Distance Education Goes Mainstream


For most of itshistory, distance education has been a relatively exotic form of"alternative" education. That is beginning to change now thatdistance education has become mainstream.

Technology: TheNecessary Ingredient

Certainly theevolution of technology has played a large role in the maturation ofdistance learning from an "alternative" form of education to themainstream. All forms of distance education depend upon some form oftechnology &emdash; even the earliest forms of correspondence studydepended upon print, writing and mail delivery. Now we have manytypes of delivery systems ranging from instructional television tovideoconferencing and online networks. The latter, particularly inthe form of the Internet/Web, is really changing the way informationis provided and people interact. Indeed, the Web promises to swallowup all other media: print, graphics, photos, audio and video. As moreand more people obtain access to public and private networks, thepotential to deliver materials and interact electronically increasessignificantly. And this is a good thing for distance education sincedistributing materials and interaction are two fundamentalprerequisites.

Teaching at aDistance

But there is muchmore to distance education than technology. Instructors must know howto do it. As every teacher soon discovers, teaching at a distance isquite different than traditional classroom instruction &emdash; evenfor very experienced and excellent teachers. Different presentationskills and teaching strategies are needed. Plus, there is the need tomaster the media or delivery system involved. Not everyone finds itnatural to teach in front of a television camera or computersystem!

There are now manyin-service and formal training programs around the country thatprepare instructors for distance teaching &emdash; as well as anincreasing number of teachers at all levels with enough experience totrain their colleagues informally. Over the next decade or two wewill see a new generation of instructors who have actually takentheir degrees via distance education and hence have first-handexperience to build upon.


Far more complicatedis the matter of institutional change. Distance education requiresthat schools, colleges and training departments make major changes totheir way of doing things. For one thing, a distance educationinstitution has no students on its premises. Hence most of thefacilities (e.g., classrooms, gymnasiums, dormitories) usuallyassociated with educational institutions are not needed &emdash; norare the associated personnel. On the other hand, faculty and studentsmust have technology support and there is a great need forinstructional designers, media experts and administrative staff.Moreover, almost all policies and procedures having to do withregistration, class scheduling, grading, graduation and attendancewill likely need to be changed to accommodate distanceeducation.

In the past, thechanges needed have been too much for most institutions ororganizations to bear, and this significantly discouraged distanceeducation programs from starting or succeeding. Instead, it wasnecessary to create special institutions such as the British OpenUniversity or university "independent study" programs in order toconduct distance education properly. With the advent of the Internet,there has been a proliferation of "virtual" schools, colleges andtraining organizations that have been specifically created for onlinedistance education. The threat of competition from these neweducational organizations has forced traditional institutions torethink how they provide instruction, and develop policies andprocedures more conducive to distance education.


One of the biggestchanges distance education presents to institutions is that itremoves geographical imperatives. In traditional education, schoolsand colleges have depended primarily on local students for theirbase. Only in the training world (especially the military) has thisnot been the case. However, distance education opens up the territoryfor every institution &emdash; so in theory, geographical boundariesare no longer pertinent. This means that every school or college inthe country or world could potentially compete with each other.Suddenly, marketing is a hot topic at educational institutions!Distance education is forcing institutions to think about the qualityand uniqueness of their offerings.

In the trainingworld, this aspect of distance education has a somewhat differenteffect &emdash; it allows organizations to think about how they cansave money by reducing travel for training. Since travel is a majorexpense item for training, its reduction means that more instructioncan be conducted for less money. Of course, money must be spent onthe technology needed to deliver distance education and the design ofcourses, so there is no free lunch. But, in most cases, the travelsavings, along with other benefits associated with reduced travel,outweigh the new costs associated with doing distanceeducation.


One interesting signof transition from traditional teaching to distance education is theincreasing popularity of electronic classrooms. At schools, collegesand training centers around the country, we are seeing the rapidbuild-up of classrooms full of computer equipment, most of it fullynetworked with large screen displays for group viewing.

The instructorworkstation can be used to display multimedia materials for the classas well as access individual student workstations. Students caninteract with each other during class using groupware programs. Thesesystems are a transition to distance education because it getseveryone (students and faculty) used to technology-mediatedinstruction &emdash; and it is a relatively small step to continuethe instructional activities using the same technology located athome or the office. The only step then, to full-on distanceeducation, is the elimination of the physical presence of studentsand teacher in the same location.


The relativeimportance of this face-to-face component in education is turning outto be a major issue. Almost everyone agrees that physical presence isnice &emdash; but probably not necessary for most teaching/learningactivities. Indeed, face-to-face learning is likely to become aluxury item &emdash; something limited to the well off or whenabsolutely necessary. The latter would be the case for teachingskills that require hands-on practice such as surgery or enginerepair &emdash; although much of this can be accomplished throughcomputer simulations done at a distance. Human relations skills suchas leadership, management or sales can also be taught throughdistance education.

Actually, thepreceding discussion has confused two different things: face-to-faceinteraction with in-person interaction. Face-to-face interaction canbe achieved quite well through two-way videoconferencing. If thequality of transmission is good enough, people quickly get used tointeracting this way and find it a reasonable substitute for physicalpresence. With the emergence of desktop videoconferencing over theInternet, this form of interaction is likely to become inexpensiveand widespread. So, that reduces the question to one of when actualphysical presence is necessary, not just face-to-faceinteraction.


Once theface-to-face element is factored out, that leaves the socialcomponent. Many people believe that a serious drawback of distanceeducation is that it is missing the social interaction that takesplace in a traditional classroom. First of all, many classroomsettings (e.g., freshman courses at large universities) involve verylittle social interaction among students. And, in most courses thatinvolve the use of online networks, there is a lot of socializingamong students via e-mail, chat and conferencing sessions.

So, we face theironic situation that some forms of distance education involve a lotmore social interaction than certain kinds of classroom experiences.Furthermore, collaboration and group work is often an explicit designgoal of distance education, so its social interaction is morestructured and worthwhile. It is important to observe that socialinteraction mediated via technology is not the same as in-personcontacts, and we don't know the long-term implications of this. Butwe can be sure that distance education allows for plenty of socialinteraction if desired by students and teachers.


Probably the mostimportant factor behind the mainstreaming of distance education isthat it is what the customer wants &emdash; the customer beingstudents (and their parents) who want learning to be convenient andflexible. Distance education has largely been shaped by adultlearners who study part-time. This population of students wants tolearn at their convenience, not the educational institution'sconvenience! Distance education that accommodates this desire is muchmore acceptable to them and hence successful. In the training realm,employees and employers want "on-demand" instruction that fits thework schedule. And in K-12 school settings, parents want more choiceover what is offered to their children, when and by whom. Distanceeducation can address all of these marketplace dictates. Which, inthe final analysis, is the real determining force for distanceeducation &emdash; it meets the needs of the 21st centurycivilization.

About theAuthor

Greg Kearsley is aprofessor in the Instructional Technology and Distance Educationprogram at Nova Southeastern University (seehttp://fcae.nova.edu/pet). He is the co-author of Distance Education:A Systems Approach (Wadsworth, 1996) and the editor of the OnlineJournal of Distance Education and Communication (http://fcae.nova.edu/disted).

DistanceEducation Resources

Distance Educationat a Glance: an overview.

A Distance EducationFAQ, with links to many Distance Education organizations.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.