Going The Distance

Whoever said "Distance education begins in the 10th row" was taking a jab at the comatose kids at the back of his classroom, but the comment also taps into the old image of distance learners as disengaged themselves. That was then. Today, distance-learning programs are booming, in part due to demographic realities but also because recent advances in online technologies have markedly improved the distance-learning experience. What once was the province of isolated students in far-off outposts has morphed into learning systems that are increasingly seen not only as a rival to face-to-face instruction but also as a valuable complement.

Indeed, the time has probably come to retire the term "distance learning." Today, online courses are, in some cases, as relevant to students living on campus as they are to learners in remote locations. And for those students not on campus, the appeal of online learning has as much to do with scheduling as it does with distance. The majority of online learners today are not traditional college-age students–they work, have families–and flexibility is of paramount importance.

Not surprisingly then, many new online programs are focusing on postgraduate studies. What is different, though, is that many of these new entrants are brand-name, brick-and-mortar universities that are prepared to stake their reputations on their programs. Certainly, it's not a decision to be taken lightly. After all, criticism about the academic value of for-profit online degrees has generated big headlines in the past couple of years.

However, the new entrants believe that if they maintain the same instructional quality online as they do on campus, prospective students will discern and appreciate the difference.

"We, or any university, cannot risk putting something out that would damage or cheapen our brand," explains Don Chaney, assistant dean for distance education and outreach in the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida. "Our online programs at UF have exactly the same entrance requirements, internship rules, et cetera, as our on-campus programs. Our online students do not cut any corners. They just take their courses from a different location."

Technology Improvements
So what has given these universities the belief that they can deliver an online product that is as effective as their on-campus instructional programs? For starters, the technology has–at last–caught up with the vision.

"In these online programs, you might not meet with other students or go for coffee with the professors afterward–which, let's face it, doesn't happen that often anyway–but you have a richer experience in some ways," notes Susan Metros, associate vice provost and associate CIO for technology-enhanced learning at the University of Southern California. "These are sophisticated platforms."

Metros cites the prevalence today of broadband networks, videoconferencing systems, webcasts, and live-chat applications, all of which are designed to increase interaction and collegiality–an aspect on which USC places a great deal of emphasis. "A lot of our courses are designed for cohorts, so you might go through the entire program with the same group of people," she explains. "I've heard from students and faculty who say that this creates a closer bond among students than they experience in the classroom."

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