ACCIDENTAL DISTANCE EDUCATION
I'm quite intrigued with the increasingly common examples of "accidental distance education." That's what happens when a faculty member casually decides to post some information for a specific course on his/her own Web site. Usually, this first step is accompanied by a brief announcement to the students enrolled in the course: "By the way, I've posted the complete syllabus and a few readings for this course on my Web site. The URL is http://WWW.dept-Course.edu. I hope you'll check it each week for additional readings, class notices, and assignments." The faculty member isn't thinking about distant learners at all.
However, in this example tens of millions of people now have direct access to that course-specific information. What happens when some of them discover this Web site and read some of the material? What if they submit course-related questions via Email to the faculty member? Etc. One extreme is to seek the active engagement of such random interlopers and to ask them to pay tuition and register for the course. The other extreme is to block their access. In between is a great variety of new relationships that we're just beginning to explore.
DISTANCE EDUCATION QUESTIONS
In the last years I've learned to be very careful when discussing "distance education," because it has become such a hot topic and it seems to mean so many different things to so many different people. As I've traveled to more campuses and learned more about different approaches to distance education, I've learned to ask the following questions to help me understand which variation is being discussed:
What are the important characteristics of the students? (Age, career status, full-time vs. part-time, residential vs. commuter, etc.)
What are the students' educational goals? Career needs? Certification needs? Purpose in taking the course (including, recreation)?
Where do the students live and where must they be when participating in the course? What sort of technology do they use to get access to the course material and/or participate in course activities? What are the conditions under which they do their course work?
Which technologies are being used by faculty and students to do the work for this course or program?
How far from the main campus can the students be? What is the range of "coverage" intended? [Some community colleges offer distance education options only for students living within the city or county in which college is located. Some state colleges offer distance education courses only to students living within that state. Some colleges offer courses to students living half-way around the world.]
HOW MANY STUDENTS?
What is the number (minimum, mean, maximum) of students participating in a single "session" at a single "site" of a distance education course? What is the maximum enrollment possible for the entire course? [Especially if the course is being offered via some form of live two-way video teleconference, the average number of students per site may be quite surprising. When the purpose of such distance education is to provide access to education for those living in rural areas or otherwise unable to travel to a campus, as few as three or four students may be reason enough to maintain a site accessible to them. It seems unlikely that such use of technology reduces the cost-per- student; however, it may provide the only educational opportunity such students ever have.] ...By the way... Wouldn't the above list of questions -- with only a little modification -- be useful to ask about any course?
EXTREME DISTANCE EDUCATION
I don't think there are too many examples of "extreme distance education" -- uses of various forms of asynchronous telecommunications and independent work to COMPLETELY eliminate face-to-face interactions. Do most forms of distance education include SOME opportunities or requirements for teacher and learner to communicate "live," either in the same room or via telecommunications? I've been hearing more about the kinds of students who seem to thrive when participating in "extreme" distance education or approximations to it where there is very little direct communication with faculty or other students; and I've been hearing about the kinds of students who seem to find such arrangements unworkable. This leads me to suggest the following for those who predict or advocate completely replacing traditional forms of education with "extreme" forms of distance education:
QUESTIONS FOR EXTREME DISTANCE EDUCATION
How many self-starting, self-motivated, self-disciplined learners (people?) are there? Will there ever be?
[You haven't suggested; you have stated questions. Can you suggest?]
Unpublishablethe article offers no new information, no detailed suggestions, or specific examples. It is simply a generalized statement of observations.