Distance learning is education innovation

Joe Carlson

Time and space are just two obstacles to learning that distance education aims to bridge, through a combination of speed-of-light telecommunications and tried-and-true channels like the mail.
“I use distance as a metaphor for all of the different (barriers) to learning,” which also include sociocultural and economic distances, said Daniel Granger, newly-appointed director of the Office of Distance Education in Nolte Hall.
Specifically, distance education provides opportunities for students who do not travel to the University part or all of the time. Administrators were concerned about ensuring that those opportunities would be available when they formulated the University 2000 plan in 1993.
“We’re referring to making University resources available to students who are not in a traditional, face-to-face (classroom) setting,” said Deborah Hillengass, director of distance learning in University College.
To most Americans, the catch phrase “distance education” means using innovative technologies to bridge physical barriers between students and their professors, Granger said. But in practice, it encompasses much more.
“To me, the focus should not be on the distance, but the education,” he said.
The Information Age has put an increased emphasis on information, and in so doing, has forced citizens to become not only literate but knowledgeable about the different ways to acquire that information.
Higher education, as a result, is trying to adapt by giving students knowledge of the current skills required of modern life — such as e-mail and the Internet — and the capacity to continue learning once in the work force.
Granger described one class that accomplished this, in which a professor assigned his students to find 20 Websites devoted to a particular topic. Then, using professional journals and other research, students had to rate the Websites for accuracy and quality.
“Faculty (members) are not the (sole) sources of knowledge any more,” he said. “You don’t come to a faculty member for the answer, but how to get to the answer.”
Mathematics Professor David Olwell, who teaches Statistics 1001 in the classroom and over the Internet from New York, said in an e-mail message that the potential of distance education is great.
“Imagine if Harvard offered a degree available over the Internet, which had world-class instructors delivering interactive, multimedia lectures with animated demonstrations to your room,” Olwell said.
“Everyone can go to Harvard from wherever they are and probably have a better experience than the resident students,” because of the advantages of distance learning. For example, he said, students could replay the lecture at will and respond with questions any time during the day.
But the difference between reality and potential might be the one gap that technology cannot cross. So far, Olwell said, the results of distance education have been mixed.
“Since distance learning requires the student to essentially teach themselves, it can be frustratingly inefficient at times,” he said.
However, he added that “when you teach yourself, you really learn the material.”
Although many faculty members and administrators are still feeling the fallout of recent struggles over budget and tenure issues, officials can be pleased with the progress of distance learning.
“Yet when you talk about what we can do with distance learning, people get very excited,” Granger said, “and I find that very heartening.”