Forest - 2002
Title: Digital Dilemma: Issues of Access, Cost, and Quality in Media-enhanced and Distance Education
Author(s): Gerald C. Van Dusen
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787955736, Pages: 141 , Year: 2000
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The relationship between technology and learning is among the most important topics in higher education worldwide, and increasing in importance. While there are many areas of concern to observers of this topic, Gerald Van Dusen has prepared an engaging overview of three primary areas: issues of access and equity, issues of cost and affordability, and issues of quality and effectiveness. Not surprisingly, these represent the same three areas of critical challenge to the success of colleges and universities throughout the U.S., as we struggle to make higher education more accessible, more affordable, and more effective. Thus structured, Van Dusen’s report provides a brief yet thorough analysis of the major challenges in our daily efforts to enhance teaching and learning in higher education.
In today's rapidly changing world, writing about technology often carries a significant amount of risk. Due to editing and publishing cycles, the technical aspects of a book can become outdated before it even reaches the shelves, as the emergence of new hardware and software can lead to an entirely new technology paradigm. Van Dusen avoids a fair amount of this risk by presenting a fairly general discussion within the three critical dimensions–access, affordability, and effectiveness–which lead to concluding remarks that seem to mirror the conclusions of most general observations of higher education. One conclusion is that higher education will continue to undergo significant transformation in the years to come. The author also concludes that "the historic commitment to core values in traditional undergraduate education has wavered" and that containing costs requires a campuswide rather than department-level perspective.
Although not entirely original, the author’s concluding remarks include useful summaries of a few key issues. For example, the author notes that distance education is unlikely to produce real costs savings for institutions, and that the existing evidence is inadequate to determine the effectiveness of technology-enhanced approaches to teaching and learning. Further, the author rightly observes that differing levels of access to the information superhighway leads to disparities between institutions in their ability to offer quality educational uses of technology, which in a sense produces a class of institutions and their students who live and learn in relative information poverty. In the same vein, the author’s recommendations in this area focus on issues of providing universal access to the tools and information of the Internet, developing and enforcing medial literacy requirements for students and faculty, and targeting our resources toward the uses of technology that produce the most desirable learning outcomes.
To address the challenges of tangible and intangible costs, the author emphasizes the importance of cooperation and collaboration, both within and between institutions. But perhaps the author’s most salient observation regarding quality and effectiveness could be summed up as "start with the faculty"–institutions must empower their faculty with the equipment and skills necessary for using technology effectively. I would add that an institutional culture which encourages and rewards experimentation and innovation–as opposed to the traditional conservatism of most colleges and universities–is a critical element in broadening our knowledge of how technology can enhance the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning.
While essentially offering no conclusions or recommendations that cannot be found in a host of other essays and articles on this topic, Van Dusen’s monograph provides a nice review of the existing literature, and is thus a useful introduction to the main challenges and dilemmas of this topic. In this sense, Digital Dilemma should be recommended reading for anyone beginning his or her exploration of the relationship between technology and higher education. To its credit, the discussion is considerably more readable than several of its predecessors, perhaps owing to the author’s training as a professor of English rather than as an information technology professional. Instead of jargon and confusing acronyms, the author provides a useful service in describing with great clarity the linkages between technology and the three most critical challenges for higher education, making it accessible even to those respected colleagues who inadvertently post private e-mail messages to public Listserv discussion groups. In a succinct and readable way, the author addresses three critical dimensions–access, affordability, and effectiveness–within which this relationship presents a diverse landscape of issues. Guided by thoughtful planning and leadership, our institutions of higher education must acquire the knowledge and skills needed for providing widespread and cost-effective access to technology-mediated information, and for using technology with increasing sophistication and success. How our leaders of higher education respond to these important issues will largely determine a future of success or dismal failure for our colleges and universities.