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Distance Learning – Education for the 21st century

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Chances are you know someone who is working toward a college or post-college degree via the Internet. Perhaps you yourself have attended online classes to continue your education, obtain a certification, or to improve you chances for advancement in your job.

More and more people are finding they can earn their degree from an accredited online university which offers the same challenge and quality of a traditional classroom in an environment which allows them to fit education into a life that might be too busy for a more conventional method of instruction.

According to a recent government study, about 127,400 distance education courses were offered in 2001–02, and there were about 3.1 million enrollments in distance education. Over one-half of all postsecondary education institutions offered distance education, and another 12 percent planned to offer distance education in the next 3 years.

Distance education is defined as education or training courses delivered to a remote (off-campus) location via audio, video, or computer technologies. Courses conducted exclusively on campus, as well as classes conducted exclusively via written correspondence, are not included in this definition of distance.

It is increasingly clear that technology has expanded the ability of students to participate in postsecondary education. Virtually every type of learner can benefit from some form of online education. In addition to the rapid proliferation of new courses and programs, colleges and universities are taking advantage of the Internet to enhance the admissions process and give potential students the opportunity to apply online.

Online education enables you to learn without causing a major upheaval in your life. You can access online class rooms using any Internet connection, anytime and practically anywhere. This round-the-clock access allows you to download assignments, read and participate in class discussions, review faculty feedback, and much more, all at times which are convenient to your professional and personal schedule. Many students find that this added flexibility, which does not sacrifice quality, helps keep them on track toward their goals more readily than with the rigid scheduling of a traditional learning environment.

There is also evidence that a portion of those students who participate in postsecondary education in their homes or workplace would not otherwise enroll in postsecondary education. Thus, it appears that technology is opening up new markets of potential students without significantly diminishing the number of students who would enroll in traditional colleges and universities, many of which also are offering technology-mediated distance education.

Distance learners are also generally happy with their online learning experience. A large-scale national study of student participation in distance education addressed student satisfaction of distance education classes and, when asked how satisfied they were with their distance education classes compared to their regular classes, a majority of both undergraduate and graduate students were at least as satisfied or more satisfied with the quality of teaching in their distance education classes compared with their regular classes.

Perhaps it is time to focus attention on the more basic question of how students learn, regardless of the delivery system. Technology-mediated distance learning is evolving so quickly it’s difficult for education experts to set standards that adequately address the current status and the future potential of the online learning experience.

Because experimental studies comparing distance education courses with campus-based courses have been based upon the premise that campus-based courses are the “gold standard,” which may be open to question, it may be advisable to abandon these studies. It appears that addressing how students learn and focusing on outcomes assessment would be more productive.

Several organizations have developed standards and guidelines to ensure quality distance education, including the Southern Regional Electronic Campus, the National Education Association, and the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications. These guidelines cover areas such as course development, evaluation and assessment, faculty support, and institutional support. Among the benchmarks, interactivity—between student and faculty, student and student, and student and information—is the single most essential element for effectiveness in distance education.

It is clear that online learning and distance education are here to stay. The benefits are compelling, especially to those who have succeeded in completing their education or adding a much needed certification to their credentials through an online educational experience.

About the Author

E. A. Edwards is a free-lance writer with a variety of professional and personal interests. You will find more information about online education and distance learning on www.online-university-degree.info.

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