Distance Learning Goes the Distance Education will never be the same

by Charlotte Thomas, Career and Education Editor, Peterson's
Source: http://www.petersons.com/distancelearning/articles.asp

It's 10 p.m. Time to log on to the electronic peer network discussion already underway. Scrolling through the threaded comments from other class participants, the student picks up nuggets of information she finds useful and that warrant response. It doesn't take long before she's engulfed in a heated debate that propels both the subject being discussed and the way this education is being delivered through unexplored territory ripe with innovations.

For another distance learning student, 10 p.m. means the completion of an assignment for his class. It's finally done. Time to drive to a fax machine to send it to his professor. E-mail invites cheating, the professors believes. No telling who actually did the work. He wants handwritten and faxed results. The student is not happy with the logistics of this course.

Learning to learn in new ways
Pam Dixon, a columnist and author of seven books, one of which is The Virtual College published by Peterson's in 1996, tells the latter story to illustrate some of the growing pains that distance education is currently undergoing. Though distance learning in one form or another has been around since farmers used correspondence courses to bone up on plowing techniques, only recently has it become a much publicized alternative to campus-based learning.

One impetus to this revolution is that the Internet has significantly facilitated distance learning and is thus provoking tremendous change and experimentation in how education is delivered. The stigma that used to be attached to getting a degree without physically being on a campus hardly exists now, notes Dixon. And when "medallion universities" like Stanford, Harvard, and Duke entered the distance education arena, it became legitimate overnight, concurs Michael Lambert, Executive Director of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) in Washington, D.C., which was founded in 1926 to oversee the quality of correspondence courses.

You learn--you earn
More than technology is driving what is essentially a monumental change in the way people will access education in the coming century. A competitive workplace and the Information Age connect one's level of education with earning potential, counsels Kay Kohl, Executive Director of the University Continuing Education Association in Washington, D.C. People want and need more alternatives to education than sitting in class for a predetermined amount of time. And they're finding them in the myriad paths that distance education is taking these days.

Certainly the number of enrolled distance learning students indicates growing interest in this educational option. Family PC Magazine estimates that 1 million students are taking distance learning classes via the Internet, while the International Data Corporation predicts that the number of college students enrolled in online courses will reach 2.2 million by 2002. Banking on an earlier date, eCollege.com states that by 2000, 97 percent of all educational institutions will rely on some form of distance learning.

In reality though, few institutions deliver education solely online at present, points out Dixon. The Internet is only a supplement to satellite, video, microwave, audio, and print-based content. But as computers become even more ubiquitous, user-friendly, and cheaper, that will change.

You choose the time and place
Taking asynchronous courses online sure beats watching education videos on PBS at 11 a.m. Sunday morning, suggests Thom Swiss, Director of Web Assisted Curriculum and Professor of English at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Muriel Oaks, Associate Vice President of Extended University Services at Washington State University in Pullman, agrees that technology has caught up with the needs of adult learners for flexibility and convenience. They can juggle an education with their hectic schedules, not the other way around.

A big boost from the government
When it comes to facilitating distance education, it looks like the federal government is catching up, too. Two initiatives passed in 1998 under the Higher Education Amendments will "significantly increase the number of students who can benefit from distance education," states a recent Department of Education press release. Because of the Distance Education Demonstration Programs and the Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships program, distance education providers will be able to offer increased federal aid because the restrictions placed on them are being reviewed and changed.

No longer on the fringe of education
Distance learning is no longer a peripheral attached to the traditional campus-based method. As each new technology has come along and has been adopted by distance educators, it has changed the way we're learning, says Dr. Paula Peinovich, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Regents College in Albany, New York. Though print delivery remains the top method for distance students to receive material, the Internet is on the way to removing the boundaries that formerly kept some students from accessing information and educational resources, surmises Peinovich. Other virtual universities following the model of Regents College, which was one of the first to offer degrees only by distance learning, are springing up. The Western Governor's University, for instance, is the result of the collaboration of eighteen western governors and is also implementing Web-based learning.

Resource-based education is what educators are calling this new form of delivery. Learning is becoming student-centered because students can access the resources they need to accomplish their goals based on their own needs. The Internet has made that possible in ways no one could have anticipated, Peinovich reports.

But we've always done it this way
These changes have not come about without controversy and obstacles. Because it's new and untested, educators are justifiably concerned about quality. However, distance learning providers such as WGU are quick to point out that distance education is not a replacement for the campus, nor is it for all students, emphasizes Edwards. "Face-to-face with a talented professor in a classroom is still the best way to learn. The reality is that it's simply not available to all those who want it, whether because of money or time. There are not enough brick and mortar buildings out there," says Edwards. He calls distance learning just another educational tool, like blackboards and computers. "There will be those who embrace it and fit a pedagogy around it. Others will choose not to use it or use it badly," he reflects.

Frank Mayadas, Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Networks in New York, New York, characterizes the choice between campus-based and distance education another way. "Do you want to fly or drive?" he asks. "I'm not saying distance education is the same or better, but I can tell you it's pretty darn close," he states. Over time, Mayadas asserts, distance learning will evolve so that there will be very little difference in outcome between learning on or off campus. Currently, most distance programs are geared towards master's degrees, professional certification, or courses for working adults. In fact, Dixon states that the greater percentage of distance offerings are courses rather than degree programs.

Distance learning gets low marks from some
While distance education seems to answer a lot of student needs, the fact that drop-out rates are higher than those for campus-based learning cannot be ignored. "Retention varies," says Mayadas, alluding to the high retention rates of distance education providers such as Northern Virginia Community College, one of the biggest community college distance providers in the country. Lambert suggests that not everyone is blessed with the discipline and motivation that distance learning requires. "Despite what's said about the electronic classroom, it's a lonely way to study," he says. Many need and enjoy the stimulus of being around a peer group to share reactions and to help each other.

On the surface, taking courses via distance education appears to be a quick and easy way to learn. It's not. Personal characteristics and learning styles play a big part in the success of the distance learner. A lot depends on the student's ability to organize time and resources. (For more on what it takes to be a distance learner, link to the article, "Are You a Candidate for Distance Learning?" listed below.) In addition, factors such as the length of time it takes to get a distance degree and that services for distance students might not be equal to those on campus have much to do with participants not completing the program.

Some need to see faces
Perhaps the most cited drawback when comparing distance- to campus-based learning is the lack of face-to-face interaction between students and faculty members and with each other. On the other hand, there are just as many supporters of distance education who will tell you that interaction is enhanced and richer than what normally occurs in traditional classrooms. (For more on the pros and cons of on line and face-to-face interaction, link to the article "On Line or Face-to-face: Which Works Best?" listed below.)

Tallying up the differences, Mayadas says that facial expressions and body language are missed. But then he cites the advantage distance learners enjoy of never having to give off-the-cuff answers. In online discussions, students can reflect about their responses before answering. Shy people or those with speech impediments can easily contribute to an online dialog. Mayadas illustrates his point. "When I was in college, there was always some windbag in the front row who dominated the professor with questions. In an online discussion you will find some who have to unburden every shred of their knowledge. On line, most students can ignore them."

Some need hands-on
The necessity of face-to-face interaction and hands-on experience that distance learning lacks depends on the program, states Lambert. "Common sense dictates that we don't want to have surgeons and jet mechanics getting an education via distance learning," he quips. "But for eight out of ten fields, students don't need to sit in a classroom."

Mary Beth Almeda, Director of the Center for Media and Independent Learning at the University of California Extension in Berkeley, California, acknowledges that certain subjects such as chemistry or physics labs are problematic. But having said that, she states that with an instructor's creative course design and delivery, even that obstacle can be overcome.

How to get the most from distance education
Because distance education is still evolving, it is not a perfect learning environment--yet. But, there are steps students can take to overcome the hurdles that exist so they can realize the full potential that learning can offer in an off-campus environment

Make sure you have the full support of family and friends.
Get completely involved with your electronic peer group and maintain contact with your teacher.
Immediately find ways to apply the knowledge and skills you're learning to the real world.
Establish a schedule and keep to it. It's easy to procrastinate, and once you've started slipping down that slope, it doesn't take long before you'll be overwhelmed.
Give yourself rewards for assignments completed and punishment for work missed.
Take a trial course before signing up for a program. Try something that really interests you, such as a hobby.

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