Visit Modern Campus

Distance Education and the Diversity Imperative: Evolving Our Organizations beyond the Fringe and Adding Social Value to an Organization

Continuing education units pride themselves on the diversity of their offerings and student body, and they thrive as a result. Photo by Sylvar.

Historically, distance and continuing education units have been viewed as fringe elements of the academy. Indeed, in some ways, Continuing and Distance Education (CDE) units have existed in roles as “Others” that are in some ways not dissimilar to the roles that the views and activities of diverse peoples have historically played in academe. In recent times, budgetary pressures have caused higher administration to take a greater interest in CDE units for their potential to serve as revenue engines that can supplement traditional funding mechanisms.

I believe that in academic and strategic discussions in the academy, CDE units might deserve an even more elevated role, in that CDE units by their nature have the potential to provide higher education institutions with capacities for achieving greater diversity.

Here are examples of how CDE generally addresses diversity concerns:

1. CDE methodologies, particularly online learning tools, provide safe spaces to address controversial issues. Consider the “queer spaces” research in LBGTQ studies.

2. CDE includes a diversity of delivery modalities, and therefore presents higher education with a broad multiplicity of teaching methodologies.

3. CDE can be used to create social constructivist teaching environments. Consider the writing and research from Charles Dede of Harvard University, which suggests that distance education methods, such as those utilizing “Web 2.0” tools, permit the co-construction of learning among teachers and learners.

4. CDE has historically had the role of advocating for people who have had the role of “Others” or “Outsiders” in Higher Education: adult non-traditional learners at a distance.

5. CDE has flexible financing and organizational arrangements, which permit programmatic efforts that might not normally occur, due to funding priorities and organizational orthodoxies.

6. CDE units often organize, both operationally and philosophically, around a systems thinking-lens. Consider the works of Michael G. Moore and Farhad Saba on this point. Among the attributes of a systems-thinking point-of-view is the acknowledgement that multiple organizational perspectives are possible, and even likely. Where multiple ways of knowing are accepted, diversity thrives.


We all know that role of CDE units within higher education has evolved. CDE is no longer an activity to be conducted on the academic fringe; rather, it is something that higher education leaders consider as an integral support for the teaching and learning mission. I suggest that as attention paid to CDE tools and methods increases, we should recognize that in addition to financial gains, we should recognize that CDE has the potential to advance some of the most praiseworthy ideas and ideals of higher education.

CDE has the potential to promote diversity in higher education, in a variety of ways that are administrative, pedagogical, and curricular in nature.

Therefore, CDE units should seek out friends among diverse faculty and faculty with research agendas aligned with social justice concerns. CDE needs more academic attention from those researching and studying diversity. Administration and academics alike should think of and explore more deeply the possibilities for advancing diverse perspectives through CDE methods of operation.

Author Perspective: