Charlotte Nirmalani Gunawardena
University of New Mexico
Marina Stock McIsaac
Arizona State University
The field of distance education has changed dramatically in the past ten years. Distance education, structured learning in which the student and instructor are separated by place, and sometimes by time is currently the fastest growing form of domestic and international education. What was once considered a special form of education using nontraditional delivery systems, is now becoming an important concept in mainstream education. Concepts such as networked learning, connected learning spaces, flexible learning and hybrid learning systems have enlarged the scope and changed the nature of earlier distance education models. Web-based and web-enhanced courses are appearing in traditional programs that are now racing to join the “anytime, anyplace” educational feeding frenzy. In a 2002 survey of 75 randomly chosen college distance learning programs, results revealed an astounding rate of growth in the higher education distance learning market (Primary Research Group, 2002). In a time of shrinking budgets, distance learning programs are reporting 41 percent average annual enrollment growth. Thirty percent of the programs are being developed to meet the needs of professional continuing education for adults. Twenty-four percent of distance students have high speed bandwidth at home. These developments signal a drastic redirection of traditional distance education.
With the rise and proliferation of distance learning systems has come the need to critically examine the strengths and weaknesses of various programs. A majority of new programs have been developed to meet the growing needs of higher education in responding to demands for flexible learning environments, continuing education and lifelong learning. David Noble, the Ralph Nader of Distance Education, has written a series of papers examining what he calls the private, commercial hijacking of higher education. He makes the case that the banner touting cheap online education waved in front of administrators has resulted in much higher costs than expected. The promotion of online courses, according to Noble, has resulted in a huge, expensive infrastructure that he describes as a technological tapeworm in the guts of higher education (Noble 1999, November). In a later piece, Noble describes the controversy in 1998 that developed at UCLA over its partnership with a private company, the Home Education Network (THEN). The controversy, over public and private partnerships and great expectation of financial returns, he says, is fueled by extravagant technological fantasies which underly much of today's enthusiasm for distance education. Noble describes this expectation as a pursuit of what appears increasingly to be little more than fool's gold (Noble 2001, March).
Noble is one of a growing group of scholars becoming increasingly disillusioned with the commercialization of distance learning, particularly in the United States. They call for educators to pause and examine the enthusiastic claims of distance educators from a critical perspective. With the recent developments in hybrid combinations of distance learning, flexible learning, distributed learning, web-based and web-enhanced instruction, the questions facing educators are how to examine new learning technologies from a wider perspective than we have in the past, and to examine how distance education fits into the changing educational environment. Scholars are exploring information technologies from the critical perspectives of politics, hidden curriculum, pedagogy, cost effectiveness, and the global impact of information technologies on collective intelligence (Vrasidas, & Glass, 2002).