By Dr. Sylvia Charp Editor-in Chief Delivering education to individuals, wherever they are physically located, is expanding rapidly. Defining a "typical student" as one who attends an educational institution at set hours and in a traditional structure is valid no more. Social, demographic and financial changes in our society are creating a need to take a look at new ways to deliver knowledge and information. Though definitions of distance education vary, certain observations are noted: The student base for whom use of distance learning is a viable educational alternative, is growing. Distance learning is playing a key role in life-long learning. Cooperative ventures - public schools, higher education institutions and the private sector working together - are successful. Numerous studies evaluating effectiveness indicate distance education students, if motivated, will learn as well as those in a traditional classroom. Distance learning programs use a mix of technologies: broadcast, satellite, microwave, Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), cable, telephone, networks, wireless, etc. Distance learning is touted as an answer to increasing costs of travel, limited curriculum, unavailability of professional educators and decreasing budgets. Concern over increasing costs, especially in higher education, is resulting in closer examination of alternatives to existing models of educational delivery. Investment of dollars in distance education, especially by the corporate community, is growing. (Ford Motor Co. is investing $100 million in its Ford Star Network to implement its own information superhighway for education and training.) Interest by federal, state and local government in networking and telecommunications is rapidly expanding. More options are available to learners, frequently at a lower cost. Mind Extension University One well-known deliverer of courses at a distance is Mind Extension University (ME/U), of Englewood, Colo. At a press conference, in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 1995, they launched the International University College (IUC) to "deliver essential business courses to adult students via the Internet, cable and satellite, television and videocassette at a much lower cost than traditional universities." Glenn R. Jones, chairman of Jones International, parent company to ME/U, stated "IUC will be a new model for academic, economics and access in higher education." He also claimed the electronic pipeline for learning will augment, not supplant, traditional courses. "The IUC is committed to make learning more accessible and affordable for motivated adult learners." The courses will be sent over the ME/U network, which has been delivering college-credit courses from universities like The George Washington University and the University of Maryland. At the press conference, I spoke with Dr. William Lynch, professor of education and Director of Educational Leadership, George Washington University. The students in his program receive a master's degree in Educational Leadership. They do not meet except at graduation, communicating with their peers and instructors electronically during the entire program. Student attrition is relatively low; the quality of work high. I called one student, Vicki Ceyen, a fifth-grade teacher in Denver Public Schools, who will be receiving the advanced degree at the end of the semester. Her comments were extremely positive and she volunteered the following reasons, often stated by other advocates of distance education programs. Communicating with students from different backgrounds residing all over the U.S. and in other countries was very stimulating. The need to keep a strict schedule was both good discipline and workable. A higher degree (master's) would have been unattainable if physical attendance at a university was essential. Working at one's own pace and at home permits carrying out of other responsibilities. Costs are lower and affordable. Using technology is exciting. Constant communication electronically lessens the feeling of isolation. Projects and research papers are done cooperatively. George Washington University is only one of a number of universities offering advanced degree programs. Nova University in Florida, for example, has been involved with distance education for years. Preparation Is All-Important Time is essential to prepare faculty, staff and community. A recent event points to just how important. In April 1995, the chancellor of the University of Maine was forced to resign as the result of a faculty vote of "no confidence," a reaction supposedly due to accelerated plans to extend current distance education programs. University of Maine has been cited as a model for distance education for the past few years. Reports on the resignation emphasized that the new plan included significant increases in courses, thus permitting students to earn undergraduate degrees from "a new virtual campus." Lack of involvement by faculty member in planning and decision making is attributed to their dissatisfaction. Though distance education at all levels and particularly in the private sector has many allies, significant barriers exist. Fear of technology is still prevalent. People are resistant to change and do not see the need or benefits. Concern over being replaced by technology is a factor. Greater planning and preparation are required for distance learning classes than for traditional lecture and classroom teaching. Resources are not always available and require sharing. Though costs are decreasing, affordability is still an issue. Education institutions will remain as centers of teaching and learning. They may not always be the physical and geographic entity we know today, but they will certainly be important institutions in our society. However, distance education will play an increasingly larger role in providing greater opportunities for all learners.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.