I wanted to go back to school to earn my master’s degree. I also had a day job, children, a husband, and a mother with some health issues. The nearest universities were over an hour away with no freeway route. In addition, all the brick and mortar universities I considered, (some had distance programs), wanted a copy of a GRE test. Not an inexpensive test, and one I would need to prepare for as I hadn’t done Algebra II in ages. This test also required a chunk of change to take, and send out. Then there was applying, waiting to see if I was accepted, and then the wait time for the program to start. There had to be a better way!
Thus began my foray into what distance education was and how it would apply to me. Originally, I thought of distance education as being something like correspondence school but with computers. I would be given as assignment, the teacher would grade it, and once in a while I would have to take a test. It didn’t sound very interesting, but on the other hand, it would give me some control as to how and when I could study. My kids had taken some online classes at their respective universities, and each told me they were much harder and took more time. I realized when I started looking, I really didn’t know much about distance education.
This week I learned that distance education is a rather big box containing all kinds of interesting pieces (“Distance learning timeline continuum”,” n.d.). It began as correspondence school, but much earlier than I had known–1833; and was also developed for women who wanted an education but were unable to attend school in the traditional way. As technology developed, so did distance education. The telegraph starts the march towards narrowing the distance in communication, and education finds ways to utilize the progression. Starting in the 1930s and into the 60s, education makes use of radio and television to find inroads into developing education that transcends classroom walls. With the advent of the personal computer and fiber optic wiring, it’s a whole new ballgame. Distance education has emerged as a real player in the education field.
When I finally decided to take the leap and enrolled in a distance learning program at Walden University, I was amazed at how many of my concerns were groundless. I have found online education is a lot of work, but not really different than managing a full load in any graduate school. I worried that I would miss the give and take of the classroom, something Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, (2012) note in their first chapter is common among most students considering distance education. However, because so many of the students in my classes are working towards the same goal, there are familiar faces each term. I also have the benefit of getting to know fellow students from around the country, and from around the world. This feature gives depth to my experience as the differing viewpoints expand my own perspective. Far from being sterile, this environment is rich and challenging. One of the areas I had not considered, but once I started, thought, “Oh, yeah, how do we do this?” is how is the material taught? My experience had been with the teacher lecturing in front of the class, I hadn’t considered how it would happen online. Once I started, I was worried it would be really boring. This concern was also allayed as I worked through each class. As a prospective instructional designer, I have been interested to see how good design works. Most of our classes have been exceptionally well designed. We have reading, media, and discussion to guide us through the content. Each project is carefully planned so we can accomplish what we need to so each week builds upon the previous one. I have rarely felt like I didn’t have the tools I needed to do the work assigned. So, ultimately, my definition of distance education has evolved beyond simply reading and writing. I found a vibrant universe of interaction, different from the classroom in some ways, but similar in so many others. I still find interesting people in the class, I still have so much to think about, the teachers have been challenging and caring, and I am still learning a great deal.
The past decade has brought with it a surge in mobile devices, a wider range of multimedia capabilities, more people with broadband access, and a more informed population when it comes to what the options are in the digital world. Distance education is no longer some marginal alternative, it has become recognized as a mainstream option not only at the university level, but at the K12 level, particularly in many high schools. As Huett, Moller, Forshay, and Coleman, (2008) state, distance education can open doors to a more varied course offering, better interaction between teachers and students, and closely aligned standards for their courses. However, they also caution that distance education can be approached as some kind of silver bullet that cures all ills while if poorly done can do more harm than good. I thought the statement at the end of their article summed it up well, “We just
need to choose to view e-learning as the question rather than the answer.” (p. 66) Distance learning is definitely an option, but like any good educational tool, it needs to be planned and executed with clear objectives and understanding of the learner. The school also needs to be clear as to why it is considering a course for distance education and not just slapping it online because it is following a trend. I think the future of distance education is bright. Opportunities are richer, and with technology becoming more and more mobile, education can be accessed with more ease. As long as the focus is centered on quality educational offerings as stated in Fain’s (2012) article, more and more students will find it a viable option, even if they have to resort to fantasy football to cheer for the home team.
Distance learning timeline continuum”. (n.d.). Laureate Education, Inc. [Flash Media Program]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_4855034_1%26url%3D
Fain, P. (2013). Ed tech and the establishment. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/04/22/community-colleges-warm-free-self-paced-course-content#sthash.S8kHxJ2q.dpbs
Huett, J., Moller, L., Forshay, W. R., & Coleman, C. (2008). The Evolution of Distance Education: Implications for Instructional Design on the Potential of the Web. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 52(5), 70–75.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Foundations of distance education. In Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education (5th ed., pp. 2–31). Boston: Pearson.