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Help Guide for Distance Learners
Guide to Distance Learning Programs
nontraditional students, it's the wave of the future and it's
here to stay
By Ann Whitcher
full time and taking two courses a semester toward a B.S. degree
in business administration, Collette Book found distance learning
the perfect solution when she discovered she was pregnant with
her second child.
Book (whose baby, at this writing, is due in a few weeks) is taking
a UB human nutrition course online, visiting campus only three
times a semester to take exams. Busy with her job as a sales manager
for a bakery, she pursues her online studies when her husband
is home to watch the couple's three-year-old son, Donovan, or
after Donovan has gone to bed.
Taking the course online has been challenging,
Book reports, "because even when you're not taking notes
in class, you're getting reinforcement, if subliminally, from
hearing the professor lecture. In the case of an online course,
it's all you. But the convenience factor is just unbelievable."
Distance learning, particularly in its
online form, does seem ideally suited to nontraditional students
like Book, who may be pressed by job and family concerns yet still
desirous of a degree. U.S. universities and colleges continue
to attract 62 percent of high school graduates to their campuses
immediately after their graduation, but an increasing number of
nontraditional students-as defined by their age or position in
life-are seeking degrees after the traditional college age.
At UB, distance learning is developing
at a modest rate, with faculty and administrators proceeding cautiously
into new territory that, despite significant pitfalls, holds enormous
promise for students who cannot, or prefer not to, take courses
While distance learning takes various
forms, online delivery holds the most potential for growth because
of the accessibility of the web and the ease with which educational
content can be posted and transmitted. Peterson's Guide to Distance
Learning Programs 2000 lists 1,000 degree and certificate programs
at nearly 900 accredited institutions that involve some form of
Students enrolled in an online course
usually go to a website to retrieve lessons, assignments and even
exams. They communicate with their teachers via e-mail, and class
discussions often make use of chat rooms and message boards. Sometimes
the time required to complete an online course is significantly
shorter than would be the case for its campus-based counterpart.
Time-pressed students often like the asynchronous benefits of
many online courses-they can't be late for class, and they can
do their assignments at 3 a.m., if necessary. Somewhat surprising
to many observers is the fact that creating distance-learning
courses "is neither less expensive nor less time consuming
than traditional courses," according to George Lopos, dean
of Millard Fillmore College (MFC), which offered its first distance-learning
course in 1994.
"Most new tools that address space-time
problems of nontraditional learners also ease some common difficulties
in traditional in-class experiences," notes David Willbern,
associate vice provost and director of the university's Educational
Technology Center, which offers faculty members and graduate students
a place to learn how to more imaginatively incorporate new technology
into their curricula and instructional methods. "Even in
class, students may be distanced from course materials for various
reasons: They're at the back of the lecture hall. They're tired
from a job, a family, or an ‘all-nighter.' They haven't yet read
the material. They have read the material but don't fully understand
"New educational technology tools
provide students with anytime/anywhere access to course materials,"
Willbern says, "so that, for example, they can review a lecture
online, with an outline of the lecture notes or even a digitized
audiovisual record of the instructor delivering the lecture."
Willbern's own course on post-World War
II best-sellers (http://icarus.ubetc.buffalo.edu/willbern/)
demonstrates how a professor might use distance-learning tools
to enhance the educational experience of traditional, in-class
students. The site opens with Roy Lichtenstein pop art, then offers
an easy-to-follow menu that includes course requirements, lectures
and paper topics. Willbern helps his students link to websites
on the various novels being treated-The Catcher in the Rye, Peyton
Place, To Kill a Mockingbird-and also to the many web-based reference
tools now available to today's student, including those offered
by the University Libraries, which has among its vast resources
an online help tool designed especially for the distance learner
ith its theme of "Your World, Our Classroom," MFC(www.mfc.buffalo.edu)
continues to serve the educational needs of the nontraditional
student. Distance learning, an increasingly important part of
MFC's programs, now entails web-based online coursework, telecourses,
and interactive videoconferencing, all of which can be taken for
academic credit. In the spring 2000 semester, 588 UB students
were enrolled in online courses through MFC. Of this number, 58
percent were day students registered through the university's
regular day division and most likely in the traditional 18- to
24-year-old age group, and 42 percent were categorized as MFC
students. The latter group tends to comprise older adults, or
returning students, who can range in age from the mid-20s through
retirement age. Most work full time.
"My impression is that because they
work, they can't get to school when they need to take a class,
so they take it via distance learning," says Jane Sinclair,
MFC's interim program as sistant for instructional technology.
"Most live within 15 miles of campus, but their work schedule
and family obligations keep them from attending traditional classes
on campus. If the class that an individual needs in order to graduate
is only available on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and he or
she is only available on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, it's better
to take an online class."
Online courses attract the traditional
undergraduate student, too. Matthew Shelton, an honors scholar
and an incoming junior and management/information systems major
from Rochester, took a course online. "I liked the fact that
I did not have to go to a classroom to learn something,"
he wrote in an e-mail. "I am a huge advocate of self-teaching,
and this gave me an opportunity to exploit it. For me, the interaction
with other students seems to neither enhance nor detract from
my learning experience. The particular course I took did not require
me to contact other students-but if I needed to, that was available."
MFC's current distance-learning courses
are all offered through conventional means, as well. Web-based
offerings include courses in nutrition, health care, legal topics,
public relations and writing, in addition to substantial fare
in computers and technology. This method of distance learning,
of course, allows students to take courses when it's most convenient
for them, simply through an Internet-connected computer.
Carla Thornton, in an article posted on
CNN.com, reports thousands of online courses now available to
anyone with Internet access and a PC. These include classes from
such leading universities as the University of Wisconsin, Stanford
University, Penn State and the University of California at Berkeley.
"According to International Data Corporation, the number
of people taking at least one college course over the Internet
will triple by the year 2002 to about 2.2 million," Thornton
Less commonplace, but a growing phenomenon,
are the "virtual" universities that offer a complete
degree program online, perhaps the best known of which is the
University of Phoenix, with 52 campuses-actually rented office
space-in 35 states. Open only to jobholders 23 years of age and
older, the school bills itself as "the nation's largest private
university and the leading online university"; its holding
company, the Apollo Group, earned almost $500 million in revenue
last year, according to a recent People magazine profile of University
of Phoenix founder John Sperling.
But online higher education does have
its detractors. David F. Noble of York University, who spoke at
UB this past January and authored the much-discussed journal series
"Digital Diploma Mills," cautions that "online
universities, distance-education programs and the like [are] now
identified with this revolution in technology and have assumed
the aura of innovation and the appearance of the revolution itself."
That untested assumption has spawned the production of ill-conceived
and unnecessary higher education information-technology programs
that are "nothing more than an updated version of the correspondence
school," Noble contends. On the other hand, a respected institution
like Britain's Open University (www.open.ac.uk)-at
the forefront of distance learning for the past 30 years-now has
half of its students taking courses online.
indful of this concern, Lopos led the effort that resulted in
UB's gaining membership in R1.edu (www.r1edu.org),
a consortium of 26 public and private universities designated
as Research I universities by the Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching. To be included in the consortium, universities
must demonstrate a commitment to the next generation, or Internet
2, of network-based distance-learning programs and materials;
have a minimum number of distance-learning course/program offerings;
and be a member of the Association of American Universities.
Distance learning has tremendous potential,
but it's no panacea, says Lopos, who gained extensive experience
in this area as director of off-campus courses and programs at
the University of Iowa. "A lot of distance learning is a
testament to the abilities, the will and the tenacity of the students,"
he says. "All students will not learn well from distance
learning; different people have different learning styles. So
when people get excited about the notion of distance learning-doing
away with the traditional campus-I think that's an overstatement.
One of the things we've found over the years of studying distance
learning-and the research is long-standing, but it varies in quality-is
that there's a great deal of emphasis placed on students' motivation
and discipline. And for those reasons, distance learning may not
be appropriate to someone who has not yet developed those traits.
Also, for traditional undergraduates, we can't underestimate the
campus experience-it's part of one's individual growth."
In planning which MFC courses will be
offered through distance learning, Lopos and his staff look for
the "best practices and the best research we can find on
learning that does not require a campus component." Convenience,
after all-the ability to incorporate education into an already
busy lifestyle-was the main selling point when the first correspondence
courses appeared in the 19th century, and it is convenience that
continues to be the prime attraction of online distance learning.
The downside of online learning, especially
for the traditional undergraduate student, "includes tests
that are more rigorous, computer glitches that eat homework, miscom-
munication with professors and-perhaps most significant-isolation
from peers," wrote Dan Eggen in a recent Washington Post
article on the increasing appeal of online courses for college
At MFC, Lopos is interested in fostering
access, and this is reflected in distance-learning course planning
and design. "At MFC, we've used telecourses-one of the older
methods. Why? Because a lot of people have cable TV-they can learn
at home. When we develop our online courses, we make sure they're
very text-oriented. They are rich, and we do have links. But we
try to be very sensitive to the end user."
Of course, MFC is not the sole provider
of distance-learning initiatives on campus. The School of Engineering
and Applied Sciences, through its participation in the SUNY consortium
EngiNet-, offers busy engineering professionals the opportunity
to take graduate-level courses toward a master's degree in four
areas of engineering, through a videotape delivery system.
he School of Management, meanwhile, is developing an online M.B.A.
program for a planned launch this fall. "This program utilizes
web-based technology developed within the School of Management
that enables us to synthesize the expertise of our best professors,
deliver assignments to students anywhere in the world, monitor
their learning and provide instant feedback on their progress,"
says dean Lewis Mandell. The program, which will set admission
and completion standards nearly identical to those required of
UB's traditional M.B.A. programs, Mandell says, will target U.S.
and international companies "who want to enroll their managers
in a program that can be customized to the strategic goals of
their organization, and which their employees can complete independently,
no matter where their job assignments may take them." While
the market for online M.B.A. programs targeted to individuals
is quickly becoming crowded with business schools, Mandell is
confident that UB "can develop a niche in the corporate market
because of our successful history of delivering executive M.B.A.
programs and customized corporate-training programs all over the
Within the UB School of Nursing, students
based at Jamestown Community College can study for a B.S. degree
through real-time telecommunications with their counterparts and
teachers at UB. And, in a real coup this past semester, the university,
in partnership with Stanford, created "the world's first
bicoastal classroom" through a high-performance videoconferencing
connection via Internet 2. In the course "Bodyworks: Medicine,
Technology and the Body in the Late 20th Century," instructors
Timothy Lenoir of Stanford and Bernadette Wegenstein of UB shared
several teaching tools-a webpage, locally projected images and
videoclips-that were projected onto a large screen in both classrooms,
as well as a videoconference link reserved for discussion and
spontaneous student interaction. This innovation was one of the
factors cited by Yahoo! Internet Life magazine in ranking UB number
11 in a recent list of the 50 most wired universities and research
schools in the United States.
At MFC the approach is to assist faculty
with the technical requirements and provide administrative and
marketing support, in theory freeing the faculty to concentrate
on course content. Explains Lopos: "I have a full-time instructional
designer, another half-time instructional designer and a program
coordinator whose responsibility is to help the faculty develop
the courses. So I don't want faculty dealing with HTML-that's
not the best use of their time. If they like to play with it,
if that's their interest, fine. But they are the content experts;
they are the people whose knowledge and skills must be transmitted.
We have the professionals who are skilled in helping them make
"And it's not merely technological.
Really good instructional design is an informed way of designing
your course. What kind of a test should I use? What works best
in this online modality? Is true and false good enough in online
testing? What kinds of checks and balances do I want?"
In other words, planners here are trying
to overcome what Sir John Daniel, vice chancellor of the Open
University, has identified as a problem of many distance-learning
courses. "Because of our history, we have a level of sophistication
that allows us to be more cautious than those who rush in from
scratch," Daniel said in a recent interview with the Guardian
of London. "It sets us apart from those who just put their
notes on the web and think they have a wonderful distance-learning
SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor
of English Diane Christian, whose courses may be videotaped shortly
for distance-learning purposes, voices the ambivalence that many
faculty may feel about distance learning: "On the one hand,
it seems to me great to widen the reach for those unable to be
on campus, and to extend some of the extraordinary teaching we
have to offer. On the other hand, as a filmmaker I know that just
videotaping isn't really producing teaching. And as a teacher
I think one of the main elements of the teaching enterprise is
the real-time presence of teacher and students- being able to
ask and interact is the life of it. Otherwise you can read a book.
ore and more, as we're electronically connected and ranging, we'll
be able to reach into libraries, museums, data banks and maybe
even classrooms. Maybe we can even interface electronically, but
it doesn't replace bodies and real time for me yet."
Teaching courses with distance-learning
technology often involves some practical considerations in clearly
conveying the course material. Lopos uses the example of how he
thinks a course on comedy that he teaches for the English department
would have to be recontoured if he were to offer it online: "When
I teach it in class, I stop what I'm doing and say, ‘Now we're
going to look at ...' I teach a section on parody, for instance,
and in showing them parody, I show them video clips of an original
and its parody. There's the learning moment-students react visibly
when they understand the concept. But if I'm doing it online,
I've got to structure the learning moment-how do I get this to
happen again with students?"
Given the dizzying array of online courses
and degree programs now available-some of them at leading universities
and colleges-why come to UB? "You choose a college or university
for a variety of reasons," Lopos says. "It begins with
your educational needs: Why do you want to take art history? Do
you need to take it for job purposes? If so, you want to get it
as quickly and conveniently as you can. Do you want it as part
of your own personal development, you own personal education?
Then you may want to get it from an institution for which you
have a certain respect or a certain desire for its reputation.
Why does someone choose to go to University X over University
Y, all things being equal? Because for some reason or another
you have decided that it offers something you value."
In seeking to offer the finest quality
of instruction, it is apparent that UB cannot ignore the ever-extending
electronic avenues that are now open to students and faculty everywhere.
"These new tools of educational technology
are no longer the wave of the future," says David Willbern.
"They're the tsunami of the present. For many of us, the
options are sink, swim, or surf."