Distance learning sparks controversy

by Pam Steinle

In virtual classrooms around the world, students and professors are putting the Internet to the test, judging for themselves whether micro-chips and high-resolution monitors can deliver a learning environment comparable to the real thing.
Opinions, however, fall far short of unanimity.
The Independent and Distance Learning program, offered through theUniversity College, boasts 200 class choices. The courses either use printed materials sent by mail, or they rely on the Internet to relay class notes, assignments and teacher-student discussion. Courses offered include foreign languages, math, science, history and English.
But the issue of classes devoid of true face-to-face interaction has sparked a fair amount of controversy in the world of higher education. Specifically, professors question the academic standards of distance learning and the inability to tailor curricula to the individual needs of students.
These issues were addressed in a pair of editorials in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Both examined the accreditation of Jones International, an online institution and the first entirely Internet-based university to be nationally recognized.
The editorial, authored by two officials from the American Association of University Professors, was critical of the online university, writing that distance courses are “disrupting or precluding the critical interaction between students and faculty members over time.”
A second editorial gave an upbeat view of online education and said that those who simply dismiss distance education are ignoring students’ positive experiences with it.
Steven Crow, the editorial’s author, argued that many faculty members and students say online programs actually enhance interaction, contrary to the AAUP’s opinion.
“Those who believe that high-quality education requires face-to-face interaction will always question the performance of virtual institutions,” said Crow, executive director of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the organization that accredited Jones International.
But students and faculty members at the University say social interaction isn’t the issue at stake.
Rather, a student’s level of commitment and self-discipline will decide whether a course will be completed successfully or not. It won’t necessarily depend on face-to-face conversations.
Traditionally, students who take Independent Distance Learning courses are motivated adults with full-time jobs and families. Their tight schedules or location make IDL an ideal alternative to day classes.
In recent years, and in growing numbers, more traditional students aged 18 to 22 have started taking distance-education classes.
But faculty members have found that younger, less-experienced students don’t do as well because they pick the classes thinking they’ll be a breeze, not because they have time constraints.
“These types of students are not good matches for the program” because they’re not prepared for the workload, said University College academic adviser Lou Newkirk-Ledo.
Newkirk-Ledo explained that in her experience, the content is equally difficult because course-work editors work with professors to produce a dense, undiluted body of assignments and notes before it goes online or into a comprehensive course packet.
Also, “(students) forget how helpful the social interaction concept is for motivation,” said Newkirk-Ledo. When online classes remove the usual discussions and question-and-answer sessions, “completion of the course is a much bigger challenge,” she said.
Keli Engleson, a senior financial management major, enrolled in an extended-based enrollment course. Although she has nine months to complete her course, she mentioned that without set due dates, it is easy to fall behind.
“I have a friend who dropped a class because he wasn’t doing the work. The independent studies generally have more work, because you’re not putting in class time,” Engleson said.
Typically, about 60 percent of students complete their IDL courses, a number comparable to similar programs at other institutions.
“I think procrastination is the biggest factor,” said Jane Hancock, an associate of continuing education specialist in University College.
She noted that most advisers in the University system do not recommend IDL to freshman or sophomores because they lack strong self-discipline.
— Staff Reporter Travis Reed contributed to this article.

Pam Steinle welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3236.