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The Changing Face of Distance Education
This article was originally published in Windowatch magazine, Volume 8 No. 4, © Margaret Werdermann. The article was edited to update links and information in May, 2018.
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Sound a little too good to be true? I should blinking well hope so! (as my “butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth” grandmother might have said) Honestly, though, I actually received exactly that message in my e-mail just a few months ago. (By the way, you’ll notice I didn’t include the contact information – that was on purpose.)
Is this the current state of distance education on the web - diploma mills churning out worthless pieces of paper? Well, as you can see, that is part of the equation; but its a very small part of a vital industry that’s been fighting for recognition and respect for years. It’s a shame that scam artists like these often drag down the reputation of legitimate schools involved in “real” distance education (the kind where you actually have to learn something) with them.
So, what exactly do you mean by “distance education”?
Distance education is a catch phrase for learning outside the face-to-face venue of traditional schools, colleges, or universities. You may know it as “correspondence school” or “home learning” or “external studies.” You might also have heard the term “open learning” and wondered what that was all about.
By whatever name you call it, distance education has been with us in one form or another for at least the last 150 years. It was the technological progress of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in transportation and communication, that made it possible to provide education to the masses of people who weren’t able to attend regular classes because of physical distance from their instructor or time conflicts.
Unfortunately, the early correspondence schools’ reputations suffered for a number of reasons. Purely text-based materials and the slow turn-around of the postal service made learning through correspondence difficult; a tradition of literally thousands of years of face-to-face teaching fed the misconception that this was the “best” method of learning and that anything else must be sub-standard; and then there were the scam-artists offering worthless diplomas in exchange for money and giving the whole industry a bad name. (Come on, we both know that sort of thing didn’t just spring up with the Internet, right?) All of these issues combined to earn early distance education the reputation of being “second class” education.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to meticulously trace the entire history of distance education for you here. Let’s just suffice it to say that things changed big time in the last 30 years or so when distance education became entwined with the concept of “open learning.”
Open learning basically means making education as accessible as possible to the most people. It covers a whole range of ideas from flexible start dates, to flexible course durations, to flexible admission requirements, to flexible course content...to name just a flexible few.
I’m sure you can see how appealing this would be to a lot of people who would like a second chance at a good education, but can’t attend regular classes for any number of reasons. They can’t go to regular classes because they work during the day. They can’t afford to quit their jobs because they need them to support themselves or their families. They can’t go to evening classes because there’s no-one to watch the kids or elderly parents, or the class is too far away, or they’re disabled in some way. Or, maybe, a regular university wouldn’t accept them anyway because they dropped out of school years ago.
Open learning isn’t necessarily a distance ed. concept, but it is much easier to implement through distance ed. Could you imagine trying to run a face-to-face college on the four premises I just mentioned? Class scheduling alone would be a nightmare that in comparison would make Freddy Krueger look like a hot date! But, from a distance ed. perspective, it’s totally possible.
What’s out there for me?
In the 1970s, Britain’s Open University of the United Kingdom began a revolution in distance education by combining the concepts of open learning with multimedia delivery methods. They literally changed the face of distance education by making it accessible to everyone, updating the method of instruction, and giving it the legitimacy of the backing of her majesty’s government. No more was distance education to be the poor sister of traditional schools.
From its initial enrolment of 24,000 students in 1971, this flagship university now serves approximately 200,000 students (that’s around 22 percent of the United Kingdom’s part-time post-secondary student population) and is recognized worldwide as a prestigious school in its own right.
The university is ranked amongst the top UK universities for the quality of its teaching. Of the 23 subjects assessed by the Quality Assurance Agency, 17 have been placed in the top 'Excellent' category... OU courses are considered to be among the world's best distance education materials and are regularly awarded for their innovation. (About Us, OUUK)
With the success of the Open University in Britain, governments and agencies around the world began to see the advantages of open and distance education. In some countries there was a need for an education system capable of handling enormous numbers of students without the expense and administration of physical buildings. China’s Central Radio and Television University met the challenge in that country, for example, and is still meeting it to the tune of 1 million students a year. In other countries, the problem was the ability to reach students in remote areas, as it was for Canada’s Athabasca University.
In the United States, the University of Phoenix is the biggest player in the distance ed market. According to their Internet site, “...more working professionals earn their college degree from University of Phoenix than any other university in the U.S.” and they are the one of the largest private universities in North America. They now have approximately 70 learning centers in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, and the Netherlands. Pretty impressive claims for a “poor sister,” don’t you think?
So, how successful has distance education become? In 1995, just the ten largest distance education institutions in the world alone served over 3,417,000 students [Keegan, D. (1996). Foundations of Distance Education (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.]. The American National Center for Education Statistics reported that, in the fall of 2014, 5,750,417 students were enrolled in distance education at that country’s degree-granting post-secondary institutions.
Enter the Internet
This is a huge industry, and gaining momentum every year, thanks in large part to the advent of the Internet. Check out the University of Pittsburgh’s Open Educational Resources: Big List of Resources for a terrific listing of books, courses, multimedia assets, and more. For a very comprehensive listing of regionally accredited distance ed. institutions in the United States, you can’t beat DANTE’s Distance Learning Program Catalogs.
Now, not only can students learn through multimedia offerings from audio and video tapes to interactive CD-ROMs and web-based tutorials, but they can submit their questions and assignments via e-mail and discuss class concepts with fellow students through video chat or on asynchronous online bulletin boards.
The speed of electronic assignment turnaround, the convenience of 24-hour access to professors through e-mail and chat, and the support of virtual classmates makes taking courses by distance ed. completely different from what it was just ten years ago.
The University of Phoenix was one of the first accredited colleges to embrace online learning; Britain’s Open University now boasts that they have taught more than 2 million students worldwide; and 70 percent of Athabasca University’s graduates are the first in their family to earn a university degree, no doubt due largely to the whole-hearted acceptance of online learning by today’s students.
And there’s more... Now, universities and colleges are able to combine their resources on the Internet to provide students with online associate degrees from a range of sources. Bisk University Alliance, to name one, brings together accredited schools such as Florida Tech, University of Notre Dame, Michigan Sate University, and Jacksonville University to offer undergraduate and masters degrees as well as certificate programs.
What should I look for?
You’ll notice the word “accredited” has popped up a couple of times during our discussion here. This is the magic word when you look for a distance education provider. This means that the school in question has been certified by a regional authority to provide instruction that meets their standards. It also means that the certificate or diploma or degree you receive when you graduate is worth a whole lot more than the paper you use to line the bottom of your bird cage.
If the institution you are considering doesn’t specifically advertise that it is accredited (as do all the schools mentioned in this article), you need to find out if they are. Frankly, it’s unlikely that an accredited school won’t have that word splashed around pretty liberally; so, if you don’t see it, you should start getting suspicious.
Then there are those that specifically state that they are non-accredited (like our friends from the ad at the top of this page). Some non-accredited schools really are legitimate but haven’t yet received accreditation. It does take quite a while to be inspected and interviewed, and poked and prodded, etc., for accreditation. However, you’re going to have to think very seriously about what you need from your education before signing up with one.
If all you want is a little course in a subject that interests you, this might be an option. Make sure you do some investigating with the local Better Business Bureau before putting down any money, though. If, on the other hand, you want a diploma or degree at the end that is going to get you a job, go to an accredited school. Only an accredited school can issue an accredited diploma or degree. You don’t want to spend a year or more studying for a certification that won’t be taken seriously by potential employers.Oh yeah, and if you’re thinking of calling now to receive your diploma within days...don’t! If you receive anything at all for your money, you know full well it won’t have the nice texture of Charmin.
Originally created by Margaret Werdermann, President & CEO of Werdermann eLearning Inc. April, 2002. Updated May 28, 2018.