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?

This, of course, was before the days of widespread VCR ownership. Today the folks at Mizzou -- or any college, for that matter -- could simply mail me a videocassette of "Lars Lectures on Latent Learning in Llamas," and I could absorb animal psychology from the business end of my VCR remote control.

The Conference Call: Audio and/or Video
What was missing with correspondence courses and videotapes was the element of interaction. Enter the conference call.

First came the telephone conference call, which has probably been around as long as the party line. But there are some limits to what can be done through the audio domain. Some of us are visual learners.

That visual touch was to be the magic of videoconferencing. But it didn't happen right away.

In the 1960s it was thought that popular use of videophones was just around the corner. LBJ had one, didn't he? Soon we'd all be worrying about combing our hair or washing our face every time we answered the videophone. It didn't happen. Videophones turned out to be no closer to popular personal use than the science-fiction videophones in the dear departed Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So by the 1980s I figured that videoconferencing was something that only happened with Ted Koppel and his myriad guests on ABC's Nightline. But by the end of the decade, even though videoconferencing wasn't generally happening in people's homes, it was becoming popular in the world of business and, eventually, education.

Videoconference participants can all look at the same "chalkboard." Ross Perot and his pointer would thrive in this environment.

And although Ross might be happy with everybody else listening and him doing all the talking, the videoconference allows for more than just a view of the lecturer. You can interact.

Today, my old nonstop-talking high-school best friend, Dale Chrystie, who lives in Harrison, Ark., is finishing up a college degree by taking a videoconference class with students from three other sites across Arkansas.

Videoconference classes work, and they're popular, because, among other reasons, there are millions of other people like my loquacious pal Dale -- they thrive on interaction.

Videoconferencing isn't common on the Internet -- yet. But the technology isn't that far down the line.

Just ask Sam Atieh, the director of online education at Vatterott College's St. Joseph, Mo., campus. Vatterott's main campus is in St. Louis County.

"At the rate we're going with the online and the telecommunications speed, soon we will be carrying the picture and the audio and video simultaneously into your home, using the cable modem or the centralized receiver, so you will see the instructor the same way that you see him or her in the traditional classroom," says Atieh.

"Already Microsoft is coming up with centralized receivers that can receive up to 400K, which is like 10 times the speed of your existing modem, and that will definitely transform the whole educational experience to your home," he says.

The Net: Above All, Access
But even without videoconferencing, the Internet would be the most popular delivery system for distance learning. Although non-Net videoconferencing offers visual learning and interactivity, it lacks the Internet's strongest point -- access.

The access angle works two ways. The public's access to the Internet is proliferating, similar to the way use of the telephone spread 100 years ago.

And the Internet, in turn, provides unparalleled access to knowledge.
That access to knowledge is revolutionary, says Atieh.
"Knowledge has been captured in physical entities for a long time," he says. "For the first time, knowledge is a free entity. It's available, it's not captured within boundaries.

"For the first time in history, we freed knowledge. It's no longer limited to a certain place, a certain time. It's now global, it's available -- you can reach it any time."

Amazing, isn't it?
"It is like a revolution," says Atieh. "Like introducing electricity or phones in our system. It changes everything."

What Kind of Accreditation?
Just as with more traditional educational-delivery systems, online education raises this question: Who is accrediting the institution?

Some schools, mainly academic institutions, are accredited by one of six regional accrediting agencies in the United States. Missouri, Illinois and 17 other states are covered by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Other schools, usually technical and career schools, aren't regionally accredited but have accreditation from their own organizations. For instance, Vatterott College is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology.

The distinction between accreditations is paramount to Mark Wilson, whose use of the word "accredited" refers only to academic schools with regional accreditation. His first two college degrees, earned by correspondence, came from schools that weren't regionally accredited.

"The schools were unaccredited, and once I learned the difference -- after I had already finished my master's thesis and over two years of coursework, I was embarrassed by them and threw the diplomas away," Wilson says. "This is why I am so strongly opposed to schools that are not regionally accredited. Most people will get burned down the road, and many are just as ignorant as I was regarding accreditation."

On the other hand, the technical schools that aren't regionally accredited still serve a purpose by providing training for people entering the workforce.

And in the case of a booming field such as information technology, a diploma from a technical school might help a person get a job that pays more, for instance, than a person with a master's degree from a regionally accredited college would earn in a lower-paying field.

But whether a person is attending a technical school or an academic school, it will soon be possible to get financial aid from the U.S. government for courses taken online.

"For the first time they are inviting colleges and universities to apply for financial aid for online students," says Vatterott's Atieh. "Fifteen colleges and universities will be chosen in April to be able to offer financial aid for online students. After two years, 30 schools will be invited."

The program will include technical and academic schools.

Meet Me Online in St. Louie
Probably because the Internet is not bound to any locale, the growth in online courses isn't defined by any particular geography.

The St. Louis area isn't necessarily leading the way, but it isn't lagging behind the field, either.

St. Louis University and UM-St. Louis, as previously mentioned, offer master's degrees online. And a handful of other local colleges, especially community colleges, offer courses over the Internet.

Many of the colleges realize that online courses will be a permanent fixture on the education scene and are figuring out how to get on board.

Online: Should We Go All the Way?
Among the local institutions moving to get on board is Fontbonne College.
"To do an online course effectively, first you need to have some experience in supplementing a face-to-face class," says Mary Abkemeier, professor of mathematics and computer science at Fontbonne.

Abkemeier speaks with some authority. She is the director of the school's master's program in computer education, and she recently completed a semester sabbatical during which she visited 11 colleges that already have online education.

"What I've proposed is to do a pilot study at Fontbonne," Abkemeier says. "It will be a three-semester-long study. The first semester, we'll decide which Web-based management tools we can use. The second semester, we'll use the package to supplement a face-to-face class. And the third semester, we'll put a course online."

Gotta crawl before you walk. But once you get running, look out.
"The demands on our time are going to be extraordinary," Abkemeier says. "The students demand feedback electronically almost immediately. The faculty they put me in touch with on my visits to other colleges were very excited about it.

"The philosophy instructor at Duquesne (University) knew the students in the online course better than in the supplemented course, and the level of participation was at a higher level."

Colleges will have to invest some time and money up front to make it work, though.

"It takes an extraordinary amount of work and organization to get all this online," Abkemeier says. "Those of us who are involved are going to be our own worst enemies. It takes a certain kind of personality.

"But there are dividends and benefits that they're reaping because of the better communication, better understanding by their students and from their students.

"We're so concerned that students be able to communicate well. The experience of taking a course or two online will prepare them for workplace learning."

She also says online learning will work best with a certain kind of learner: "It takes a particular kind of learner to be successful in that kind of environment. Students who are more mature, more self-motivated, less needful of reassurance and nonverbal feedback."

Where Is This Taking Us?
My second son, John, 8, wants my bedroom.
It's not oedipal; it's just that John is into convenience.

John figures that life in my bedroom would be like one-stop shopping -- easy, no waste of effort.

There's a phone jack, a cable-TV hookup, five electrical outlets, room for him and his buddies to play, lots of windows and sunlight. John says that all my bedroom needs are a refrigerator, microwave, bathroom and PlayStation (with dual controls). He'd never have to leave the room.

Except for school. There's the rub.
He has to leave his room for school. How inconvenient -- for him.
Have no fear, Mr. Second-Grader. In 10 years, if you graduate from high school, you'll be the perfect candidate for higher education on the Internet.

Convenience and efficiency could prevail: John might graduate from college without ever leaving my room.

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