Distance Education: Growth Necessitates Changes in Policy and Attitude

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In past years, time and space limited educational courses and resources. Basically, if one wanted access to certain programs at particular institutions, physical attendance was a necessity. With the growth of the Internet as an educational medium, colleges and universities from all over the world are accessible from the office or home. This new access creates some necessary changes in the way colleges and universities, instructors, and students approach the distance programs.

Growth

Between the years 1994 and 1998 distance education growth has been astounding. According to the report Distance Education at Postsecondary Education Institutes: 1997-98 higher educational institutions increased course offerings from 33 percent in 1994, to 44 percent in 1998. This growth occurred mostly in public institutions where 75 percent of the two and four year colleges offered some distance education. 25 percent offered complete degree programs or certificates as distance programs. During this period of growth, the number of programs that rely on two-way or one-way prerecorded video has remained constant, whereas the number of asynchronous Internet based programs has grown from 22 percent in 1995 to 60 percent in 1998. There were 1,661,100 enrollments in 1998 with 54,470 different course offerings (Lewis, Snow, Farris, Levin, and Greene, 2000).

The growth of Internet based distance learning is evident. This growth is attributed to many factors such as convenience, accessibility, and expense (Hara & Kling, 2000); however, creating and implementing distance courses will create a whole new area of concerns academically.

Concerns

With the growth in the interest of distance education programs come some growing pains: particularly in the area of traditional institutional policies and procedures. Using the Internet creates issues of property and ownership. Before any web-based curriculum is designed and implemented institutes have learned they must revisit and establish new or amended policies on topics such as these highlighted in the article Developing a Distance Education Policy for 21st Century Learning:

The issue of accreditation brings into play standard "Quality Assurance Benchmarks." In 1999 the National Education Association and Blackboard Inc. jointly commissioned The Institute of Higher Education Policy to examine quality assurances and benchmarks identifiable in the distance programs at six varied institutions. The report produced a final list of 24 benchmarks that was grouped into these major areas:

It was determined by the report that successful distance programs must address all of these major areas as the programs are in development to ensure a high probability of universal accreditation.

Students

The students share a large responsibility in making the programs successful. "Successful distance learners tend to be abstract learners who are intrinsically motivated and possess internal locus of control" (Hara & Kling, 2000). Like any successful educational experience, student motivation is the key. Distance learning posed two major problem areas for the students in the study performed by Nariko Hara and Rob Kling: technical problems and broken communication.

Technical problems were exemplified by a case study student who felt like the instructor expected the learner to be very computer literate and have large amounts of time to devote to graphics exercises. The student complained of a feeling that trips to the university computer labs were expected or at the least an unfair advantage for those living in close proximity to the university (Hara & Kling, 2000). The problem with this particular case study is the failure to mention exactly what the course expectations or prerequisites were. In any event the study did highlight the fact that students often choose to take distance courses because they are not within proximity of the university, and the course expectations should be structured with that in mind (Hara & Kling, 2000).

Feedback from the instructors was the most stressful element for distance education students according to the Hara and Kling study. Without the face to face contact with a professor and peers, or even the feedback given off by body language, the lack of concise prompt feedback created stress for students (Hara & Kling, 2000). Recommendations for students as a result of this study were as follows:

The Limits

There are no certain limits to the future of distance education or to the effects it will have on traditional institutional education. In the future Virtual Universities (Lewis, Snow, Farris, Levin, and Greene, 2000) - halls that exist only in cyberspace where degrees are offered and awarded independently of a physical structure - may replace the current educational system. Cost certainly will be a contributing factor, as it will be much less expensive to fund cyber-classes. One thing is for certain, distance learning requires extensive planning and preparation from the institution to the instructor and finally to the student. More than putting notes or books online, distance courses require imaginative, creative and flexible instructors as well as active motivated students. Distance learning, largely through the use of asynchronous communication will continue to flourish in the 21st century.

References

American Council on Education (2000, March). Developing a Distance Education Policy for 21st Century Learning. Washington, DC: Debra M. Parrish and Alexander Wills Parrish. Retrieved July 23, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.acenet.edu/washington/distance_ed/2000/03march/distance_ed.html.

Hara, Noriko and Rob Kling. (2000, March 30). Studentsí Distress with a Web-based Distance Education Course. The Center for Social Informatics. A CSI working paper. Retrieved July, 24 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.slis.indiana.edu/CSI/wp00-01.html.

National Center for Education Statistics: Statistical Analysis Report. (1999, December). Distance Education at Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1997-98. Washington, DC: Laurie Lewis, Kyle Snow, Elizabeth Farris, Douglas Levin, Bernie Greene. Retrieved July 22, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://nces.ed.gov/2000/200013.pdf.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy. (2000, April). QUALITY ON the LINE: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-Based Distance Education. Washington, DC: Ronald Phipps and Jamie Merisotis. Retrieved July 22, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ihep.com/quality.pdf.

Critical Reviews


Critic ZZ

For those who have not been following the developments in and around distance learning, this article could provide a useful overview of the big issues. For myself (one who regularly reads most of the instructional technology publications), the article seems very obvious. What's new?

The statistics in paragraph two do help to impress the reader with the magnitude of the DE movement. Some of the statistics confuse me: the 33%, 44%, 22%, and 60% are percentages of what? Why does the paragraph suddenly focus on video? There seems no clear reason for such an inclusion.

The bulleted items in the "concerns" section provide most of the meat in the article. In comparison, the following set of benchmarks is very sketchy.

The section on students is also sketchy and unmotivated: why, of all the possible topics that might have been dealt with at this point in the essay, does the author suddenly focus on students? I would like to see a logic that moves the reader along from one point to the next.

If our readers would value the kind of DE "issues primer" this article provides, it could (with revision) be published. Revision, as I imagine it, would expand and focus upon the "concerns" section.

Critic VV

Critic XX

I'd not publish this one because it seems like a weak review of assorted general issues with not enough depth or evaluative assessment. I think the general issues have been well laid out by the original sources cited in the article, and I don't see the value of publishing a general outline of the issues in a secondary source form at this stage of the debate.