The Promise and Challenges for Distance Education in Accounting

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Recent years have seen an explosive growth in student enrollments in distance education courses offered by U.S. colleges and universities. A 2003 U.S. Department of Education study reports that there were 3,077,000 enrollments in distance education courses in the 2000-2001 academic year, 56% of two- and four-year colleges offered distance education courses, and many more were planning to do so in the future. According to a majority of the institutions surveyed, an important consideration for offering distance education courses was to increase student access by offering courses at convenient locations and reducing time constraints. The E-Learning Guide of U.S. News and World Report (www.usnews.com/elearning) lists 2,800 traditional and virtual universities and colleges that offer courses and programs in all areas of education, including 383 universities that offer e-learning programs for graduate studies.

There has been a corresponding dramatic increase in the number of accounting courses being offered online. Aside from the many online courses offered as part of traditional accounting programs, there are also entire accounting degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels offered online--by both traditional universities such as the University of Maryland and nontraditional universities such as the University of Phoenix.

While the popularity and convenience of distance education courses aren't in question, there are other key issues that need to be addressed in relation to distance learning. These include the learning value of distance education courses, the design of effective courses, assessment issues, teacher training and resources needed, and student issues. While not all distance learning courses are online, 90% of the institutions in the Department of Education survey reported using computer-based instruction for their distance courses, so I will focus on this mode.

An important question that has to be addressed is the effectiveness of distance education compared to traditional face-to-face classroom instruction. There is an abundance of literature regarding the effectiveness of distance education in the education research area but a relative paucity of it in accounting. For example, in a 1999 study titled The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, Thomas L. Russell examines 355 studies comparing distance education to traditional education and finds that many studies support the view that there's no significant difference between the two modes of instruction. In the accounting area, Margaret Gagne and Morgan Shepherd, in "A Comparison between a Distance and a Traditional Graduate Accounting Class" (T.H.E. Journal, April 2001), found no difference in learning outcomes between the section of a graduate introductory accounting course that was taught online and the section that was taught in a traditional classroom setting.

The effectiveness of distance education is related to the effective design of online courses. It isn't enough to simply put the instructor's notes and PowerPoint presentations online. An online course needs to have the active presence of the instructor, the development of an online sense of community, participation and discussion by the students, a rich set of online presentation materials and study aids, and inclusion of both knowledge- and problem-based learning exercises. The instructor has to be an active presence in the classroom who introduces and clarifies new learning concepts and activities, answers student questions individually by e-mail or collectively by posting on the class bulletin board, encourages and participates in class discussions, and provides frequent individual and collective feedback to students.

It's imperative that the instructor try to develop the sense of an online community among the class members. This can be accomplished by asking students to introduce themselves to the class, have students comment on and critique each other's work, and provide group activities. …