Published on 2012/06/12

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.

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/06/12 at 2:58 pm

The idea of bringing CDE into the center of institutional planning really intrigues me. After all, as you say, CDE units serve the greatest variety of students and, all the while, generate revenue.

More and more, it seems to me the main focus of the university should be on revenue generating programming for this increasingly diverse and non-traditional student audience. The secondary focus of institutions should be the so-called “traditional” activities that suck money out of the institutional coffers

Kenson Church 2012/06/18 at 4:02 pm

I actually saw an article on here a little while ago about how UT Austin was bringing their CE department into the center of university ops – it’s good to see the movement is spreading!

It’s interesting that you say diversity is one of the driving reasons that higher ed institutions should be bringing their CDE units into the center, because CDE encapsulates everything that is right with higher ed and really brings out the negatives of the traditional four-year experience.

The average four-year institution is not business-minded, they put on programs regardless of the interest and the cost to the rest of the institution. They force students into a rigid structure that pushes them toward a credential they may not actually want, and students wind up in courses they don’t actually want to take. This style appeals to a very small cross-section of customers in the higher education marketplace and it’s time for the business-minded CDE units to step up and show how diversity of student body, encouraged by diversity of programming and course options, is good both for an institution’s bottom line and for its students.

Reed Scull 2012/06/19 at 11:17 am

I want to thank Kenson and WA for their comments, which give me some possibilities for expanding my discussion. I do feel strongly that the assets of DCE units get overlooked too often.

Its really up to us to keep making the case regarding the talents and capacities that DCE brings to the table. EvoLLLution has shown me that there are plenty of articulate professionals out there that can do this.

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