Magazine article Technology & Learning

Going for Distance: Technology Convergence Powers Growth of Online Education

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Going for Distance: Technology Convergence Powers Growth of Online Education

Article excerpt


Despite essentially flat college enrollments, the number of postsecondary students taking online courses boomed 17 percent in 2008, to 4.7 million, and the growth shows no signs of abating. The convenience of online courses appeals particularly to older workers seeking new job skills in a tough economy but who nevertheless must juggle job and child care responsibilities, says I. Eileen Allen, an author of the Babson Research Survey Group's seventh annual online survey for the Sloan Consortium.

The distance-education boom, however, also reflects a convergence of AV hardware, networking, and collaboration software technologies that collectively enable teachers to deliver good interactive online education without extensive training or assistance from high-paid specialists. Distance learning is now ready for prime-time adoption. "Conferencing technology in general has gotten better and easier to use, and as a result, people feel more comfortable using it," says Eileen Aitken, Temple University's executive director of computer services.

Temple professor Elizabeth Pfeiffer, for example, teaches most classes in her clinical doctorate program right from her home, with just a laptop, a Webcam, and an Internet connection. The program is considered blended learning because it combines asynchronous classes and synchronous chat rooms with on-campus classes three times a year. "Distance learning is much improved now because we have better tools and content," Pfeiffer says. "The more we can interface, the more students open up and feel more connected, both to me and to one another."

Only about 5 percent of the university's 230 distance-learning classes are delivered from special videoconferencing rooms, according to Dominique Kliger, Temple's vice provost of distance learning; the rest are provided directly from PCs, like Professor Pfeiffer's. Begun as a faculty-inspired experiment in 1995, Temple's first foray into distance learning started with five classes broadcast from soundproofed videoconferencing rooms on the main campus, in Philadelphia, to a satellite campus in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, enabling the university to serve more students at the smaller location.

In a more dramatic consolidation, nine smaller, Canadian universities have expanded their collective courses by forming the Canadian Virtual University, which offers 2,000 distance-learning classes that are recognized for credit by all participating institutions.

At Temple, online class enrollment has doubled in recent years and currently tops 3,500 students a year, a number that is split evenly between graduate and undergraduate students, Kliger says. "We discovered that the learning style and convenience of online learning were important," she says.

Online classes increase students' confidence, offer feedback that is more personal, and alleviate students' scheduling conflicts, Kliger says. In fact, she notes, the university replaced some campus-based summer-school classes with online classes after discovering that the former were undersubscribed and the latter were maxed out.

Adding to the popularity of online instruction are features that make it more interactive, such as Wimba, Cisco's WebEx, and Adobe Acrobat ConnectPro collaborative platforms, Kliger says; Wimba, for example, enables classes to offer live virtual meetings and adds enhancements, such as voice messaging, which is far more personal than the written word, according to Kliger; all it takes is a Wimba hyperlink for an off-campus lecturer to address a class or a student to join a group-tutoring session from a remote location. …

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