What's Ahead for Distance Education Students
Right now, there's tremendous change
by Charlotte Thomas, Career and
Education Editor, Peterson's
Distance students today might wish they could fast forward a few frames
into the future. Distance education is undergoing enormous change, and not
all the pieces are in place yet. Brand-new and well-established
institutions are figuring out how to provide distance learning to a
growing population that wants higher education but not in a traditional
classroom setting. In the interim, distance learners might find that what
they thought was the model for distance education today will look very
different in just a few years.
Because of these fluctuating conditions, it's difficult to know what's
ahead. However, there are a few predictions that educators do agree on:
Distance education is becoming more accepted by academia and the public.
The number of distance education providers, both traditional and
nontraditional, is growing.
The roles of teacher and student are undergoing sharp scrutiny.
Looking back over the years that Regents College has provided distance
education exclusively for off-campus students, Paula Peinovich, its Vice
President of Academic Affairs, says that innovation has always been a part
of distance education. Because distance education providers have had to
search for new ways to make higher education accessible, they have had to
depart from conventional methods of teaching. Distance education rocked
the higher education boat in the past, and it's still doing so.
"We're moving from a mode where the institution is in charge and provides
context, to the mode where the learner is in charge and provides the
context," observes Peinovich. Up to now, faculty members were in control.
According to Peinovich, that won't necessarily be so in the future.
Managed education is a term increasingly tossed around in discussions
about higher education. According to Peinovich, it means that higher
education will be run more like a business. She envisions a future where
the professors will be accredited, not the institutions. "We could
actually come full circle back to the beginnings of higher education," she
All shades of gray between campus-based and distance learning
Even though Peinovich and other educators perceive big changes ahead, they
are not saying that on-campus learning will decline. Frank Mayadas,
Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning
Networks, reflects that classroom teaching will survive just fine. He
doesn't even think of the two as competing but as different avenues to the
same destination. "Over a period of many years, I believe the differences
between campus-based and distance learning will be minimal," he
speculates. Currently, distance education is structured mostly for
graduate-level and professional students. In time, undergraduates who want
that first degree to older adults picking up extra courses will be able to
choose from many distance programs.
Technology shakes up the system
Though distance education is not a new phenomenon, the boat's being rocked
by huge leaps in technology. Dr. Joe Boland, Director of the Center for
Distance Learning at Georgia Institute of Technology, appropriately
predicts that distance education delivery will eventually converge on the
desktop and TV in five to ten years. When he got into distance learning
fifteen years ago, it was not well accepted and the equipment needed to
provide it was expensive. That has drastically changed. Says Boland, "From
a technical viewpoint, compression algorithms that are used to code the
video, audio, text, graphics, animation, and simulation are getting
better. And the bandwidth necessary to deliver these various mediums will
allow higher quality and speedier download."
Kay Kohl, Executive Director of the University Continuing Education
Association, posits similar positive developments. But she warns students
that distance education providers are not wrapping old models around new
technology. "For instance," she says, "if students have a three-hour
course with forty-five hours of lectures, it doesn't mean they will spend
forty-five hours in front of a computer screen." She foresees a mix of
mediums, such as on line and in-class.
From the University of California Extension, Berkeley, Mary Beth Almeda,
Director of the Center for Media and Independent Learning, agrees that
distance education will accommodate various approaches depending on the
student and the subject. "Technology won't replace or supersede the
classroom. There's room for everything," she states. Muriel Oaks,
Associate Vice President of Extended University Services at Washington
State University, adds that technology has caught up with the need that
distance education and online courses so readily fill. The result is that
"we'll see lots more variety in distance degree options," she says.
Trial and error result in a better conclusion
Unfortunately, today's distance students are in the middle of
ground-breaking changes. "You will see a lot of mistakes committed and a
lot of money spent with little results," states Michael Lambert, Executive
Director of the Distance Education and Training Council. But he also
thinks that in the end the true survivors with vision will figure out what
works best. Once we get through this growing period, distance education
will become a normal part of the establishment--just another method of
learning. "It will not replace traditional education but will enhance it,"
he says, noting that approximately 85 percent of distance students are
presently on campus and using distance learning to supplement the
Western Governors University (WGU) is one of the newer virtual
institutions to arrive on the distance education scene in the past few
years. Jeff Edwards, the Director of Marketing there, anticipates
institutions like WGU becoming a given in the industry. Virtual
universities will explode as technology standards increase the options.
"Accessibility will be a nonissue," he states.
Now the true test begins
As an observer of and writer about distance education, Pam Dixon adds a
few cautious notes. Distance education went through a love affair with the
Web, but the honeymoon's over. "Now, distance education providers are
working out the kinks and getting down to issues of quality. People will
back off the emphasis on the delivery medium and talk about education,"
she concludes. At least for now. In such a volatile environment, things
change quickly. But educators seem to agree that those changes are