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Distance education has changed the landscape and cyberspace of higher education. Once regarded as substandard, distance education has gained new academic relevance. This revolution in education has happened at such a rapid growth that many institutions find themselves challenged to keep up with the pace of the new modality of online distance education. Still, higher educational institutions are looking to distance education more than ever to reach students across the globe. Many consider distance education as an equalizer of inequalities in higher education access and opportunity (Holmberg, 2005). This is an era where education is readily available to all. But how did we get here? Distance education has been around for hundreds of years, but this time it looks and feels different. To understand the future, we often need to study the past.
The term “distance education” is a broad term used in the past to describe many areas of learning, but not all are synonymous. Correspondence education mostly refers to students who were sent learning content and assignments through the mail. These lessons and books were mailed to the students to read and complete and then return to the instructors through the post. The main difficulty with the term “correspondence education” is that it does not include other modalities often used in correspondence study such as audio, video, and computer-based technologies. Home study is another form of distance education. Often this term was used for further study in the home but not for higher education. Other terms that could also be considered in the broad definition of distance education include independent study, external study, distance teaching, and distance learning. Distance teaching and distance learning are really only half the process of distance education. Distance education, then brings together components of each of these. Distance education is “the separation of teacher and learner which distinguishes it from conventional, oral, group-based education” (Holmburg, 2005, p. 16). It also incorporates distance teaching and distance learning regarding the past and future. Furthermore, distance education also includes the planning and preparation of learning materials such as print, audio, video, or other innovative computer resources to unite the student and the instructor as well as provide communication between the two. Last of all, distance education must provide student support services.
Distance education has evolved over the years. “The only media available to distance education during the pioneering period and until the second half of the twentieth century were print, the written word, and phonograph recordings” (Holmberg, 2005, p. 27). While studying at home was a popular and often necessary way to learn, the first organized distance education was introduced in Germany in 1856. Charles Toussaint and Gustav Langenscheidt organized a correspondence school in which to teach language (Holmburg, 2005). Students would submit coursework for grading; however, they were discouraged to ask questions since everything was fully explained in the course. The “mother” of American correspondence study was Anna Ticknor who was the daughter of a Harvard professor. She founded the Society to Encourage Study at Home in 1873. She ran this organization until her death in 1897. The idea of exchanging letters between teacher and student began with her. Monthly correspondence with guided readings and frequent tests formed an important part of the organization’s personalized instruction. Although the curriculum reflected classic education, it is interesting that most of her students were women. At the end of the nineteenth century, distance education was used in university study but also occupational training helping employees enhance skills used in their everyday work.
From the beginning, most distance education institutions were small private correspondence schools and distance education expanded without any major changes. In the United States, there were three pioneering distance education institutions: Illinois Wesleyan College, founded in 1874, The Correspondence University in Ithaca, NY, 1883), and the university extension department of Chicago University, 1890. Since distance education at this time was mostly correspondence by post, minor adjustments were required. Some adjustments made during this pioneering period include modifying the methods used, the implementation of audio recordings in courses for blind people, and the integration of lab kits for subjects like electronics and engineering helped increase the appeal of distance education.
The period of biggest change in distance education came in the late twentieth century. The use of information technology and modern media influenced changes in the presentation of the content of the course and the student-teacher interaction. Furthermore, the introduction of computers meant a radical change. There can be no doubt that modern technology has led to great improvements in distance education. With the capacity to tape lectures and share the content online as well as submit assignments on learning managements systems, the distance education programs have the capacity to impact global audiences. Email communication also provides instantaneous feedback between students and teachers. Additionally, email and learning management systems also encourage community between fellow students in a learning cohort.
Today, technology is what makes distance learning possible. As previously stated, when learners are in different locations than the instructor, it is technology in the form of books, phones, video, internet, and personal computers that make the learning experiences possible. We can only dream of the technologies that will advance distance education in the upcoming years. With virtual reality capabilities, it might even be possible to have a “virtual” instructor in the same room as the student interacting with the student and cohorts expanding the collaborative experiences of distance education. “The increased speed at which communication flows changes everything” (Bates, 2016, p. 105).
When the web first appeared in the early 1990s, many people who had personal computers could access the internet. In 2001, more than 60% of homes had personal computers (Bates, 2016). At the same time, the need for professional development and higher education escalated. The junction of the need for learning and the communication resources available to provide the learning have resulted in higher education promising learning anytime and anywhere.
While there are a variety of theories and practices in which technology can be used for teaching and for learning, there are several distinct approaches that have emerged. The first and perhaps oldest approach is to use technology to extend the classroom lectures beyond the walls of a single institution. In its original format, lectures could be audio recorded and sent to students along with reading assignments. The students would complete the assignments and return their work for grading. As technology developed, the lectures could also be videotaped and sent to students. The advantage to this approach is that it required little change in the presentation of the instructor. Another practice that emerged is an integrated curriculum where instructors and course designers identify the main objectives and assignments of a course and then “assign a different media to each in such a way to exploit the advantages and to avoid the limitations of each medium” (Bates, 2016, p. 114). These integrated, multi-media teaching courses take much more time to develop and require the instructor to be part of a team rather than the sole owner and designer of a course. The advantage of the integrated curriculum is that students have more than one way to learn the material.
The communication technology tools are also advancing the process of distance learning design and development as well as what the faculty and learner experience in the delivery of learning. Distance education has always been about the access to learning, but it has been limited in its application and appeal because of its inefficient modes for feedback and interaction between the instructor and the student. Interaction between students has also been so cumbersome that it was not fully utilized in the design of the learning experiences. With the implementation of the internet and other technological changes, distance education has even more mediums to use in seamless and integrated ways. The readings and other course material can now be included as links in learning management systems and students can interact with instructors and fellow students via email or discussion posts. The successful distance education institutions will be those that systematically adapt to and embrace these trends.
With the use of technology in distance education, many instructional issues have surfaced as higher education institutions utilize recent electronic technology to build learning communities online. One such issue is virtual versus human contact and connectedness. Virtual contact offers many advantages to the introverted learner who can sit at the computer and interact with people without all the complications of visual and physical interaction. This learner is often emboldened to engage in the learning where in the face-to-face classroom this would not be possible. Although students create connections online, the risk of isolation from face-to-face contact does exist. The need for connectedness should lead to an increased sense of knowing one another in the learning community through the shared experiences of struggling with the course and engaging in conversations about content and application. Students can even connect over conflict as they form and support differing opinions about the course content.
Another instructional issue is one of shared responsibility, rules, roles, and participation. Instructors and even students share the responsibility for the development of the learning community through participation. The rules of engagement need to be fluid, but there should be rules. Often the only real discussion students have around rules of participation was how much and how often to interact with fellow students. Sometimes these rules might differ from the instructor’s expectations. For example, the instructor might desire meaningful responses which cite course material to posts where students might provide more generic responses. It is important to discuss these issues at the beginning of the course or in the syllabus. As for the roles of the course, the instructor serves as organizer, cheerleader, and transmitter of information. However, students also take on roles. When students work in online groups or cohorts, there is usually someone who keeps things moving or who attempts to mediate the discussions or conflicts and someone who makes sure every group member participates. “The emergence of these roles is an indicator that community is developing, that members are beginning to look out for one another and to take care of the business of the course” (Palloff, R.M. and Prratt, K. 1999). Participation in the course can also be an issue. Students are expected to login to their learning management systems and engage in the learning and with their fellow students. Instructors are expected to facilitate the learning and give feedback on assignments. Sometimes, students neglect to participate and get behind or drop out of courses. Sometimes this can impact the group’s grade. Instructors might not give timely feedback or any feedback on student work. The success of the program depends on all these variables.
Distance education in the 21st century depends on many components to be successful. The first component is the student. It is necessary to know the students and the reasons they are enrolling in the course. Other insightful information might include age, work status, and prior education. Historically, older, mature, self-initiators who were interested in the outcomes passing a course would bring were the most successful distance education students (Rovai, 2009). Distance education fit into their busy schedules because they could not afford to take time away. Today, the trend is for younger students to enroll in distance education as well either because of affordability, work schedules, or the desire to not leave home in order to get an education. Another component is the instructor. Successful distance education faculty have taught for several years and are willing to take risks and try new ways to engage and excite their students (Rovai, 2009). These instructors should not be intimidated by changing technology and should be able to incorporate their teaching styles into the electronic classrooms. A third component is the curriculum. Not all courses or programs lend themselves to distance education, although an increasing number of programs do. Courses with required supervised experiences are more challenging to offer online. Programs that require a lot of group work and projects can also be demanding. Students and instructors need to utilize technology such as google docs or phone and video conferencing to share information with each other without being physically present at group meetings. The last component to consider is the support systems. Distance education students and faculty should have access to the same resources that main campus students and faculty have. This includes registration, advising, bookstore, and library resources. Distance education participants should not feel like second-class citizens. They should be able to fully engage in the learning experience just as their main campus counterparts do. Furthermore, if a distance education student must rely on a learning management system, then that system should rarely go down. College and university help desks should also provide 24-hour support to students.
It is important to consider the above components as the college explores strategies for online teaching and learning. The new technologies offer many advantages over conventional formats including affordability, increased student access, more flexible teaching and learning approaches and enhanced educational opportunities (Harry, K., John, M, and Keegan, D., 2014). However, the literature suggests that many of these assumed goals are often not being met in practice. More importantly, there is a frequent failure of online learning environments to create enhanced learning processes and learning outcomes. While many colleges are pursuing the goals of affordability and flexibility, the resulting courses lack enhanced learning. Many online courses are frequently electronic versions of the conventional courses. Online learning environments fail to take advantage of the learning opportunities which the new technologies offer and support. Many course designers now utilize guidelines for planning and developing an online course. Over the years these guidelines have gone from very general to more specific protocols as they develop courses to fit within the learning management systems. Choosing and developing content for flexible, technology-based learning is seen by many teachers as the most critical step in creating online classes (Harry, K., John, M, and Keegan, D., 2014). This is reflected in materials which are content-focused. It is estimated that online teachers spend 90% of their planning and development creating content and online learning resources (Ravoi, 2009).
Learning activities represent the second critical element in the design framework. These activities play a fundamental role in determining learning outcomes. They also predict how the learners will engage with the course materials and the forms of knowledge development that will take place. They need to include both cooperative and collaborative activities among the cohort that provide opportunities for reflection and discussion.
The third critical design element is that of learning supports. Flexible and online learning platforms need structures and support to be designed as integral parts of the learning process. The support is necessary to guide learners and to provide a feedback vehicle which is responsive and sensitive to their individual needs. As colleges and universities spend more money on writing and developing online courses, we should be seeing improvement in the forms of learning environments and outcomes. Indeed, there is an expectation that online learning can and should enhance learning outcomes. Instructors and course designers can do this by using new technologies to provide access to appropriate content and resources, to engage and motive that learners and to support them in their learning activities which all support and strengthen their programs.
Distance education is no longer on the sidelines in higher education; in fact, the new frontier in higher ed is the online platform. The future will be forged from the capacities we have today and those that we develop tomorrow. While there has been a significant resistance to change, online learning is now more widely accepted and utilized by most conventional institutions. In fact, most conventional courses now have an online component (Frederisksen, 2018). Just as the American economy moved away from the industrial model to one that is information based, technology intensive education will impact the colleges and universities of tomorrow. “The future for most institutions will be determined by the extent to which they have an educational product or products that are provided conveniently for the consumer at a competitive cost” (Cyrs, 1997, p. 26).
Our educational culture—a culture based on the campus, the classroom, and on teaching in a time-specific way—has been in place for several hundred years. For the first time in history, new demographic realities are challenging the foundation of the traditional undergraduate and graduate culture. Students have choice regarding what, when, where, how, and from whom they can obtain an education. Students will shop for institutions that provide the most efficient, high-quality programs at the most affordable cost. The reality of an educational option freed from the constraints of time and location is appealing to some and enormously threatening to others. The question is not whether the new education model will develop but how fast this will occur, who will it impact (Cyrs, 1997)?
History demonstrates that fundamental technological change ultimately leads to significant structural change, regardless of whether the participants willing choose to submit or resist the shift. Those who work in higher education wonder how technology will impact their jobs. That is for the institution to decide, but “the main impetus for embracing information technology will be to improve the quality of teaching and learning” (Dryden, 2001, p. 141). Eliminating the instructor’s role in the classroom is not the goal, but technology can help free up capacity for the professor. The institution should have a team of course designers and developers who offer support and training to the faculty on how to effectively utilize learning management systems in the course shell to upload the syllabus, create quizzes, tests, and rubrics, and offer immediate feedback to students. The most recent technology involves artificial intelligence, which many larger institutions have started implementing to make large classes seem more intimate and interactive. Artificial intelligence is eliminating the time professors are grading and giving feedback to students, but it also limits the human touch in a course (McMurtrie, 2018). Furthermore, technology also changes the role of the participant. Online distance education requires the students to engage in class in nontraditional ways and to take a more active role in their learning. Rather than attend a class and listen to a lecture, students are required to participate and interact with the instructor and fellow students through discussion posts and other feedback, uploading presentations and videos, and having “live” meetings for group projects with students located in different regions of the country or world.
Clearly, technology offers many opportunities and challenges for the new era. At the most basic level, technology has affected the nature of knowledge itself. It shapes what counts as knowledge, how knowledge is produced, how people are involved in the production of knowledge, and how academic knowledge is valued (Dryden, 2001). As previously discussed, distance education is flexible, interactive, convenient, and affordable. Online education has been growing at a tremendous pace over the last decade or so. Unfortunately, the rapid growth of distance education has outpaced the ability of institutions and state and federal governments to regulate these programs. There is currently no coherent and comprehensive system of regulation for online learning (Riley, 2013). Furthermore, while accrediting bodies expect compliance across modalities of instruction, many distance education courses do not reflect the same learning outcomes as the main campus courses. Other issues exist as well. Students struggle to adapt to the online format. It is challenging to go from face-to-face instruction to virtual instruction. There can also be technical issues if the learning managements system goes down or if a student’s equipment malfunctions. It is also important to note that students might not know how to effectively use the learning management system or how to effectively use the online library to find resources for their assignments. One other issue is that online distance education requires students to have initiative to login to the courses, read or view the assignments, upload their work on time, and engage in a community of learners within their courses. Any combination of these issues will lead to a program breakdown or student failure in these courses.
So how does an institution succeed in distance education? By going after the right audience, online programs build a viable industry. The sweet spot in distance education is the working professionals who want to advance their careers or earn graduate degrees but have the flexibility to take courses on their timeline. Distance education also appeals to the parents who want to finish their degrees without missing their children’s activities. “Tapping the sweet spot in the national demographic has helped many distance education providers become big success stories in the past few years, filling online programs with hundreds of thousands of students—many of whom would not be in college if it were not for distance education” (Carnevale, 2003, p. 1).
There are many strategies for higher education institutions to use to engage the motivated distance learners. Aiming for the sweet spot is one indication of a successful distance program. However, a program that attracts and keeps students needs to use strong marketing and to remain close to the core mission of the institution (Carnevale, 2003). Over the last fifteen years, institutions have learned what works online and what doesn’t, what motivates students to enroll in the program and what pushes them to matriculate at other institutions. Marketing distance education programs to traditional and nontraditional students increases the pool of students.
Selling convenience is another strategy. Students who enroll in distance education are often look for the flexibility that comes with the program whether that’s to avoid 8:00 a.m. classes, continue working at their present job, or engage with their families. Furthermore, colleges and universities that make it easier to enroll in online courses have larger enrollments. Colleges who sell convenience and advertise flexibility are enrolling those students they targeted.
Carnevale also recommends that colleges should try to sell distance education to industries whose business reflects a field of study that the institution has already designed or in which the college could develop courses (2003). One example of this is Grace College. Grace has developed a graduate program around the orthopedics companies based in the city where the college is located. Institutions could also promote degree completion programs to line workers or create online certification programs for needed industry training.
Another strategy is to keep it simple. Technology can be intimidating to students and to professors. Despite the multimedia tools available to course developers, many successful online colleges still use text-based course materials. This is one consistent way to reach a multitude of students who might not have the most up-to-date computer technology or possess an innovative computer literacy. Most students are looking for a quick and efficient education not slick programs that are confusing and hard to learn.
One last strategy colleges and universities can use to increase enrollment in their online distance education programs is interactive technology. A successful program will allow students to interact with each other and with the instructor in a variety of formats. With these technologies, even the most introverted student can prosper in online education. One of the most important components of online education is the relationship between students and their peers and instructors.
In conclusion, distance education is a permanent feature on the education landscape. Distance education represents educational opportunity for potential students all over the globe. It is the great equalizer in learning, no one knows how rich or poor, how young or old, or what a gender a student is without the student divulging that information. From the history and foundations of distance education to the future of this learning platform, it is obvious that growth is occurring in both student learning and enrollments. If institutions can maneuver technological and instructional issues, distance education will continue to provide learning opportunities for generations to come.
- Bastedo, M. N., Altbach, P. G., & Gumport, P. J. (2016). American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political, and economic challenges. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Bates, T., (2016) Theoretical principles of distance education. New York: Taylor & Francis Publishing.
- Carnevale, D., & Olsen, F. (2003, June 13). How to Succeed in Distance Education. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A31. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.heinz.grace.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=10073183&site=ehost-live
- Cyrs, T. E. (1997). Teaching and learning at a distance: What it takes to effectively design, deliver, and evaluate programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- DRYDEN, G., & VOS, J. (2001). The learning revolution: To change the way the world learns. Bolton, MA: The Learning Web.
- Fredericksen, E. E. (2018, April 13). Why Your College Needs a VP for Online Learning. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 1. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.heinz.grace.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=131501742&site=ehost-live
- Harry, K., John, M., & Keegan, D. (2014). Distance education: New perspectives. London: Routledge.
- Holmberg, B. (2005). The evolution, principles and practices of distance education. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Univ.
- McMurtrie, B. (2018, August 20). How Artificial Intelligence is Changing Teaching. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 1 Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=131759498&site=ehost-live
- Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass-.
- Rovai, A. P. (2009). The internet and higher education achieving global reach. Witney: Chandos Publishing.
- Riley, R. W. (2013, May 10). Reciprocity Is Essential for Regulating Distance Education. Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A32–A33. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.heinz.grace.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=87530053&site=ehost-live
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