Plato as distance education pioneer: status and quality threats of Internet education
First Monday

Plato as distance education pioneer: Status and quality threats of Internet education by Gary Klass

Distance learning technology has always posed risks for undermining both established faculty-status prerogatives and the quality of student learning. This paper examines these risks in the context of three historical instances in the development of "distance" education technology: the use of the written word to deliver course materials, the creation of the mass lecture hall, and the recent development of pre-packaged general education Web courses. These "Web courselets" represent the most serious threats to the undergraduate learning experience and may undue many of the recent efforts to reform undergraduate education.


The Connection Between Professional Status and Quality Learning Threats
Distance Education Circa 360 B.C.
Distance Education in the 1960s
Student Choice on a Virtual Campus



The Connection Between Professional Status and Quality Learning Threats

The rapid proliferation of Internet distance education technology, courses and programs has led to both optimistic predictions of revolutionary change and dire expressions of concern over what the Internet portends for both the quality of student learning and economic status of the American professorate. Digital entrepreneurs and doom-sayer luddites both forecast far reaching changes for the American university, changes as substantial as those that followed the triumph of capitalism over feudalism, and involving many of the same forces of good and evil, cunning, and ineptitude.

In this paper I will examine the nature of these professional status and quality learning threats from both from a general historical perspective and with specific attention to the effect of Internet instruction on recent efforts to reform undergraduate education.

The central premises of many of the more alarmist writings on the threats of the Internet to the academy are that what's good for General Motors is not what's good for the professorate and what's good for the professorate is what's good for the student. That Web-based distance learning has developed during a period of conservative ascendancy in society and a new corporate mentality among university administrations has not been lost on those who see Internet technologies as a threat to professorial status and prerogatives [1]. Following two decades of corporate and governmental downsizing that affected nearly every other sector of the U.S. economy, and at a time when higher education ranks with health care as one of the most inflationary sectors of the economy, many are troubled my the prospect that a combination of market forces and Internet technology will produce "digital diploma mills", undermine the fundamental faculty prerogative of tenure, accelerate the growth of a instructional underclass, and otherwise disrupt the professorial lifestyle.

In a series of papers (and a forthcoming book) David Noble describes how the internet will turn faculty into production workers, chained to their machines by their mouse cords:

As in other industries, the technology is being deployed by management primarily to discipline, de-skill, and displace labor ... .

"Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically."

At the same time, the use of the technology entails an inevitable extension of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours, and e-mail, to both students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and continuously accessible." [2]

Although he views it more with horror than irony, Noble also warns of the faculty complicity in the technological revolution, describing faculty pioneers of distance education as akin to the Rudy Hertz character in Kurt Vonnegut's story of the pianist who goes to work for the player piano company only to find that the new technology makes his skills obsolete.

Even those who embrace the changes brought about by distance learning foretell widespread disruption of the higher education status quo. Samuel L. Dunn, for example, offers these predictions:

  • 10% of existing public colleges and 50% of independent colleges will close in the next 25 years;
  • Courseware producers will sell courses and award credits directly to the end user and bypass the institutional middleman;
  • Faculty in traditional colleges and universities will revolt against technological delivery of courses and programs. Unionization and strikes will increase as faculty fight a rear-guard action to try to slow down or stop the inevitable. [3]

There is some irony in Noble's forecast that the feudal political economy of the modern university will succumb to the forces of nineteenth century capitalism just at the time twentieth century capitalism is giving way to the new information economy of the twenty first. Unfortunately it is not a given that negative changes in faculty working conditions will have a negative effect on student learning. Note that while others attack distance learning for impersonalising the relationship between teacher and student, Noble condemns it for making faculty more accessible to students. Nor is it immediately clear how the learning process benefits from a lack of faculty accountability for what goes on in the classroom or how it has benefited from the surplus of leisure time faculty apparently enjoy at present.

The argument against distance education essentially rests on two problematic premises: a) that distance education will increase administrative control and supervision of faculty; and, b) that it will diminish the quality of the education students receive. The first premise, however, ignores the extent to which Internet-based distance education increases the distance not only between students and instructors but between instructors and the academic institution. Internet education opens up many new opportunities for professors to free-lance: teaching courses online that offered through many different institutions. The conventional means by which administrators coerce faculty: threats of denial of tenure and promotion, an office without a window, and increased teaching loads will prove ineffective against instructors who are able to compete in a digital environment, selling their services through many university "outlets". Many college teachers may become independent contractors and their relationship to their employers more like that of the free-lance writer to the newspaper-and-magazine publishing industry than that of an assembly worker to a multinational corporation. Unlike the temporary, untenured, and part-time instructors of today whose academic freedom is at the mercy of both the new corporate-minded administrative functionaries and also (and even more likely) the tenured professorate, free-lancing Web teachers may find themselves accorded a level of academic freedom that traditional brick-and-mortar universities rarely provided.

While the transformation of the American university from a "collegial to a corporate enterprise" [4] sets an important context for assessing the impact of distance learning on the professorate, more fundamental changes have taken place in American higher education in recent years which provide an important context for examining distance learning's impact on the learning process. Over the past decade, and following a series of criticisms of the American higher education in the 1980s, there has been a significant value transformation in American universities. It started with demands from the corporate education bureaucracies for more accountability: governing boards started talking about "value-added" assessment and re-defining students as "customers". Somehow these initiatives brought about more substantial and far reaching changes. Universities began to place more emphasis on teaching, created new teaching centers, promoted new pedagogies stressing "involvement in learning" and the development of critical thinking skills, and reformed their general education curriculum. At many universities, general education was transformed from a Chinese-menu patchwork of courses tailored to interests of various departmental bureaucracies to a more structured system tailored to student needs and development. "Writing across the curriculum" and "math across the curriculum" were promoted as a means of integrating the fragmented and disjointed curriculum. More resources were put into freshmen year courses and universities developed freshman "learning community" programs. Increasingly, job applicants are asked to provide both a research presentation and a classroom presentation during their on-campus interviews [5].

All of this amounted to the beginning of a minor cultural revolution in the American university. And while distance learning may threaten the system of professorial prerogatives that was in place before the 1990s, its effects on the undergraduate education reform may prove just as destructive. Before we get to that, however, let's examine how the academy has responded to, and incorporated, technological change in the past.



Distance Education Circa 360 B.C.

There's nothing new about the concept of distance learning per se. Students have always studied and learned things in places geographically separated from their professors. And professors have always provided the means for them to do so, even as they warned that this is not the best way to go about acquiring an education. The technology that made this possible was the written word. The first significant use of the new technology to make course materials available to students came with the Plato's publication of Socrates' Dialogues. Ironically it is in the Dialogues that we find the first murmurs of the faculty "rear-guard action to try to slow down or stop the inevitable."

In Pheadrus, Plato's Socrates challenges the new technology head on, questioning whether the mythical discovery of the written word served any useful purpose [6]. Socrates describes the demon Theuth presenting the King of all Egypt with the arts of calculation, geometry, astronomy, games of dice, and the written word. Theuth argues the merits of each of the arts, asking that they be given out to all Egyptians. The written word, Theuth claims, would "make Egyptians wiser and provide them with better memory". The King demurs, insisting that that just the opposite will follow:

"this will provide forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it ... . You have found a drug not for memory but for reminding. You are supplying the opinion of wisdom to students, not truth. For you'll see that, having become hearers of much without teaching, they will seem to be sensible judges in much, while being for the most part senseless, and hard to be with, since they've become wise in their own opinions instead of wise" [7].

In the end, Socrates acknowledges that writing does serve some useful functions in poetry, speech writing, and the writing of laws, but, he insists, it is not the medium for instruction and for those who seek the truth through philosophy. There is much irony here. What Socrates says is entirely consistent with his own approach to teaching. But why does Plato have Socrates say these things? We can only speculate. Surely Plato believed that his own writings served some useful instructional purpose. Consider that Plato has three interests at stake: he is a writer, a teacher, and the chief executive officer of the Academy. Perhaps at a time well into his own teaching career (Phaedrus is one of the middle dialogues), Plato came to realize how his own writing undermined and subverted his roles as teacher and administrator. Maybe students were cutting his classes, depending on the lecture notes Plato had written to make for what they missed. After all, why should a student attend the Academy when the best teachings are already written down?

Plato's dilemma is mirrored in the most recent controversies arising from the publication of students' lecture notes on Web sites [8] and Socrates' critique of the written word parallels that of those who contend students will learn less from their online notes than by attending their classes [9]. Thus, Mathieu Deflem argues:

"Online notes companies may have many negative effects, especially because students could be led to think that they no longer have to attend class when lecture notes are available online. More broadly, the availability of online notes could imply that students would develop a short-sighted and narrow perspective that views of education as just getting the notes to make the grade" [10].

In the case of online lecture notes, whether or not faculty lectures are protected by copyright comes down, in part to a question of whether or not lectures are presented in a "fixed" medium of expression, or as mere oral expression is customarily treated, in an unfixed medium. Deflem argues for copyright protection of online lecture notes based on the idea that although lectures are oral in nature, their content is in some ways "fixed":

"[L]ectures in educational settings, especially those conducted by qualified instructors at accredited institutes of higher learning, are never oral expressions as such but are always prepared and delivered in a very specific form with various accompanying materials, such as written notes from which teachers lecture orally, images and sound recordings that accompany the lecture, maps and lesson plans, and textbooks and other scholarly writings on which lectures are based" [11].

How Deflem would have applied his point to contest Plato's breach of Socrates' copyright is not clear, the instructor not having taught at an accredited institution and for the most part without "various accompanying materials". But the distinction between unfixed oral expression and the fixed written word was central to Socrates' critique of writing. The primary fault Socrates finds in the written word, and what distinguishes it from good teaching practice, is that it is fixed and its says the same thing to all who read it. The best learning Socrates was arguing, came not from a fixed presentation but from an interactive and dynamic dialogue.


Many of the predictions that the Internet will bring wholesale change to higher education fail to describe just how digital distance education will differ from the distance education that has been available to students through the printed medium for the past two millennium. Libraries and bookstores are full of books that offer to teach readers the same material faculty present in their classes and professors have always found some useful roles to perform despite this. They also fail to consider just what kind of teaching the Internet is most likely to replace.



"Distance" Education in the 1960s

The second instructional technology to disrupt the academy was more slow to develop and became a central feature of academic life in the U.S. with the development of the mega-university in the 1960s: the large lecture hall. The technology of the lecture hall involved many of the same threats to learning that Internet technologies later would. Measure by the space between instructor and back-row student, lecture halls created a new kind of "distance education". Lecture halls substantively changed the pedagogy of the university, faculty-student interaction diminished, student wrote fewer term papers, and examinations became standardized. The mass lecture halls produced a variety of instructional technology spin-offs (the computer-graded multiple choice exam scan sheets, more powerful overhead projectors, instructor microphones, PowerPoint slideshows and the like). By the end of the 1960s the university had come a long way from the days when Socrates and Phaedrus chatted one-on-one on the banks of the Ilisus [12].

With more efficient classroom instruction universities might have hired fewer faculty and the universities that made the most use of the lecture hall technology might have driven less efficient small colleges out of business. Fortunately or unfortunately, lecture halls did not make the universities more efficient as the personnel and other resources that would have been spent teaching introductory classes in smaller settings were diverted to other things: smaller workloads to encourage faculty research, graduate teaching assistantships, more emphasis on graduate education and the steady increase in university bureaucracy, much of it devoted to counseling students and regulating their extracurricular lifestyle. Mass lecture halls did enable the mega-universities to admit more students, but a substantially lower percentage of them would remain in the university until commencement. Perhaps because universities were not then managed by administrators enthralled with the corporate mentality, the efficiency gains of the lecture hall largely represented a shift of resources from front-end introductory class instruction to back-end upper level and graduate instruction and faculty research.

Indeed, throughout much of the recent history of American university, administrators have constantly advanced new schemes and technologies for making some aspect or the other of the university more function more efficiently. Yet throughout, universities as a whole have become less efficient, more costly, and less productive.

Dot.Edu Universities

Web-based distance education involves three distinct competitive threats to traditional academic programs: virtual universities, online programs, and Internet courses.

Virtual universities, such as the Western Governors University and newly accredited Jones International University (54 of its 56 full-time faculty are adjuncts), [13] offer several competitive advantages over traditional four-year colleges and universities. The market efficiency of virtual universities is best summarized by the absence of the three classic constituency demands university presidents have to deal with: football for the alumni, parking for the faculty, and sex for the students. By providing little else but education and certification, universities avoid most of the non-instructional costs of a brick-and-mortar institution.

Nevertheless and at least at the undergraduate level, virtual universities are unlikely to present a substantial threat to traditional academe. The primary clientele of virtual universities are non-traditional and part-time students. Western Governors University, currently offers only four technical degrees (Learning and Technology; Network Administration; Electronics Manufacturing Technology; and, Software Applications Analysis and Integration) and a general education Associate of Arts degree. The Associate of Arts degree consists of a listing of traditional general education (but not American Government) offered online by the member universities [14].


If virtual universities are going to be little more than digital diploma mills, it hard to see how they will become any more of a market threat than traditional diploma mills. If price were a main consideration in the college selection choice for high school seniors, community colleges would attract students with the highest SAT scores and Ivy League schools, the lowest. Two other factors are paramount in the selection choices of incoming freshmen. The first is the quality of education, or at least a reputation for quality education. The second consideration, based on my own informal survey of students in my freshman general education course, is student demand for a college that will geographically position the student just out of reach of immediate parental supervision, ideally a range of 100 to 250 miles. Here, traditional universities have a distinct advantage over the virtual, where there is no excuse for moving out of the parents' house. If "distance" were a competitive disadvantage, the nation's largest public universities would be located in places like Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland rather than Athens, Columbia, College Station, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Columbus.

Online graduate and continuing education professional programs may constitute a more significant threat for traditional institutions, particularly in technical fields and where competency-based Internet instruction is most practical and where the primary student clientele is employed and taking courses part-time. But in the Arts and Sciences, and particularly Arts and Sciences Ph.D.-track graduate programs, the threat is substantially less. Aside from the question of whether an advanced graduate curriculum is well suited for online delivery, there is little economic incentive for doing so because so many programs operate without regard to market economics. For the most part few traditional graduate programs in the Arts and Sciences make money and most are heavily subsidized by the revenue-generating undergraduate program. Undergraduates pay to go to college, graduate students are paid to take their courses and to teach the undergraduates.

Killing the Cash Cow

As near as I can determine, approximately half of the undergraduate course credits earned in American Universities derive from 25 standard courses [15]. In an analysis that was favorably cited throughout Charles Sykes' ProfScam, William Rau and Paul Baker describe the freshman student taking introductory lecture hall course as the central feature of the political economy of the modern university: the freshman is the "cash cow" that provides the resources for every thing else [16]: Taught with minimal faculty resources in large lecture halls and with graduate students or temporary and part-time instructors the core general education curriculum provides the revenue that funds the salaries of the higher paid tenured professorate, their research, their graduate programs, and much of the infrastructure of the university.

The movement for general education reform that has occurred since the publication of Profscam and other critiques of American higher education in the 1980s has been premised on the notion that universities ought to put more of their resources into the front end of the undergraduate curriculum, stressing value-added assessment, active learning and teaching strategies, and the development of students' critical thinking skills. The impetus for the reform that has taken place has been a result more of pressure and resources applied by governing board bureaucracies and the new corporate managers than of the operation of traditional mechanisms of faculty shared governance.


Much of the reform may be undone, however, as these same bureaucracies pursue a distance education strategy that also targets resources to the general education curriculum. Just such a strategy was recently advocated by Dennis Jones, President of the National Center for Higher Education Management Studies in a presentation to the Utah State Board of Regents:

"Dr. Jones said motivation for distance education and technology has been to use technology to make a class big enough to be taught. The place to think of technology is in those 20-25 courses everyone takes. Fifty to sixty percent of all lower division credits are taught in about 20-25 courses. He encouraged the Presidents to use these classes and offer them from store-front locations, through distance education, etc. The challenge is to mix and match to get the best results" [17].

It is here were the Internet poses the greatest threat to higher education, in the form of what Samuel L. Dunn calls "killer courseware" applications [18], more or less complete Web-course software packages, prepared by faculty, produced by textbook publishers, and distributed to students through existing Web course delivery software products such as WebCT and Blackboard CourseInfo. To appreciate the nature of the threat, consider the introductory American Government course.

The Introductory American Government Course

Nearly every American college and university offers an introductory American government course, more often than not as a part of a required general education curriculum. For most political science departments the American government course is the "cow" that generates high and predictable course enrollments and the resources that support all other research, teaching, and service activities. For many, it has provided the resource base that has allowed political science departments to weather the steady decline in the numbers of undergraduate majors throughout the 1990s [19].

Over the past three or four years each of the major college textbook publisher companies have made substantial investments in the development of Web-based instructional supplements for their American government textbooks. By the summer of 1999, the six largest publishers (Prentice Hall, Addison-Wesley-Longman, Norton, Wadsworth, Harcourt College, and McGraw Hill) had created Web sites for 14 of their American Government textbooks [20]. At first, the Web sites contained an assortment of learning aids designed to supplement the course materials used in traditional classroom settings: a set of multiple choice questions for each chapter (the results could be e-mailed to the instructor), online discussion forums, updates from the text authors on recent political events, and a series of Internet links to relevant on materials.

More recently, the same material is now being made available in formats compatible with WebCT [21] and Blackboard CourseInfo [22], the two largest course-delivery software providers. WebCT now provides American government "courselets" of 14 textbooks [23]. Instructors at universities that have purchased the WebCT software simply download the courselet materials which students can access with a password (or pin number) that they purchase with the textbook. In addition to the materials previously provided on the publisher's Web sites, the WebCT and packages now include online gradebooks, short video presentations of key concepts, open ended essay questions (with a simplified interactive grading system for graduate assistants), and lecture notes.

For a community college to offer on an online American government course using the courselets would require relatively few resources: a well managed Web server, an instructor familiar with the software, and some advanced undergraduate or graduate training in American politics. At a minimum, the instructor would be responsible for preparing final examinations, and grading them if they are not multi-choice tests. Since the instructor need not be resident at the college offering the course, students enrolled in Ph.D. programs, or faculty seeking to supplement their existing salaries, would fulfill the role quite nicely. Less-than-minimal Web courses would require the instructor to monitor discussion forums and grade essay exams. WebCT, in particular, greatly simplifies the grading of at least short essay questions, providing sample essay answers that they can directly compare to the answers students submit via the Web.

States would have to develop statewide systems of providing for regularly scheduled monitored examinations at convenient computerized classroom locations. Creating statewide fee-based test monitoring services at university and college distance learning service centers should prove a relatively simple task. Until then policies such as this one at Barstow College will have to suffice:

"Midterm and Final can be proctored by an approved official, such as a librarian, military educational officer or other school official" [24].

Cheating would be a problem with the unmonitored portion of student assignments, but the courses could require a passing grade on the monitored exam to pass the course.

For the publishers, the market economics of distance education courselets provides for some interesting calculations. Largely as a result of mergers in the publishing industry, each of the major publishing outlets now offers as many as a dozen different American government textbooks. The publishers compete not only with each other, but with textbook resellers. New editions of textbooks are produced every three years in order to minimize the percentage of students buying the used texts, but this still leaves the publishers with substantially reduced revenues in the second and third year of each edition. With the new internet courselets, the textbooks are packaged with the passwords (or pin numbers) that provide students access to the course Internet site (even if the site is on the home university computer system), effectively requiring all students to buy a new edition of the text.

That traditional courses permit students to use cheaper used textbooks, or to share the cost of a new textbook with their roommates, might reduce their cost disadvantage versus the community college distance ed courses except that the cost of the required new edition is a hidden cost. Students enroll in traditional courses usually without knowing how much the textbook will cost, whether used copies will be available, or whether or not the text they do buy will be supplanted with a new edition the next semester.


In terms of the quality of the course offerings, and at the current level of courselet development, it's not clear how even a very minimal American government Web course would do more harm to students than a very minimal American government lecture hall course. The current courselets leave much to be desired and tend to emphasize rote memorization rather than any critical thinking skills or analysis. This is particular true of the multiple choice quizzes and tests that have been developed and which may be the only formal requirements in some online offerings of the course. A less than systematic review of the questions used in the O'Connor and Sabato test bank items suggests that not a great deal of attention was given to principles of test-item construction. The questions neither elicited nor tested higher-level thinking skills, with the exception that students were challenged to figure out that a question with the choice of "all of the above" or "none of the above" was the correct answer over 85% of the time. Rarely did a question ask students consider material from more than one page of the textbook at a time, to connect a premise with a conclusion, or to do anything but carefully memorize each line of the most recent edition of a $65 text [25]. Even the essay questions provided with many of the courselets merely ask students to summarize a few paragraphs of the text.

With more development, however, courselets might provide serious competition with even the best lecture hall course. It wouldn't take much: video lectures featuring master teachers, or lectures written by textbook authors and presented by trained actors, interactive computer simulations for each chapter of the textbook (these are currently under development by Addison-Wesley-Longman), and more thought-provoking tutorial exercises and quizzes. It is feasible to have the courselets automatically upgraded on a regular basis to provide exercises related to current news events and that challenge students to apply abstract principles to current events. For example an exercise concerning national sovereignty and states' rights might ask students to apply the principles to the Elian Gonzalez case.

The concern for quality in the teaching of the introductory American Government course is especially problematic because there are very few standards for teaching the course under normal circumstances. An American Government course can be taught in small seminars or huge auditoriums. The assigned readings may consist of only the brief edition of standard textbook, a standard textbook supplemented by readings as complex as the Federalist Papers or as simple as newspaper editorials, or a series of political novels. It may involve elaborate simulations, term papers, oral reports or just a few multiple choice exams. Instruction may vary from intense Socratic dialogue to a monotone lecture.



Student Choice on a Virtual Campus

Because of the degree of standardization and the American Government course is highly transferable, most colleges will readily transfer American Government course credits, if not grades, from any other college, university or community college. With the expansion of community colleges and as students are less and less likely to complete their college careers with a four-year, ten-courses per year, schedule of courses taken from the same institution, transfer credits are an increasingly common part of students' transcripts. A report from the National Center of Education Statistics indicates that nearly half of the 1989-90 freshman class enrolled in another institution as undergraduates within five years of beginning their postsecondary education [26]. In response to federal subsidies provided under the 1992 Higher Education Amendments, many state boards of education have developed and refined course articulation agreements between community and four-year public institutions and, most recently in Florida, between private and public institutions [27].

Table 1: American Government Distance Education Courses: State of Illinois
Source: Illinois Virtual Campus "Illinois Virtual Campus Home Page"
InstitutionDelivery ModeIn-state tuition (fees)In-district tuition

Concordia University




Southern Illinois University Carbondale




Parkland Community College

Open broadcast



Harper College


$649 (20)


John A. Logan College


$398 (15)

$120 (15)

Lewis and Clark Community College




South Suburban College


$153 (10)


John Wood Community College

Interactive TV



Triton College

Interactive TV



Carl Sandburg College




College of DuPage


$160 (30)


Danville Area Community College


$132 (120)

$132 (35)

Harper College


$649 (20)

$162 (20)

Illinois Central College




Lake Land College




Lincoln Land Community College




Southeastern Illinois College




University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign




Waubonsee Community College




Illinois State University

Lecture hall

$322 (120)


As Internet-based distance education expands, community colleges and state boards of education can be expected to make new initiatives to facilitate course transferability and may be common for student transcripts to include courses from a variety of community and four-year institutions. In addition, the Internet greatly facilitates students shopping for courses. California, Illinois, and Kentucky have recently created "Virtual Campuses," which serve as online clearinghouses for online courses offered by public and private institutions in their states.

In Illinois, course shopping is facilitated by the state's on-line "Illinois Virtual Campus" (IVC) Web page (see Table 1), providing students with a list of over 1,500 distance education courses, and 42 programs, provided by state public and private higher education institutions. Fall, 1999 enrollments totaled 14,629 students in 932 courses [28]. A search request for courses in American government thus provides students with a choice 19 American Government courses, tabulated by delivery mode (Internet, correspondence or videotape), credit hours, dates, and cost. In some cases a course link will connect students to an online course Web page, but in most cases the link is to a school's distance education page and actual information about the course content and assignments is difficult to obtain. This leaves the student shopper with two critical pieces of information: delivery mode and price. The prices range from $108 to $648, with the in-state tuition at the community colleges averaging $265 and a substantial number of choices under $200. In comparison, students enrolled in a 350-student lecture class at a somewhat above-average state university, such as Illinois State University, are charged a per course tuition $322, plus $120 in student fees.

At California Virtual Campus, 12 American government (or American politics) courses are offered online, all but two of them through community colleges charging a $36 in-state fee. The online course offered through San Diego State University has a tuition charge (in-state or out of state) of $198, while the four-credit course at the (private) University of La Verne costs $1,100 [29]. Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University provides the same service for Kentucky, offering 150 online courses (none of them in political science) [30].

Note that in general, the difference between in-state tuition at the four-year college and in state tuition at the community college. The difference presumably reflects the cost efficiencies of community college instruction and is not as substantial as the difference in student fees. The real advantage to students of the distance education community college choice is that almost all of the money they pay goes to their instruction, whereas at the four-year institution the tuition charge also requires that one pay student fees for the football team, the arena, and the student center. It may be that it is the student entertainment functions of the mega-university, rather than higher costs of faculty instruction, that put them at the most disadvantage.




The outsourcing of the general education curriculum brought about by student shopping on the Internet, more so than the development of virtual universities and virtual programs, thus poses the greatest threat to traditional academe: killing the cash cow and the faculty's family-farm lifestyle and at the same time derailing the progress toward general education reform. It won't be long before fraternities begin offering their members a distance learning service similar to that of the state virtual campuses, but providing additional two critical pieces of information: the amount of work required in the course and the standards for getting a good grade. Whatever the quality of the distance education products developed by textbook publishers and course delivery software outlets, the standards for these courses will be set by those who seek to enroll the most frat boys.

And there's not much faculty can do about it and preserve their traditional perquisites at the same time. "Rear-guard" efforts to control the diffusion of distance education by setting university or discipline-wide standards for online courses are likely to result in the same protests concerning restrictions on faculty autonomy and academic freedom that David Noble raised in opposition to distance education [31].

On the positive side, those colleges and universities that do not depend on the political economy of the cash cow and the large lecture hall, that provide a "real" rather than a "virtual" education, that provide an integrated four-year curriculum, with students taking small classes from real professors in real classrooms, and that become more efficient by eliminating functions and activities that are truly extraneous to undergraduate education, may survive the distance education revolution quite nicely.++++++++++

About the Author

Gary Klass is associate professor of political science at Illinois State University.


This paper was originally presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago on 29 April 2000.


1. Michael Margolis, 1999. "Using the Internet for Teaching and Research: A Political Evaluation," paper, 1999 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Atlanta, Ga., 2-5 September, at

2. David F. Noble, 1998. "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education," First Monday, volume 3, number 1 (January), at

3. Samuel L. Dunn, 2000. "The Virtualizing of Education," The Futurist, volume 34, number 2 (March-April), p. 37.

4. Margolis, "Using the Internet ... ," p. 1.

5. Marilla D. Svinicki, 1999. "New Directions in Learning and Motivation," New Directions for Teaching and Learning, number 80 (Winter).

6. Phaedrus, 274c-276.

7. Phaedrus, 274e.

8. Florence Olsen, 1999. "Colleges Weigh Legal Action Against Web Sites That Publish Lecture Notes," Chronicle of Higher Education (26 November), p. 69.

9. Jacques Steinberg, 1999. "Free College Notes on Web: Aid to Learning, or Laziness?" New York Times (9 September), p. A1. For a discussion of the online notes, view the "Opinions on" discussion thread for PSRT-L, The Political Science Research and Teaching List, 18-22 September 1999,

10. Mathieu Deflem, 1999. "The Educational Costs of Free On-Line Lecture Notes," Stanford Review, volume 32, number 2 (18 October 18), and at

11. Mathieu Deflem, 1999. "Teaching Laws: The Legal Protection of Education and Its Relevance for Online Notes Companies," manuscript (26 October), with last revisions added 8 February 2000, at

12. Phaedrus, 229a (as the two were alone, Phraedrus must have given Plato the lecture notes for this class).

13. Kelly McCollum, 1999. "Accreditation of On-Line University Draws Fire," Chronicle of Higher Education (2 April), p. A33.

14. Western Governors University, (viewed March 17, 2000).

15. Ronald D. Owston, 1997. "The World Wide Web: A Technology to Enhance Teaching and Learning?" Educational Researcher, volume 26, number 2 (March), pp. 27-33 (data for Maricopa Community College District).

16. William Rau and Paul J. Baker, 1989. "The Organized Contradictions of Academe: Barriers Facing the Next Academic Revolution," Teaching Sociology, volume 17, number 2 (April), pp. 161-183.

17. "Minutes of Meeting, Utah State Board of Regents," Snow College, 23 April 1999, at

18. Samuel L. Dunn, 1998. "The Virtualizing of Education," also, Jeffrey Kittay, 1998. "Editor's Note: Future Tense: Waiting for Killer Calc," University Business, (July-August), at

19. Sheilah Mann, 1996. "Political Science Departments Report Declines In Enrollments and Majors In Recent Years," Ps: Political Science & Politics, volume 29 (September), pp. 527-533.

20. Gary Klass and Lane Crothers, 1999. "An Experimental Evaluation of Web-based Tutorial Quizzes," 1999 American Political Science Association Meeting, table 1, at

21. Recently acquired by Universal Learning Technology, Inc.

22. Recently merged with Web-Course-In-a-Box.

23. Not the same 14 for which Web sites had been constructed. Several of these are duplicate sites for brief editions of the textbooks

24. (search on Barstow and Social Sciences).

25. See Klass and Crothers, 1999.

26. Alexander C. McCormick (MPR Associates), 1997. "Statistical Analysis Report: Transfer Behavior Among Beginning Postsecondary Students: 1989-94," National Center for Education Statistics (June), pp. 3-5.

27. "Florida Community-College Students Transfer More Easily," Chronicle of Higher Education (25 November 1992).

28. Illinois Virtual Campus, "Illinois Virtual Campus Home Page: News on April 3, 2000", (viewed on April 3, 2000).

29. California Virtual Campus,

30. Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University,

31. G. David Garson "The Role of Technology in Quality Education,"

Editorial history

Paper received 13 May 2000; accepted 17 May 2000.

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Plato as Distance Education Pioneer: Status and Quality Threats of Internet Education by Gary Klass
First Monday, Volume 5, Number 7 - 3 July 2000

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.