What's Ahead for Distance Education Students
Right now, there's tremendous change

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

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 contends.

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 classroom environment.

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 positive.

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