Education "On-Line": Distance Learning a Necessity Today

Article excerpt

When OSHA decreed that all public safety workers be trained in "bloodborne pathogen safety" in 1992, there were no qualified instructors to teach it. Trainers had to suddenly play catch up.

At the time, Lt. Dennis Cobb of Las Vegas, Nevada Metropolitan Police commented on CompuServe's Police Forum, "There ought to be an Online Police Academy to bring such new training to officers quickly and efficiently."

Discussion continued sporadically but not much happened. Then in 1995 the FAA required that police officers who must fly while armed, complete an instruction course. Again, there were no qualified instructors to teach it. That was the impetus for Jacob Haber to host the Online Police Academy (OPA) under the auspices of Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

But OPA was ahead of its time. After nearly two years of modest response on the Internet, Millersville University backed off. (OPA is now achieving a new resurrection but more about that later.)

Six years ago, the venerable college guide Peterson's counted 93 institutions offering distance learning courses. Peterson's Guide to Distance Learning for year 2000 lists 878. Estimates are that 90% of the nation's 2,267 fouryear colleges and universities will have courses available off-site next year. While some one million students of the 14 million in traditional brick and mortar buildings took distance learning courses in 1996, that number is expected to triple this year.

What is "distance learning"?

Video teleconferencing brought distant jails and courts together, virtually; company CEOs into branch offices, virtually; and lecturers into classrooms all over the world, virtually. These are all forms of distance learning. Law Enforcement Television Network (LETN) pioneered in one-way satellite television training courses and news.

Educational institutions have taken the traditional lecture from the classroom to the Internet with structured classes conducted in real time online. The instructor and students interact simultaneously with two-way audio and video, or two-way audio and oneway video, depending on the technology. This synchronous distance learning is another form.

When students view lectures from a television set, or videotape, with no immediate interaction with the instructor, that is another form - asynchronous distance learning. The traditional "correspondence course", advertised on matchbook covers years ago, is a form of asynchronous distance learning. When enrolled, you are sent a course manual to read. If you want to question the instructor, you write a letter and wait a week or so for a written response.

Cost is Motivation

Distance learning is gaining ground for two reasons, time and money. The average cost of educating a student at an institution of higher learning has increased from $7,400 to $10,600 over the past 15 years. Over the past 13 years, some 100 four-year institutions closed, almost twice the number that shut down the decade before.

Cyber-schooling avoids the costs of travel and extra living expenses. In most cases, tuition costs are comparable whether a course is taken on-line or in-person. One can get a cyber-degree from the University of Maine system for about $16,440, compared to the $36,864 it would cost to attend and live at the university's main campus.

As for time, the cyber-student can remain on the job while "attending" school, depending on the sort of technology used. This can be critical for police departments that are shortstaffed, as most are. Distance learning makes efficient use of the student's time with reasonable impact on the training budget.

Some futurists have gone so far as to predict the demise of the university system as we know it. Others argue that the resident experience including personal interaction with your instructor is key to gaining knowledge. The real future, I think, lies in using the technology best suited for the purpose. …