Distance Education: Campuses Still Face Challenges; Maine Conference Participants Discuss Latest Innovations

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Distance Education: Campuses Still Face Challenges; Maine Conference. Participants Discuss Latest Innovations

AUGUSTA, ME -- More than 300 educators and technology coordinators from public schools, colleges and universities around the country gathered here recently to discuss new trends and challenges in the expanding field of distance education. The conference, "Breaking the Boundaries of Time and Space: A Focus on Distance Education," sponsored by the University of Maine at Augusta, brought together administrators, faculty and industry representatives.

"We are at a critical juncture in terms of the evolution of this thing which we call distance education," said Don Foshee, a technology consultant and keynote speaker at the conference.

Foshee, who works for Vtel, one of the largest producers of educational technology for higher education, traced the evolution from the use of videotape in classrooms of the 1960s to the current development of interactive media.

The innovations of the 1990s have made the challenges of providing greater access and better instruction more realistic to achieve, Foshee said.

"We've learned that [because of distance education technology] students are highly motivated...and instructional resources are enhanced," said Foshee.

Although this is a positive sign of both progress and adaptability, institutions still face major challenges in utilizing the available technology to increase access, improve teaching and setting academic standards. The conference provided experts and novices in the field a variety of resources and contacts for meeting those challenges.

`Tremendous Costs'

In light of the costs of creating such programs, networking opportunities such as this conference are critical, especially to educators at small institutions with limited distance education offerings, said Dr. Vincent Ialenti, telecourse coordinator for Mt. Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts.

"We want to be ready for the future," Ialenti said. Although Mt. Wachusett's distance education program is limited to courses offered by the Public Broadcasting Service, the college would like to expand its capabilities if funding becomes available. "Because of the tremendous costs in building the necessary infrastructure, small institutions must rely on regional and national networks," he said.

"What struck me is that no one is making any money on this. For the colleges that do this, it is basically a service, and the infrastructure necessary to providing such courses is an incredible cost to connect the state."

Cynthia Elliott, manager of product development and distribution for Miami-Dade Community College, in a session on strategic planning, said that those states that plan to make the investment should not get caught up in the "Field of Dreams syndrome."

"If you build it, they will come...that's not always necessarily so," Elliott said. …