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Distance Learning

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Educational institutions have for some time provided opportunitiesfor distance learning to students unable to attend classes on campus.Until recently, these were primarily printed instructional material,audio and video cassettes or TV programs. Distance learning is notnew, though it has become a "buzz word." It still takes on manyforms. It includes asynchronous learning, where student and teacherdo not need to learn and teach at the same time or in the same place.Web tools are now utilized that permit synchronous communication,allowing live audio and video to be carried over the Internet. Thisonline learning environment simulates a real classroom where studentscan take part from any Internet connection. New educational programsuse a mix of synchronous and asynchronous techniques.

Almost all major universities are experimentingwith or offering courses over the Internet. The 1998 Digital StateReport, commissioned by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, foundthat distance learning courses, while "scarce" in the previous year'sstudy, are now offered by more than 75% of the states. The CaliforniaGovernor's Office is currently reassigning staff and allocating largeamounts of funds into what is called the California VirtualUniversity &emdash; created to compete with the Western GovernorsUniversity. The California Virtual University (CVU) consists of morethan 500 accredited institutions throughout California that listtheir distance learning offerings for students on a Website.

A surprising number of administrators seem
to think that faculty members can simply
add teaching at a distance to their existing workloads.

Into the Cyber Age

Many public and private educational institutionsprovide degrees and certificates through asynchronous or synchronouslearning. For example, Duke, MIT, Cornell and Stanford offer Master'sand certificate degree programs. As stated in Information Week (July,1998), "Britain's Oxford University is joining the cyber age, thanksto a $500,000 grant from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and asimilar award from the British government. In January, students willbe able to take courses over the Web, and take full advantage ofresearch materials and staff expertise. The award of Certificate ofHigher Education will be equivalent to a first-year undergraduatedegree from the venerable institution &emdash; without your having toactually move your whole life overseas."

The proliferation of Web sites reflects the growthof a variety of different models used to develop the structure andcontent of Web support for both undergraduate and graduate courses.These range from total courses to classroom notes or assignments.Interaction between faculty member and student varies greatly. Asurprising number of administrators seem to think that facultymembers can simply add teaching at a distance to their existingworkloads. The increased demand for distance learning courses israising a number of issues:

  • What type of infrastructure is needed to support these programs to assure success?
  • Is the approach cost-effective?
  • How should faculty be chosen for distance learning programs? What is the best way to compensate them?
  • How should distance learning collaboration be structured?
  • Who owns the material?
  • How d'es the educational institution maintain and administer courses?
  • How to provide security in such areas as registration, payroll, exams and assignments?
  • How to ensure equitable student access?
  • What methods of evaluation can be designed?

These issues need to be resolved as distancelearning courses continue to be offered by institutions with varyingdegrees of commitment, expertise, allocation of resources andcapital. Risk is involved: risk of doing nothing and risk in notdoing it well. However, we must not forget that education is a socialprocess, not purely a technological one as we continue to utilize theincreasing array of electronic devices for asynchronous andsynchronous learning. Good teaching involves a recognition ofconfusion, the ability to inspire, to provoke thought, to developconfidence&emdash;particularly at a distance.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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