The future of education in the new millenium
What is DL?
Why do we need DL?
Who needs DL?
How effective is DL?
Factors affecting expansion of DL
Conclusion / Summary
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Site contents and design by Eric LeBlanc, Copyright 1997, 2002

Who needs DL?

The Student
Although all students (or prospective students) can derive immense benefit from a properly designed and implemented Distance Learning program, there are several special groups that should be noted. Of course, some individuals may fit one or more categories:

  1. Isolated Individuals, such as:

    1. Children in rural communities with limited access to specialized instruction. Rural schools often find it difficult to provide a variety of much needed courses, due to low enrollment and budgetary constraints.

    2. Individuals whose jobs isolate them from educational opportunities (i.e., traveling salesperson, corporate transferee, night workers, etc.). Many people cannot pursue or continue their education due to the time and distance constraints imposed by their jobs. Paradoxically, failure to maintain an up-to-date education often adversely affects these individual's careers.

    3. The uneducated and rapidly increasing populations of under-developed third world countries, especially in the Asian and Pacific region, who are isolated from conventional educational facilities. A 1986 study concluded: There are at present over one billion children and youth under 15 years of age in this region (Asian Development Bank, 1987: 45). The problems these nations face are so vast, that the need for education often takes a back seat to the more pressing issues of poverty and starvation. However, these governments are recognizing the correlation between education and economic prosperity. Often with non-existent educational infrastructure, these nations may find DL the most cost-effective solution for their immediate educational needs.

  2. Corporate/Industry trainees. Corporations are realizing the benefits of training and/or retraining their existing employees, and the military has done so for years. DL often provides the only quick, up-to-date, and cost effective means of educating these workers.

  3. Women. Although women's influence in the workforce has dramatically increased in the past thirty years, a large group still exists that have not pursued educational goals due to family concerns. Women who are homemakers, responsible for the care of children or aging parents, can update their job skills, pursue alternative career paths, and prepare for integration into the job market through the use of DL.

  4. Physically Handicapped. Physical disabilities can bring tremendous challenges for those individuals attempting to obtain an education through conventional means. DL can overcome the access problems of the physically handicapped and provide them with the skills to become productive members of society.

  5. Social/economically challenged. Individuals who cannot afford conventional educational systems often find the costs of DL more palatable. People whose early-learning skills are somewhat deficient can find a means for catching up at their own pace through DL; and the use of DL in prisoner reform is being used to reduce repeat offenses by giving prisoners the skills to integrate into society.
    These student's feelings about distance learning and its benefits are best exemplified in the comments of Tracy Marks, a recently enrolled student in a class offered by the Cambridge Center for Adult Education on Marketing on the World Wide Web:

    First of all, there's the convenience factor. I am able to take the course at two in the morning if that's when I can take it. Plus, the email interaction allows students to get to know each other in a way they wouldn't face to face. (Kornblum, 1996)

The Faculty
Properly designed DL courseware can reduce or eliminate the repetitive labor tasks performed by educators each semester, such as preparation of lectures. When properly structured, the DL program courseware (especially computer based courseware) would evolve through continuous improvement by the authors. Faculty would not have to "reinvent the wheel for each week's lectures" (Massy, 1995). Exam preparation and grading time can also be reduced, since this function can also be incorporated into the courseware. Finally, this reduction of repetitive labor tasks frees time for faculty to pursue their own continuing education, thereby ensuring that their wealth of knowledge is continuously increased and up-to-date.

Discussions with educators reveal that many teachers find themselves scrambling during the "off" summer months to attain the required number of continuing education credits mandated by their respective State. However, internet-based distance learning programs enable teachers to obtain their required credits at their own pace, during the school year. This ensures that the "teacher/students" put information gleaned from the courses to immediate use. Many programs incorporate group-based learning and group scheduled chat rooms. Often, the traditional time-constrained, lecture-based teaching environment does not afford the same opportunities for one-on-one teacher-student interaction or student-group interaction.

In our society with the constantly changing knowledge base, to remain a competent professional, people must update their education much more often than in the past. It is conceivable that the average person will need to utilize three entire generations of information in their professional careers. We're not going to be able to accomplish this feat by everyone quitting their jobs every 10 years and returning to school for 3 years. I believe that this learning process will have to happen via some type of distributed learning.
(Swisher, 1997)

The Administrator
Governments, corporations, and the administrators of educational institutions are constantly striving to provide a quality education within budget constraints. The use of information technology and distance learning programs can result in increased productivity and decreased costs.

Using information technology… will increase the ratio of capital cost to labor cost in the academic budget, whether or not overall costs can be reduced. Larger capital-labor ratios represent a shift away from the handicraft mentality. They offer three major advantages.

First, real labor costs tend to rise with economy-wide productivity gains…, whereas technology-based costs tend to decline due to learning-curve effects, scale economies in production, and continued innovation… Given the differential growth rates of labor and technology, one can expect positive long-term returns on investment even when returns are negligible during the first few years.

Second, technology-based solutions also tend to be more scalable than labor-intensive ones. While our model does not address economies of scale, one should expect that additional students could be accommodated at lower cost with technology than with traditional teaching methods.

Finally, technology provides more flexibility than traditional teaching methods once one moves beyond minor changes that can be instituted by individual professors… The "retraining" of IT equipment (for example, reprogramming), while not inexpensive, is easier and more predictable than retraining a tenured professor. Within limits, departments will gain a larger zone of flexibility as the capital-labor ratio grows. (Massy, 1995)

As early as 1974, a cost analyses of distance education was performed using actual data from the Open University of the United Kingdom ("OUUK"), one of the first successful large-scale distance education programs in the world. (Started in 1971, this maverick in the field had already enrolled 76,592 students by 1974 and over 375,000 students by 1989. By the late 1980's, its annual enrollment was over 100,000 per year). The study concluded that "the real strength of the OU system is the potential economies of scale which can be reaped by substituting capital for labour" (Keegan, 1990: 165). The study determined that with the Open University's high level of operation and enrollment, the average cost of providing an education to each student was lower than that of a conventional university. Note that this study was conducted nearly thirty years ago at a time when the cost of technology was substantially higher than today.

Another issue potentially helped by DL is the general shortage of faculty which commenced in the 1990's, particularly in the U.S., as the number of students interested in teaching careers declined, and the teachers who entered the field during the 1960's retired. This faculty shortage presents even greater challenges for governments, and society in general, to provide innovative education delivery systems that utilize resources to their fullest capacity. Distance Learning can provide not only a means for this full utilization of resources, but can be used as a tool to solicit the interest of potential teachers. By explaining the benefits, challenges, and personal satisfaction derived from this new, technology-based, distance teaching method versus the "conventional education", perhaps interest in the field of education can be reinvigorated with the coming wave of technology oriented students. For example, Thom Foulks, an educator previously accustomed to traditional classroom based teaching, had the following to say about his job as an instructor at ZD University, a web-based virtual university:

"It's been one of the most invigorating experiences of my lifetime," Foulks said without a hint of sarcasm. "In my first class I had a student body that ranged from Paris and Australia and all across the United States. The interactivity, although it's not face to face, is still there," he said. "All my students are pretty much mandated to at least introduce some personal comments about each other. You do get to know the people. You really do." When he first started doing it a year ago, "I was awed by looking at my student body and the very fact that we could interact and communicate and everybody got something done. There were times I sat here, and I'm serious, I had tears in my eyes. It was joyous to see it actually works. There can be a worldwide community for this type of thing." (Kornblum, 1996)