What's the State of Distance Learning?

Part1 of A Review of Technology and Education

This article is part I of my multi-part investigation into the extent that technology is becoming a part of the educational process. As I am building a website which is designed for students to collaborate and manage their group projects online, I thought it important to investigate the extent that people are turning to the web for learning.

I’ve never taken an online course (they weren’t so popular back in the stone-age days when I was in university) and I was curious just how large the market for distance learning has become. I was somewhat shocked to learn how they have grown into an incredibly important part of the university course load. There are a few other important bits of information that I have learned as well, but first let’s define what distance learning is exactly. Distance learning is any type of educational program where the students and teachers are not in the same physical location. According to Wikipedia, the first university to offer a distance learning program was the University of London in 1858. These days most Universities offer some type of distance learning. The name that typically comes to my mind when I think online education is the University of Phoenix. They have grown into a behemoth and offer many different reputable degrees and programs.

Here are some interesting thoughts that I found in a research piece by the Babson Survey Research Group entitled, ‘Staying the Course: Online Education in the U.S. 2008’ by Allen and Seaman:

Over 3.9 million U.S. students took online courses in the fall of 2007 (sorry for the outdated stats, but that’s the most recent I could find)

Over 20% of all U.S. students were taking at least 1 online course in 2007

The number of online students has grown from 1.6 million in 2002 to 3.9 million in 2007

A survey across educational organizations shows that building an online presence is an important strategy to them
Online classes seem to have penetrated equally across most subjects (except for Engineering, no reason was given for that)

According to the a research study done by the U.S. Department of Education called ‘Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning’ (Center for Technology in Learning, 2009):

‘Students who took all or part of their class online performed better on average than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction’

While these stats are bit stale I doubt that it’s much of a leap to estimate that the number of students involved in distance learning today is much larger than the 3.9 million in 2007. Keep in mind as well that that number was just in the U.S. If we factor in the rest of the world I’m sure the figure exceeds 20 million students.

From the research I have read it seems that there is a marginal benefit of learning online versus the traditional face to face method. This benefit may increase over time as technology improves and end users (students and teachers) become more tech savvy. The real motivation for online learning appears to be two main factors; 1. Flexibility in learning when and where you want and 2. Capacity, meaning that universities are able to teach a larger number of students with online courses.

While it seems certain that online learning is here to stay (and grow), my question is to what extent are online tools being utilized in these courses? And how effective are they?

Please join me for part 2 of this series where I will explore some answers to these questions.

Views: 34

Tags: distance, learning, online, technology

Comment by Andrew Pass on January 15, 2010 at 9:48am
Your question is truly a phenomenal question. It's one thing to post information online and have students consume the information. (This could have been done in the 1990s.) It's something totally different to use the tools of Web 2.0 to promote the highest quality learning in a Twenty First Century format. While I very much appreciate your question, I just want to point out that obviously face to face classes can also take advantage of 21st Century technology in very meaningful ways. Too many teachers, probably not those of you reading this comment on this site, delude themselves into believing that simply asking students to consume information is a sophisticated use of technology. There's also the teacher who thinks that using PowerPoint is an incredible use of technology.

Andrew Pass


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