Any residual doubt regarding the explosive growth potential of distance education may have been dispelled last month, when the AFL-CIO announced it was teaming up with the National Labor College and the Princeton Review to launch an online college for the labor federation's 11.5 million members and their families. With projected courses in allied health sciences, business and other disciplines at an estimated $200 per credit, you could almost hear the whir of file servers straining under the anticipated load.
The inherent appeal of distance learning - the scheduling flexibility that allows students to fit study time into their busy lives, with little or no need to visit the host campus - has been apparent since the advent of correspondence courses conducted by mail. The rise of videoconferencing, webcasting, message boards, podcasts, DVDs and email has seen a proliferation of distance-education courses, programs and institutions, presenting students with a dizzying array of choices. Some providers urge students to do their homework before taking the plunge.
Alan Capelle, director of Upper Iowa University's Madison campus, cautions prospective students to consider the rigors of online academics with an accredited, established college or university. Though accreditation may vary from one institution of higher learning to another, online objectives are often identical to classroom curricula, with assignment deadlines to meet and exams to take.
Based in Fayette, Iowa, UIU offers online bachelor of science degrees in such disciplines as accounting, business and marketing, along with master's degrees in administration and certificates in related fields.
Some courses, Capelle notes, mix online learning with classroom instruction, while others require students to log in daily to participate in discussions or submit assignments. UIU employs a program called Ecollege to facilitate these activities and the delivery of course materials via PowerPoint, videos, blogs and "the whole nine yards," he observes.
Other institutions, including Edgewood College and MATC, use the rival Blackboard Academic Suite to deliver multimedia course materials and support interactions between students and faculty.
MATC's distance-learning catalogue includes hundreds of online courses on subjects including medical terminology, principles of emergency services, algebra, radiographic pathology, accounting, Adobe Photoshop and nursing pharmacology.
Catherine Woodward, president and co-founder of the Madison-based Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation and an associate lecturer at the UW's Institute for Cross-College Biology Education, has taught "Tropical Ecology and Conservation," an upper-level online botany course.
In an email exchange from Ceiba's outpost in Ecuador, Woodward adds that she also has extensive experience facilitating online discussions. "I find that these are often more productive than in-class discussion sections," she notes. This may be due to students being less apprehensive about contributing or being put on the spot, she suggests, or to having sufficient time to express themselves in writing instead of extemporaneous discussion.
With thousands of students enrolled in hundreds of distance courses at UW-Madison, the state's flagship campus is among those brick-and-mortar universities riding the distance-education boom.
That presence is magnified by UW-Extension's Distance Learning Wisconsin website (distancelearning.wisconsin.edu), a portal to distance classes offered for and without credit throughout the UW System. Subjects range from agricultural and natural resources to social sciences by way of business, engineering, foreign languages and other academic disciplines.
Before you walk through this door, or any other gateway to distance education, you might want to devote between 20 and 40 minutes to Readiness for Education at a Distance Indicator (READI), a free distance-learning aptitude assessment tool available through the UW's online independent learning resource directory and MATC's website. Measuring technical competence, reading comprehension, typing speed and accuracy, time management skills and other personal attributes, it's a fun test to take if you don't have too lofty an opinion of yourself. And it's most useful if your answers are honest: Your READI performance generates resources that may help improve your prospects for distance-learning success.
As with traditional courses taught in lecture halls, labs and discussion sections, students bear most of the burden for academic success at a distance.
That burden begins with picking the right program to suit your needs. With so many reputable U.S. colleges and universities now offering distance-education opportunities, it's easier than ever for prospective students to make good choices - and, if you do your homework before enrolling, harder to fall for unaccredited schools and fraudulent degree-mill scams. From the Ivy League to the Pac 10, websites for such well-regarded institutions as MIT and Stanford provide easy access to their distance-education resources even as they remain moored to their respective campuses.
Woodward cautions, however, that not everyone is suited to distance learning. She cites motivation and discipline among the most important prerequisites for student success. "For students prone to procrastination," she says, "it can be all too easy to put things off until the last minute and let the material pile up."
Between assignments and exams, she adds, it can be difficult for faculty to discern whether students are grasping course materials or struggling with them. "It falls upon the student to seek help when they need it," she observes, "and some students are not as likely to stick their necks out and contact their professor."
Such reluctance can, of course, also be observed in traditional classroom settings. But distance learning comes with its own set of red flags. "Many students may view distance-learning or online classes as 'easier,'" cautions Woodward. "With the multitude of providers out there from more or less reputable institutions, some are. It is up to the student to verify the quality of the distance courses or programs they enroll in to make sure that the education they receive will be on par with what they would receive in the classroom of, say, a major university."
Some courses and academic disciplines may be a better fit for distance education than others, Woodward adds. "People learn in different ways, and many learn best by doing. Especially for laboratory classes, where so much of one's proficiency results from actually using specific devices or practicing specific methods over and over again, a distance-learning alternative is hard to come by."
Until advancing technologies address such shortcomings, hybrid courses - combining online studies with on-site lab or fieldwork - present a compromise affording faculty greater opportunity to teach and assess student performance face-to-face.
Woodward's bottom line is that distance learning presents "an opportunity for students who cannot, for whatever reason, travel on a daily basis to campus." Among these students, she cites "working students, parents staying home with young children, students in the military, students from foreign countries who lack access to certain subject matter in their local educational institutions, adults wanting to continue their education, and professionals who seek professional development for their job."
All those populations add up to a massive global pool of prospective students. The AFL-CIO's recent announcement suggests the potential student body numbers well into the millions.