Distance learning catches on in U.S.

by Amy Horst

When Michelle Lappin decided to add a minor in business during her junior year at the University, she was faced with the possibility of taking a college algebra course that would require more classroom time than she had.

Instead of attending the introductory class every day while also taking advanced courses, she decided to take algebra as a distance learning course.

Lappin is one of approximately 4,200 students enrolled in the University’s distance education classes. An increasing number of college students across the country are participating in distance learning courses.

Enrollment in distance learning courses at the University has increased over the past six years, said Jane Hancock, director of the University’s Independent Distance Learning program. That popularity includes a shift to online education courses, which she said have become more practical as technology develops.

In a distance learning course, students either receive printed material through the mail or use the Internet to obtain assignments, notes and discussion points. They turn in assignments via mail or e-mail and take tests in Wesbrook Hall or another facility for people who live farther away.

Students’ reasons for taking distance education classes vary. Some live too far away from the University to attend classroom-based courses. Others might take distance learning courses while serving military duty. Most, however, are traditional students who cannot fit regular classes into their schedules.

“The primary reason seems to be flexibility, because of not having to go to a classroom and not being on a specified class schedule,” Hancock said.

Distance education students at the University come from all 50 states and many countries around the world, but the majority – 57 percent – come from the Twin Cities.

Students enrolled in distance learning courses are slightly older than 25, the average age of the overall traditional student population.

In addition, more female students take distance learning courses than men – 60.5 percent are female. In the overall University student population, 53 percent are female.

Recently, online education – a subset of distance education – has become increasingly popular throughout the country. Phil Lewenstein, director of communications and legislative services for the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office in St. Paul, said more people are using online education in the higher education field.

“The technology has been improved and enhanced, and people have become more familiar with the Internet,” Lewenstein said. “The pace of that evolution just keeps picking up.”

A national study reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education last fall showed one-third of college administrators believe online instruction at their colleges will be better than in-class education within three years.

However, Lewenstein said people should be careful of online-only colleges because some are scams. In response to such schools, the office’s Web site now offers a guide to choosing a good online college.

Nick Biondich, a Carlson School of Management senior lecturer, said online education courses can be difficult for students who do not have ready Internet access or the necessary computer programs.

In addition, Biondich warned that students should be aware of the time commitment of distance learning courses before they enroll.

“Before you spend the money to register, you should really know that you have the discipline and time, especially if the course is difficult,” said Biondich, who has taught

distance learning courses at the University for 10 years.

Hancock agreed, and said she does not recommend distance learning courses for first-year students or sophomores because their study skills are usually not as developed as older students’ skills.

Hancock and Biondich said the number of students who do not complete courses is higher in distance learning than in classroom-based courses.

“I’ve unfortunately had to issue too many Fs for students who have not finished their courses,” Biondich said.

Kiandra Franzen, a first-year graduate student studying early childhood and special education, said she often found it difficult to stay on task in her distance-based child psychology class, but the class ultimately worked out well for her.

“I didn’t have time with my work schedule, so it worked better to take it as independent study,” Franzen said. “It was nice because you go at your own pace.”