Trip Report: Workshop on Educational Modules
in the Field of International Relations and Security
21-22 Nov 97, Zurich, Switzerland

by Frank J. Stech, Ph.D.
Principal Scientist
Mitretek Systems (m/s IVLHS/ITS)
600 Maryland Avenue
Washington DC 2004

Conclusions: A recent workshop (see attached trip report) on distance learning, attended by experts from three continents, supports several conclusions about the status of distance learning:

  1. Rapid Growth: open universities and distance learning are growing extremely rapidly in academia, business, and government;
  2. Driving Factors: several factors drive the rapid growth of distance learning, among them the rapid pace of technological change and increased dependence of modern work on technology, the need for continuous learning in the workplace, increased availability of the means for economical mass dissemination of educational materials, and the need for new forms of education;
  3. Primitive, Evolving Tools: computer-based authoring courseware and multimedia tools are becoming available to support the development of distance learning materials, but there are few or no tools available for curriculum management or the administration of the virtual university, and today the technology infrastructure to support distance learning and open universities is akin to the status of software development environments over a decade ago: diffuse, primitive, handmade, and dependent on experienced guides and consultants;
  4. Pre-scientific Foundations: looking deeper than the availability of tools, the field is pre-scientific, i.e., there are no agreed-upon terms for its elements, there are no widely accepted theories, frameworks, or methodologies for distance learning comparable to those that define courses in the modern university, thus delivery of educational materials at a distance is completely ad hoc and rapidly evolving in many different directions, some which have nothing to do with pedagogy;
  5. No Standards: there are at present no commonly accepted methods to standardize, validate, or certify instruction via distance education, and although several traditional and non-traditional means are used presently to evaluate the effectiveness of learning at a distance, the scope and definition of the virtual university is still being shaped.

These conclusions imply some cautions as we attempt to develop distance learning solutions:


  1. the field of distance learning has many amateurs, some experts, and no masters;
  2. there are no school-solutions for how to provide distance learning (although one can pursue a Masterís Degree in the subject), successful experiences may or may not transfer across distant, open situations;
  3. the tools and technologies for providing distance learning, on-line curricula, and operating open or virtual universities are diffuse, evolving, and highly dependent on other technologies and infrastructures;
  4. until the field moves beyond its pre-scientific stage, the focus should be post-hoc (on outcomes and results benefiting clients) rather than anti-hoc (on methods and infrastructures);
  5. as demand for distance learning continues to grow, tools, methods, and infrastructures will undergo numerous cycles of evolution, creation, and extinction (as have software development environments), offering many business pitfalls and opportunities, and mandating a continuing need for experts and consultants.


Several organizations recently sponsored a Workshop on Educational Modules in the Field of International Relational and Security at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. (ETH is the Swiss version of MIT, VPI, or Cal Tech in the United States.) The workshop sponsors were the Euro-Atlantic Foundation, the Swiss Ministry of Defense (MOD), and the ETH Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research (CSSCR). The CSSCR International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is a World-wide Web based site providing information and linking various sites involved in international relations and security. Drs. Kurt Spillmann, director, and Andy Wenger, deputy director, CSSCR ETH, were our hosts.

As an Adjunct Professor in the Security Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, I had consulted with the U.S Department of Defense Office of NATO Affairs on the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Information Management System (PIMS). PIMS is a US-sponsored intranet connecting PfP country MODs to each other and NATO, and through the Internet, to sites such as ISN. Having briefed representatives of CSSCR, ISN, and the Swiss MOD on PIMS in June, I was among the forty participants invited to attend the workshop in Zurich.

The workshop participants came from the United States, western Europe, and Australia and included experts in distance learning, technologists, consultants, and customers for distance learning. While government and academia were well-represented, industry (one of the major users and developers of distance learning) was under-represented. Many examples of distance learning courses and open universities were demonstrated and available for examination. The participants were housed together in a nearby hotel and took most meals together. Interactions were extensive throughout the workshop. The details of the workshop background, presentations, and participants can be found on-line on the Web (Homepage, Program, Presentations and Papers, Invited participants and organizations).

In trying to characterize the "lessons learned" from the workshop, I found two images useful.

Distance Learning is a Unique Infant Industry: The first image was the early motion picture industry. This industry grew from several roots (e.g., the stage theater) but became uniquely different as it matured. Similarly, distance learning and open universities will probably grow in part from the root stock of traditional universities, but will mature into something uniquely different. For example, the full potential of multi-media distance learning involves production values and technologies more like the motion picture industry than like the traditional classroom culture. This is an exciting image, because there is an entirely new field blossoming in front of us. It is also a troubling one, because the traditional models and understandings are likely to take us only a short way, and then we are own our own. (The term "corps of discovery" was used sincerely, if somewhat grandiosely, by an organizer to describe the workshop participants.)

Distance Learning is a Pre-scientific Branch of Technology: The second image I took away was pre-scientific biology. That is, those early days of naturalism, when the first scientific names were being developed and negotiated, and terms were being invented to label key biological processes. The first scientific steps were naming, then enumerating, then measuring. Finally, correlation leads to theories of causation, and lawful relationships are discovered that allow general predictions to be made. Finally, engineering and economics make the enterprise of agriculture socially useful. Similarly, distance learning is at the earliest phase: trying to name phenomena (like "educational modules") with precision and consensus.

The experts are quite a way from being able to enumerate the key elements of distance learning. There simply is no framework yet for distance learning which allows scientific measurements, descriptions of processes, or general predictions. The engineering and economic principles of the discipline are yet to come. All this scientific, engineering and economic armature need to be developed, even as the field blossoms and is sowed and reaped.

Session Topics: The sessions of the workshop tended to reinforce these two images: many descriptions (with a variety of names, perspectives and interpretations), with an attempt at closure through three work groups:

  • Session I: Why Educational Modules and not Textbooks?
  • Session II: Aspects of Computer Aided Learning How Far Can We Go? Steps towards a Virtual University.
  • Session III: Presentation of Selected Educational Modules
  • Session IV: Creating Educational Modules
  • Session V: Work in Progress
  • Session VI: Work Groups
  • Session VII: Final Discussion and Recommendations

The three concluding work groups suggested to me the first steps of both early industry and early technology:

  • A Classification Scheme for Educational Modules;
  • Identification of Fields where Educational Modules Are Needed;
  • Setting up an Information Network among Developers of Educational Modules.

Closure? The final discussion and recommendations confirmed the preliminary nature of distance learning. Even the basic parameters of the concept of "module" remain to be specified.

The discussions of classifying modules opened up taxonomy issues. The structure of knowledge and education, while recalling the earliest days of Diderot and the encyclopedists, is not merely philosophical. The European Union, for example, intends to develop European Vocational Qualifications (EVQs), providing transparent and portable modules defining the skill units of all vocations, with all the attendant issues of validation and certification, not to mention currency. Discussions of the size of a module reflected their essentially fractal nature: each element of knowledge can be further "exploded" into a detailed blow-up of smaller elements. Conversely, stepping back, one sees connections and intersections with larger bodies of knowledge. Competencies, standards, authorities, structures -- all the convenient mechanisms of the traditional university offered at best starting points for discussions. The 21st century academy saw only partial reflections in the mirrors of the 20th century academy.

Discussions of where educational modules were needed was equally basic. While there were strong sentiments towards using distance learning to "leverage" education for the disadvantaged (e.g., East European groups), it was apparent (as we all sat in the Swiss MITís robotics laboratory with our sundry notebook computers) that more likely the richer would get richer before the disadvantaged benefited. That is, the well-off nations, audiences, and enterprises would initially sample and employ distance learning. However, the marketing-oriented among us saw sufficient variety in what we were calling "modules" and "distance learning" to find a multitude of niches to be filled among rich and poor.

Networking developers generated the more pragmatic discussions, since the distance learning practitioners and sponsors had real needs and objectives that could be served by better information exchange and collaboration. Educational modules need to be designed, developed, and launched. Doing so is much like launching new commercial products or services, an explicit assessment of audience needs and capabilities, and an eye on other stakeholders, such as investors and sponsors, are essential to any chance of success. Given the scale, complexity, time factors, and other "industrial" attributes of distance learning, networking the developers was a natural starting point. Constructing a pilot collaborative distance learning project offered a natural proposal for a next step. Task oriented, this work group threw up tool sets, project management frameworks, networks of contacts, and variations on the twelve-step improvement programs of the project-oriented. New product development batting averages are, roughly, a dozen project efforts yield one true success: the networked developers have their work cut out.

Favorite Links: I close the trip report with a copy of my own on-line notebook of distance learning resources available through the Worldwide Web.

Distance Learning Resources on the Web

World Lecture Hall (WLH), maintained by the University of Texas, contains links to pages created by faculty worldwide, who are using the Web to deliver class materials. Over fifty course areas are covered, ranging across a spectrum of university topic areas. For example, you will find course syllabi, assignments, lecture notes, exams, class calendars, multimedia textbooks, etc. An e-form is provided to add new distance learning links. Students and faculty auditors contribute to an on-line commendations page.

Virtual Learning Communities WebSite.
Author: Kathy Rutkowski. Links to information on virtual learning: Global Projects, Grassroots Efforts, and Commercial & Government Efforts, with Recommended Readings.
Copyright © 1996.

The Global Schoolhouse In recognition of National Science and Technology Week 1993 (April 26-May 1), the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering is sponsoring the Global Schoolhouse project, an activity that will demonstrate how the Internet can be used to allow students all over the world to work and learn together, by communicating with each other, teachers, scientists, and even national and international leaders.

The Michigan Virtual Automotive College (MVAC), providing an automotive technology distance learning site, is a private not-for-profit 501(c)3 corporation formed by the State of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, the state's other colleges and universities, and the auto industry. MVAC will integrate the automotive education and training offerings of Michigan's higher education providers with the support services needed to provide convenient, cost effective, and high-quality automotive education and training.

University of Phoenix offers graduate and undergraduate degree programs to working professionals around the world. With 51 campuses and learning centers located throughout the U.S. and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, including the Online Degree Program and Center for Distance Education, University of Phoenix is one of the nation's largest private accredited institutions for business and management.

WebDesk: the Tele-Conferencing Service of MATES.
Authors: Peter Parnes, Dick Schefström, Kåre Synnes, Centre for Distance-spanning Technology, CDT, University of Luleå, Sweden. This site describes WebDesk, a distributed electronic conference environment in conjunction with the World Wide Web, WWW, where users share a common view of the distributed workspace and can interact with each other through audio, video, drawing and annotation of existing documents. The WebDesk attempts to create a single homogeneous and integrated framework for distributed collaboration. The Esprit 20598 MATES project is supported by the Information Technology part of the 4th Framework Program of the European Union. Provides useful information and design notes for any distributed collaborative architecture, e.g., distance learning or virtual education.

Altering Time and Space through Network Technologies to Enhance Learning
Authors: John F. Chizmar and David B. Williams. Networking technologies offer a better learning environment for students while providing opportunities for reducing the cost of the learning process. A key outcome of advances in networking, the Internet, telecommunications, and client/server computing is that they are serving to alter the limitations of time and place. The authors discuss their experiences from the perspective of teaching in economics and the arts. They have created learning strategies that make use of these technologies for communication and access according to a matrix showing the interaction of time and place. A useful essay on designing distance learning systems.
Copyright 1996 CAUSE.

Virtual Learning Environments at a Glance. An overview of VLE, or virtual learning environments, provided by  University of Florida, Gainesville. The Web gives little consideration to the use of VLEs specifically for distance learning. The links provided offer an orientation to the use of VLEs for distance learning.

Going Virtual: Moving your organization into the 21st century.
Authors: Ray Grenier & George Metes, Prentice Hall, 1995, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Notes on virtual workers, collaboration, virtual teaming, collective learning. The integration of work processes with a ubiquitous electronic information infrastructure enables the optimum teaming of world class competencies to create value. The era of teams of knowledge workers able to use electronic systems to support knowledge and information worldwide. Interactions are in real time and designed to use all available telecommunications facilities. Learning is continuous, collaborative, and acquired through the information infrastructure. Notes by John Sharp, October 1996. 

Networked Learning offered by Knowledge Ability Ltd, provides international consulting and training services on online communication, collaboration, and learning. Networked Learning uses computer networking to bring learning to the learner, by creating electronic classrooms, available anywhere, anytime. A variety of web-based Networked Learning tools are now available. Useful descriptions of web-based learning and methods.
copyright © Knowledge Ability Limited

Working By Wire offered by Knowledge Ability Ltd, provides international consulting and training services on online communication, collaboration, and learning. Working By Wire offers over 30 skill development modules, building the skills for working online. Useful descriptions of web-based learning and methods.
copyright © Knowledge Ability Limited

Institute for Global Learning offers virtual learning through: learning environments offered on the world wide web; senior learners, experts, and peers from various locations around the world; participants will be encouraged to fulfill competencies by pursuing off-line opportunities while remaining linked virtually to learning environments and other learners through the internet; and participants will be able to remain active in cohort groups and the community of faculty and learners at a number of different locations.

The Future of Education and Research: Assumptions about Teaching and Learning
Author:  Blake Ives.  This hypertext essay from ISWorld Net paraphrases the original set of assumptions about the future of education included in "Will the Internet Revolutionize Business Educationa and Research," by Blake Ives and Sirkka Jarvanpaa, that appeared in the spring of 1996 issue of the Sloan Management Review. These assumptions were drawn from the literature on distance learning and provide useful links and references.

The Globewide Network Academy  offers thousands of course opportunities through links in its distance learning catalog. GNA also sponsors a Virtual Information Technology College.

Athena University, administered by Virtual Online University Services International, Inc., is a corporation offering a distance education program. Its electronic campus allows students to collaborate, debate, and interact with fellow students and instructors by way of a distinctly innovative model for distance education.

The Art Site on the World Wide Web @ sue4/mclaugh.html
Author: Margaret L. McLaughlin, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. Nowhere is the online presence of artists and their work more significant than on the Internet. Artists are represented in every arena of network activity, and, to a greater extent each day, the World Wide Web. An analysis of using the web for teaching art subjects.
Copyright 1996 Journal of Communication 46(1) Winter

Art Galleries and Exhibits on the WWW
Author: Margaret L. McLaughlin, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. An example of resources for on-line art teaching.

Other Links
Eureka Distance Learning WebLinks offers dozens of links to Web sites dealing with learning and education using the World Wide Web: