Distance Education with the Internet
Distance education is different from the traditional education. Distance education is that educational information and instruction is taught to learners who are physically distant from the source of that information and instruction. Distance education, also called distance learning, provides learning chances to people who could not afford time or money for traditional classes or who lived in remote areas far from schools. Because of the expansion of the Internet in recent years, the Internet has become the most important tool for delivering distance education.
THE INTERNET AND WORLD WIDE WEB
Distance learning programs involve many kinds of technology. The Internet and World Wide Web (WWW) are the primary means of presenting educational information. Once learners have subscribed to, or signed up for an Internet provider, they gain access to the educational materials and services designed for the Internet and WWW. The educational information is stored electronically; thus learners with access to the site can download or use the information as long as it is stored there. This makes it easy for learners to work at their own pace and to visit the site as frequently as they like.
The Web can provide learning information in many different interesting formats. It can present information in sound bits, such as music, voice or special effects. Graphics may be also presented in a special type of artwork such as animation or video. In addition, Learners can also use another very convenient tool on the Internet: hypertext links. Hypertext links can take viewers to a thematically related piece of information within the same document or Web site, or to information found at another site (Porter 1997).
OTHER SUPPLEMENTARY TOOLS
In addition to working with the Web, the learners may be asked to send e-mail messages, subscribe to mailing lists or participate in newsgroups, and online videoconferencing.
E-mail: Students can use E-mail to consult with their professors, and the required writing assignments or exams can be graded via E-mail.
Mailing lists & Newsgroup: Both of them are listed by interest area. They are wide-open forums for anyone with access to the Internet to add comments to an ongoing discussion, provide news, share information, start a new thread of conversation, and so on.
Online videoconferencing: This is a more interactive form of communications in which the instructor and students can participate in live, online conferences that create a virtual classroom. Because individual computers are used, each unit must be equipped with a camera to show who is working at that computer.
TYPES OF DISTANCE EDUCATION
Some distance learning programs offer highly structured courses, which lead to a degree or certificate. Learners are asked to take certain numbers of courses and pass the exams, and then they can get a degree such as B.A., and M.S. or a certificate. In other forms of distance learning, participants take courses only for meeting their professional interests and aptitudes, but are not interested in a degree program (Porter 1997).
HOW DOES DISTANCE EDUCATION WORK
First of all, the learner should decide what kind of distance learning program he wants to take. There are many web sites such as Peterson’s Education Center providing plentiful distance educational resources, and the potential learners can link to each resource mentioned. When the learner links to the Web site that he is interested in, he can see the goal, content, policy, and tuition of the educational programs. He also should notice the hardware and software requirement and should set the equipment before starting his distance learning. The lectures are presented online, and instructors may pose questions to begin the discussion. Instructors frequently place course readings on the Web enabling students to print entire lectures or take notes. Sometimes instructors also choose some books or journals as textbooks. These textbooks are often supersedes by information available electronically on the Web sites. Instructors also assign homework, and students should complete it by scheduled deadlines, just as they would be on campus. Sometimes students may be deviled to several groups to work together for a group project. At that time, they can use e-mail, subscribe mailing list or participate in an electronic conferencing or a newsgroup to seek for information and comments about their assignments.
When learners or faculty want to lean back or relax, they can meet via ‘chat room,’ which serves as an informal chat station. If learners need assistance, they can call or e-mail their instructor. Some education instructions, such as those at Stanford University’s online courses, even have teaching assistants assigned to each course to answer questions by e-mail (Ryan 1997). This kind of interaction can lead to more personal help and attention than that afforded by a traditional lecture classroom setup. Some instructors may also ask students to take online quizzes or exams to evaluate their performance. Most educational computer systems can keep track of each student’s progress and can make reports to the teacher (Moskowitz 1995).
The providers of distance learning are businesses as well as traditional educational institutions. They need to promote research into the needs of potential learners, provide access to appropriate technologies for different types of distance learning courses and different subject matter, continually update the course content and technologies used to disseminate the educational information, and hire and support effective educators (Porter 1997).
Virtual courses can save money on constructing classrooms, dormitories and the overhead. However, starting a high-tech distance learning programs still can be expensive. Once the course or program is operational, the costs for keeping the technology current, developing new materials, updating courses, and marketing the courses still must be figured into the annual budget. Therefore, the provider usually should have the funds and technical support readily available to meet today’s needs, and also should have the resources to expand their technical capabilities as the Internet expands its services (Porter 1997).
The price of distance education is much cheaper than that of the traditional education. Taking USC as an example, in the 1998 spring semester, the tuition fee for one credit is $676. The undergraduate students should complete 128 credits of study and then can get a bachelor degree. The total tuition is $86,528. On the other hand, the tuition of distance learning to get a bachelor degree usually costs less than $10,000 (Duffy 1997). Compared to the traditional education, the expenditure of distance learning is very cheap. Even though learners may be required to set some hardware and software tools; the spending usually will not cause learners’ financial burden.
According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, K-12 distance education was a $375-billion business in the 1990s, and post-secondary education was $150 billion. Some estimate that the combined interactive distance learning, multimedia, and electronic education will be able to reach a potential share of 25-35 per cent of the total education market (Minoli 1996). As the Internet makes delivering educational information much easier and cheaper, the market of distance learning will have more potential to develop.
In addition, many distance learning programs are being revised to accommodate the professionally accomplished adult. While on-campus programs have focused on teaching 18-to-24-year-old students, the online market is more likely to be older and more affluent adults.
Both federal and state governments hold very positive attitudes toward Distance Education because they want to educate citizens in rural areas in order to close the information gap between citizens in rural areas and urban areas. They often provide funding, research grants, tax incentives, or other motivators to encourage or promote distance learning initiatives. The primary federal agency with regulatory responsibility is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In 1996, the FCC removed barriers to competition and provided incentives to the expansion of the distance learning programs (Minoli 1996).
As for the state governments, they play ‘financial roles’ for fostering distance education. For example, in January 1998, California governor Pete Wilson released a detail of his new budget proposal for online education. California State legislature will agree to spend $5.9 million in the fiscal year and close to $12 million over the next three years to boost a Virtual University project (Mendels 1998).
THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND DISTANCE EDUCATION
The most important reason causing distance education is that many people they want to take courses but cannot attend formal scheduled classes. The possible obstacles these people face include: (1) Inconvenient class hours, (2) Home and job responsibilities, (3) Campus inaccessibility, (4) Child or elderly care, and (5) Commuting costs (Minoli 1996). The emerging communication media like the Internet provides ways to solve these problems and contributes to distance learning a lot. In addition, educational institutions can save lots of money on investing to build new buildings in campus. Therefore, they would like to support and provide this learning alternative for potential learners.
THE STRENGTHS OF USING THE INTERNET FOR DISTANCE EDUCATION
The Internet is one of the least costly approaches to provide interconnection. Furthermore, through the Internet, the distance learning community can access hundreds of libraries and databases. It is very convenient. Moreover, the educational material can be stored on a Web site. Students and instructors also have a written record of what everyone in the class says during the discussion. There is a greater potential for sharing information through the Internet than through other means of transmitting and receiving information.
The other strength of distance learning is the flexibility. Learners may learn course content independently, at their own pace, in a convenient location, at a convenient time, about a greater variety of subjects, from a greater variety of institutions or educators.
DISTANCE LEARNERS’ CHRACTERRISTICS
Not everyone can be well suited to distance learning programs. Successful participants must be highly motivated and self-disciplined. Because the course may be unmonitored, the learners themselves have full responsibilities for proceeding with the course and evaluating their mastery of a skill or subject (Duffy 1997).
Distance learning can help learners realize the importance of lifelong education, whether for personal interest or career preparation and enhancement. Through a variety of media and institutions, and with flexibility in scheduling to meet many different learners, lifelong learning becomes possible and attractive to more and more people.
OPPORTUNITIES, PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS
Although distance education is very flexible and convenient, it still cannot provide the ‘college experience.’ Working with other learners, being part of a total educational environment, and collaborate closely with academic mentors is still valuable to many learners. In addition, some courses cannot be taught on the Internet and this causes some limitations of distance learning. For instance, the courses of clinical medicine or surgery need the medical school students to have real experience in laboratories or hospitals; these kinds of course must be taught in traditional education systems.
There is another problem and it is related to technology. Not every student knows how to attend virtual classrooms well. Most of them do not have the hardware and software capability to receive video via the Web. Many teachers are also reluctant to switch from the traditional methods of teaching to technology-oriented approaches.
In addition, the performance of distance learning programs through the Internet cannot be guaranteed. Because the bandwidth for the average student is still low, while the requirements for audio and video are high. These technological issues need to be resolved.
OPPORTUNITIES AND PROSPECTS
The role of the traditional academic institution is changing; colleges and universities will have to compete with a growing number of other educational providers. This trend should promote more collaboration among business, industry and academia to provide high-quality, innovative education.
The future of distance education depends primarily on the creative use and development of new technologies. As learners become more aware of the potential developing knowledge and skills more easily and conveniently, the need for new materials and presentation media should continue to increase.
Duffy, J.P. (1997) College online: how to take college courses without leaving home, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Mendels, P. (1998) ‘California governor plans major push to increase online education’, The New York Times, 8 January 8.
Minoli, D. (1996) Distance learning technology and applications, Boston: Artech House.
Moskowitz, R. (1995) ‘ Wired U.’, Internet World, October.
Porter, L.R. (1997) Creating the virtual classroom: distance learning with the Internet, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Ryan, M. (1997) ‘Education casts wide net’, TechWeb News, October.
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