The author is a university professor who has been teaching business and hospitality management courses in cyberspace formats since the mid 1990s. Over the years there have been many lessons learned in Web-based online distance education that have been shared with like-minded colleagues. The author is known to be an advocate of using delivery methods that appeal to learners at the lowest common technological denominator (LCTD), otherwise referred to as end users with access to commonly available computing and telecommunications power. This article reviews recent developments in home/office computing and considers the feasibility of adding streaming video/audio presentations to lecture and discussion pages for courses designed to appeal to this audience. The inclusion of such multimedia tools will provide visual and auditory dimensions as part of the online classroom communication process. As a result of these developments, it is the contention of the author that distance learning educators and students are entering the cusp of a fourth generation of online learning (4GOL).
Online education is becoming increasingly popular across the United States in both academic and business environments. In 1994 some higher education studies contended that levels of computer technology were insufficient to support distance learning programs (Royar, 1994). Just several years later, the 2002 Peterson's Guide to Colleges and Universities allows internet users the opportunity to search for information on 1,100 institutions offering distance education degree programs (Peterson's, 2002). Additionally, several educational specialists now offer ranking guides to assist potential students with their choice of a potential distance learning program, using such variables as accreditation, faculty-to-student-ratio, cost and distribution method(s) (Bear and Bear, 2001 ; Kisner-Thorson, 1999). One professional, not-for-profit organization, The Education Coalition, was founded in 1993 under the assumption that distributed learning would soon take place at many community locales such as homes, offices and libraries (Education Coalition, 2002).
Carla Lane, Executive Director, states:
Our vision of education is to increase literacy by establishing distributed learning systems and services that enable the learner to become a receiver, processor, transformer and disseminator of knowledge. This learning process is facilitated through multiple delivery systems, which include interactive internet, live video, cable, satellite, computer, CD-ROM, video disk, and related technologies which address the different learning styles of students (Lane, 2002).
Distance learning delivery methods currently utilize one of many electronic formats, including electronic classrooms (ECR's), interactive television (ITV), email, compact discs (CDROM), and the Internet's world wide web (WWW). The recent development of user-friendly utilities also has created a favorable environment for web-based programs.
Developments in information technology (IT) have been implemented by competitive organizations for the timely exchange of information and knowledge via the Internet, intranets, extranets, and groupware for the purpose of maintaining knowledge management systems (KMS) (Obrien, 2000). In the not-too-distant past, a number of universities were initially reporting the development of virtual learning activities through various outreach programs, while other institutions with no distance learning courses were announcing plans to introduce entire programs through digital media (Webster and Hackley, 1997).
The current situation, however, includes an abundant number of programs where prospective students are now concerned with issues of quality, tuition and prestige rather than simply locating a distance learning format; in just a few years the landscape has changed greatly regarding distance education (Lankford, 2001). …