One of the quiet revolutions to accompany the Internet has been a change in the role and stature of correspondence college. Although some of the older institutions have probably been around since the time of the first matchbook, most people look somewhat askance at distance learning. Schools that offered degrees by mail have been considered suspicious shortcuts, at best; at worst, some have been outright scams.
Using the Internet
Distance learning is quickly becoming “Internet learning” in the most popular form of non-traditional education delivery. Online communication between students and teachers has somehow legitimized the process and at the same time altered the cast of players. Students are typically professionals and working adults but also include senior citizens and others who could not regularly travel to a campus for classes. Perhaps most importantly, the names of the educational institutions have changed–from specialized training schools with names like “Lucky’s Art Institute” to respected universities and colleges with long-standing campus degree programs.
To be sure, some online learning programs have simply replaced the U.S. Post Office with the Internet, conducting a rather sterile transfer of documents via e-mail. In many other cases, though, digital libraries are being made available to off-campus students, and cutting-edge technology for data sharing, collaborative research, and group conferencing are becoming invaluable resources, not mere gadgets.
Online college courses extend the scope of students to invalids or students who live and work outside the institution’s home state or virtually anywhere in the world. They also improve educational quality by offering access to famous lecturers (e.g., Gore Vidal, George Gilder, or Nicholas Negroponte). Some argue that classes that include skilled professionals, foreigners, and an overall broader cross-section of people have greater value than the homogeneity of many American college campuses.
Not all distance learning serves the completion of a college degree. The delivery of training materials via the Internet offers tremendous potential savings for corporations, especially in areas like Information Systems in which change and retraining are frequent. In some cases, online skill training takes place under the guidance of a college or professional training provider, but companies are also recognizing the value of offering internal employee training through private intranets.
There are problems yet to be solved in deploying distance learning, of course. Equipment remains costly, although the increasing ubiquitousness of PCs, both in universities and in the hands of students, is reducing the significance of this issue. Communications speed is another; overall Internet bandwidth is in high demand, and students generally are at the short end of the online stick, using modem connections that are too slow for satisfactory real-time audio or video transmissions.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the wider use of distance learning is a lack of understanding, and, in some cases, a reticence on the part of college faculty. Many college teachers view online education as a threat to their positions. Those who accept the new technology may struggle to understand it and wonder how it can be used and what special policies should be in place for students.
How it works
There are two common models through which online education is usually implemented. In the first, students gather in a place removed from the teacher’s location. The boundaries of a familiar classroom setting are then expanded by incorporating satellite, cable, and other networking technologies to bring the teacher and students together in real time. With the second model, the student works more as an individual, using a PC to supplement traditional course work, engage in directed study at his or her own pace, or “attend” a class that is in session within a networked environment.
The result is a more project-oriented mode of learning that may require a higher degree of discipline. The advantage, though, is that students can complete a course around their own schedule, yet it’s still an experience directed by the facilitator, with the potential for group interaction. This model is well-suited to a person who may not be able to access a classroom due to a disability, scheduling conflicts, or geographic location. The use of e-mail and electronic bulletin boards can also increase class participation by encouraging students who are normally too shy to speak in a group to contribute.