Going the Distance

The Internet is changing distance learning -- and higher education

What a relief.
Only two monthly payments remain on Miriam's preschool bill. With our youngest child headed for kindergarten in the fall, we're nearly done paying for our children's pre-college formal education.

No more tuition for parochial school, preschool or all-day kindergarten in the public schools (all-day kindergarten is now free in our school district). It's time to breathe easy until Adam, our oldest child, goes to college in 2005.

I like a good education, but I love an inexpensive good education.
So, when I hear that thousands of college courses are available on the Internet, I'm ready to throw a party.

That's right: college on the Internet.
This could save us some big bucks.
The price of college tuition might not be going down, but some parts of getting a college education are going to get cheaper and more convenient.

Welcome to the world of distance learning on the Net.

Explosion Alert
It was only a matter of time before that great playground known as the Internet was going to offer students something besides recess. College courses online are about to take off.

"It's exploding," says Mark Wilson, director of Distance Degrees Inc., an Oakland, Ore., company that publishes Accredited Distance Learning Degrees (www.accrediteddldegrees.com), a book listing 300 accredited colleges that offer online programs for bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

"Only a year ago there were 128 schools offering master's programs (online)," says Wilson. "Now we're up to 210." St. Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis are among them.

It's all a part of something called distance learning.
According to Hoyle, "distance learning" is "a general term used to cover the broad range of teaching and learning events in which the student is separated (at a distance) from the instructor or other fellow learners."

In other words, you ain't there, kiddo.
By the way, Hoyle is educational consultant Glenn Hoyle, whose Web site (www.hoyle.com/distance.htm) "Distance Learning on the Net" is one of a growing number of sites dedicated to Net-based distance learning.

Just as this Sunday's Oscar winners won't have time to mention everyone responsible for their success, I don't have room to list (nor do I pretend to know) every decent Web site on distance learning, but some surfing on the Net will get you there. Still, here are a few: "The World Lecture Hall" (www.utexas.edu/world/lecture/); Globewide Network Academy (www.gnacademy.org/); and a site with great links, Indiana University's distance-learning page (education.indiana.edu/~disted/links.html).

Of Corinth, College and Correspondence
The earliest form of distance learning was the correspondence course.
You could make a case that in ancient days someone like the Christian missionary Paul, for instance, was into a sort of correspondence course with his letters to the Corinthians, written while he was off in Ephesus. But although the Corinthians sent him some letters back, and he was the instructor, he wasn't the one giving out the ultimate grades.

The first modern correspondence schools started in the 1920s. That industry got a mixed reputation when some "institutions" turned into what became known as diploma mills. With little more than the right amount of money, you could get a signatured sheepskin from some exotic-sounding (and nonaccredited) school.

But, even with its checkered past, correspondence school was the way for many people to go, because it was their only realistic educational option.

Wilson, the Distance Degrees Inc. director, earned his first two college degrees by correspondence.

He had attended two years at a traditional college in the Pacific Northwest, but, he says, "I was working a 60-hour week, co-raising three kids and volunteering as a counselor and pastor in a very large church 20 hours a week at that time. Under those circumstances, distance learning seemed like a good idea, so I switched."

Of course, correspondence learning hasn't always been about what happens in a relationship with a school. As a kid, I learned a few things about correspondence -- namely, that it's slower than communicating face-to-face.

My older brother Marcus loved to play Monopoly. When our family moved from Knoxville, Tenn., to St. Joseph, Mo., in 1965, the move interrupted an ongoing Monopoly game between 9-year-old Marcus and 10-year-old Steve Harrison. Over the next year or so, Marcus and Steve continued playing Monopoly by correspondence. I don't think anyone ever passed Go.

Videotaped Lecture: Friend or Foe?
By the time I was at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1975, I was treated to a warped version of one of the staples of distance learning -- the videotaped lecture.

As several hundred other "Intro to Psychology" students and I dutifully sat in our hard-backed lecture-hall seats in Middlebush Auditorium, we would fix our gazes on a TV screen and watch the heralded full professor lecture for an hour on rats in mazes or Pavlovian pigeons. Semifascinating stuff, to be sure, but it was a bit unnerving to know that the graduate assistant at the front of the lecture hall had the power to end the lecture with a flick of the on-off switch.

I felt cheated. Sure, I liked partying in Columbia, but did I need to be living three hours from home just to watch videotaped lectures?

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