Distance Learning Could Enhance
Access to Higher Education
Totally frustrated at not being able to attend Cal State San Bernardino last fall because of an academically mandated course, I went sulking deep into the university's Web site looking for loopholes and other creative alternatives to my dilemma. Noting its use of the term ``distance learning," I probed further and find that this school is especially supportive of this type of scholarship.
The College of Extended Learning ( http://cel.csusb.edu/openu/index.html) is the designated academic outreach branch of the university and, on a financially self-supporting basis, provides a wide variety of credit and non-credit educational programs to CSUSB students and members of the larger community.
For example, CEL offers hundreds of courses throughout the year designed to meet the personal and professional development learning needs of thousands of individuals, as well as institutions, organizations and industries. Services include ``Open University," allowing non-matriculated individuals an opportunity to enroll in regular CSUSB classes on a space-available basis; contract training activities for school districts, business and government agencies, and certificate programs. It all means online convenience for anyone who needs to fit continuing education into a demanding schedule.
Digging deeper I discovered that distance learning is a hot topic in higher education. Using always-available Internet tools instead of set-time-and-place traditional lectures and discussion groups is a trend that is growing exponentially. New Internet-based education suppliers create Web-based ``classes," from long-established institutions such as the University of Massachusetts (http://cybered.uml.edu/) to leading-edge sites such as the United States Distance Learning Assn. (http://www.usdla.org/04_research_info.htm).
The overall learning objective and intent for these sites is to engage students in an active process of discovery that will inspire them to become more aware of the role of communications media both in history and everyday life.
To best achieve this objective, they should not be considered a stand-alone resource, but rather a complement to and extensionof classroom curriculum, according to the Communication Institute for Online Scholarship (http://www.cios.org/), a non-profit group supporting the use of computer technologies in the service of communication scholarship and education.
The concept of Distributed Learning/Distance Learning is attracting some very magnetic money. For example, the Andrew Mellon Foundation (http://arl.cni.org/scomm/scat/index.html) has awarded USC Information Services a two-year $279,000 grant to conduct a controlled experiment to see if a Web-based teaching project really delivers the goods. In fiscal year 2000, the federal government spent $768.7 million on Title III (a relatively new part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Its two biggest programs, the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund and Local Innovation Challenge Grants, were first authorized in 1995.)
Many universities, including USC, are also looking for ways to enhance existing classes by using ``distributed learning," which uses online tools–not just online content–to supplement and enhance existing offerings. But are such classes really as effective as the traditional ones in teaching? And are they cost-effective; are they worth the additional effort needed to create and use them? Until now, there's been only anecdotal evidence.
But the Mellon Grant, announced in December, will set up a direct comparison of cost-effectiveness, using a state-of-the-art USC engineering distributed learning course as the test case.
Although the courses are distributed learning, rather than 100% distance learning–they are meant to supplement traditional lectures, rather than replace them–the results of the study are still likely to be of great interest throughout academia.
The interdisciplinary test study is one of 23 around the country funded by the foundation as part of a project called Effective Uses of Technology in Teaching. The USC study will involve researchers from the Center for Scholarly Technology, the USC School of Engineering and the USC Rossier School of Education.
The Andrew Mellon Foundation's newest projects have also included online coursework at Brown University, ``Evaluating Web-Based Instruction in Chemistry" and at Syracuse University, ``Cost and Learning Effects of Alternative e-Collaboration Methods in Online Settings." The enhancements allow students to learn interactively at any hour, a feature called ``asynchronous learning." This feature allows students to work to mastery on each element of the problem. At each point the online course provides detailed and immediate feedback on mistakes. Students also have access to online discussion tools.
Marshall McLuhan Center
The Marshall McLuhan Center on Global Communications, a non-profit corporation dedicated to honoring K-12 teachers who are outstanding in engaging students in a technology-rich environment, is also funding work related to distance learning.
The purpose of the Marshall McLuhan Center is to promote understanding and progress among all people of the world through the communication of knowledge by advancing the effective use of technology to support learning and professional development. The center hopes to shape the development of advanced technology applications to support the transformation of the education system and to develop advanced interactive multimedia environments that facilitate learning in school, at home and at work.
The focus on teachers' and educators' participation and contribution to the Internet has strong implications for distributed and distance learning. According to a recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics (http://nces.ed.gov/), only 20% of American teachers feel prepared to use new computer applications and know how to integrate them into their classrooms.
In Texas, for example, roughly 90% of teachers say they use their classroom computers to surf the Internet and 81% to use e-mail. Less than half the teachers, however, use computers to download information and even fewer use them for collaborative learning projects. A survey by the Educational Testing Service last year found that only one in five teachers knew of lists of recommended software published by districts or states, and just one in 10 had found software that was tied to academic standards issued by districts and states.
The inspiration of the ``Marshall McLuhan Distinguished Teacher's Prize" program came from Walter Cronkite, an advisory board member who recently articulated concerns about what he calls ``a less-educated citizenry."
``A lot of the uneducated public carries around Harvard degrees," Cronkite said. ``It is not all in the inner cities. Those with the Harvard degrees are uneducated in a general philosophy that I find so important, which is the understanding of civil dialogue, the understanding of the other fellow's viewpoint, and an attempt to moderate or mediate between the two."
The Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, another non-profit organization, supports the use of computer technologies in the service of communication scholarship and education. The CIOS was inaugurated in 1990, being designed to function as a parent organization for the set of online activities that had been initiated in 1986 as the Comserve service. As Comserve services diversified and usership increased it became appropriate to create an organizational structure that would nurture and protect the investments of time, energy and resources contributed to the project by so many individuals and institutions.
CIOS is based at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Rotterdam Junction, New York. The CIOS/McLuhan Website Project is an online, hypermedia resource for communication scholarship and study. It is intended to be a supplement and aid to classroom curriculum, helping teachers to introduce their students to the ideas of the ``Toronto School" of communication, primarily through the work of McLuhan.
This project was developed in conjunction with a CIOS-funded initiative to develop online curricula for senior high school and junior undergraduate students. As such, the Web site focuses on the delivery of basic ideas and concepts rather than in-depth analysis.
The Web site should be thought of as a companion to McLuhan's written works, highlighting four central themes found within his collection of ideas and, in the process, encouraging students to re-examine their own communications environments.
According to Capital Hill testimony given by Jason W. A. Bertsch in March 2000, as quoted on the Empower America site (http://www.empower.org )PRIVATE "TYPE=PICT;ALT=": ``…The federal government has dramatically increased its spending on technology and education programs. An even larger investment has been made through the federal e-rate program, which will push well over $2 billion dollars during 2000 into wiring our public schools for the Internet. State and local authorities will spend even more on this effort. Just as computers and the Internet have fundamentally reshaped the way we do business, they will also soon reshape education–in universities; in primary and elementary schools; even in preschools. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems, recently said, `Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error.' "
These investments are partly–perhaps largely–responsible for the rapid growth of computers and Internet connections in American schools. Of the $6.7 billion dollars that was spent last year on technology and education in the nation's schools, about half came from the federal government. Over 70% of our public schools now receive money for technology and education from state or federal sources. In fiscal year 2000, it spent $768.7 million on Title III. An even larger investment has been made through the federal e-rate program, which pushed well more than $2 billion dollars during 2000 into wiring our public schools for the Internet. State and local authorities will spend even more on this effort. To contrast the recent past, in 1994, only 35% of public schools had Internet access; by 1999, 95% did. In 1994, only 3% of public school classrooms had Internet access; 63% did in 1999 (although robust, high-speed connections are still scarce). The ratio of students to computers dropped 25% between 1998 and 1999, from 12 to nine students per computer.
Robert ``Bob" Wallin (firstname.lastname@example.org) has written for Corporate Mastery & Health, USA, the National Registry of Experts and the Marine Corps JROTC. In addition to having been published in book materials, booklets and professional newsletters, he is co-author of the Dynamic Agenda Empowerment Management System. His business consulting, language arts and contract formation resources have served such companies as Gina's Pizza in Corona del Mar, Calif., and Guyton Tool & Die in Fontana, Calif.
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