The Road to Increasing Distance Education at Smaller Colleges and Universities

Article excerpt

Distance learning in higher education is not a new entity. It has existed much longer than you might think. In fact, one of the first experiences in distance education was in 1873 when the Anna Eliot Ticknor Society to Encourage Studies at Home was founded in Boston (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006). This school offered six programs, and communication between instructors and students took place utilizing the U.S. mail.

Throughout the years, distance education evolved from correspondence courses to television and videotape courses to online or e-learning courses. The term traditional course now refers to classes that are delivered in a face-to-face format. Distance education is defined as any course that is delivered to students that are not present in the same room as the instructor. E-learning describes learning that takes place by using electronically mediated or facilitated software (Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006).

E-learning is divided into categories based on the type of instructional delivery. Online classes are delivered completely using the Internet, hybrid or blended courses which combine use of the Internet with traditional courses, and webenhanced courses utilize a form of transaction software to deliver lectures or post material, or complete tests online (Jones, Chew, Jones, & Lau, 2009).

The distance education movement was born out of convenience for those students that live in remote geographic areas, but desired to further their education at a reputable higher learning institution. India and China are both in the forefront of distance education, having established programs since the mid-1960s. An editorial in the International Journal of Lifelong Education ("Editorial," 2006) states that Indira Ghandhi University has its own satellite and delivers courses to 17 different countries, while Shanghai Television University has 350,000 students, making them leaders among the mega distance learning facilities in the world.

Another global example of distance education comes from the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). The school, which is a part of the system of the University of Maryland, began in 1947 as a result of the GI bill to educate members of the U.S. military stationed in Europe. It continues to thrive and is now the largest standalone public institution offering undergraduate and graduate degrees. UMUC has 90,000 global students, including 36,000 active-duty U.S. service members, and offers 130 undergraduate and graduate programs, 116 of which are completely online (Roach, 2009).

The Appalachian area within the United States is considered to be remote and poorly served by technology and transportation infrastructures (LeBaron & McFadden, 2008). Western Carolina University works with students and faculty to develop courses that meet the needs of the population. The challenge for them is working together as an organization to overcome the obstacles and meet learners' demand for distance learning.

The distance learning trend continues to be fueled by student demand for courses that meet their needs. Students want to be able to schedule online or blended courses that allow them to work at their own pace to complete assignments. They request flexible learning environments where they can work online, where learning is achieved through self-discovery, and where instructors serve as facilitators rather than sages (Fish & Wickersham, 2009).

The Babson Survey Research Group in collaboration with the College Board conducts a yearly survey of more than 2,500 college and universities as a part of the Annual Survey of Colleges (Allen & Seaman, 2008). The 2008 annual report of the Sloan Consortium stated that 3.9 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall of 2007, a 12.9% growth rate from the previous year. These data translated into over 20% of all U.S. higher education students taking at least one online course in the fall of 2007 (Allen & Seaman, 2008). …