According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Forum on Education Statistics, virtual education is now incorporated into the agenda for most organizations related to education and training. Over the past several years, both instructors and students have become more comfortable and trusting of the technology used in distance learning, ultimately increasing the use, awareness, and success of distance learning.
Distance learning is a way of learning remotely, without being physically present in the classroom or face-to-face with the instructor. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment defines it as the “linking of a teacher and students in several geographic locations via technology that allows for interaction.” Distance learning is a great option for people in many different situations. It is an attractive choice for those who need a flexible course schedule due to work, family life, or other circumstances. It is also widely popular for individuals wishing to earn a degree from a certain school while living in a different country. Distance learning can provide individuals the chance to earn a college degree from a specific college or university, at a specific location, who otherwise may not have had the time, availability, or travel necessities. Another important factor of distance learning is that universities and colleges ensure that their distance learning programs and qualifications are of the same high quality as the campus-based programs.
With its growing popularity, distance learning has increased positively in terms of quality and sustainability over the last several years. This is due to several factors including growth and demand. Probably the biggest demand is from non-U.S. students who wish to earn an accredited U.S. degree while remaining in their home country. These opportunities are made possible with technology advancements and cooperative colleges and universities who recognize the need for distance learning. Technology is sometimes the overlooked factor in the success or failure of distance learning programs. There are a wide range of technology requirements needed to operate a successful and effective “virtual classroom.” Equipment and hardware malfunctions can cause a standstill and greatly interrupt the flow of distance learning, sometimes affecting the entire course.
In addition to equipment and hardware, access to broadband continues to be a barrier for students wishing to utilize distance learning. In the case of Florida for example, while the state is ranked ninth among states most connected in the U.S., there are still 1.2 million Floridians without access to a wired connection capable of 25 Mbps download speeds. In 2013, Florida’s Task Force on Postsecondary Education put forth a recommendation of a statewide common online marketplace to help increase accessibility to a post-secondary education. Part of Florida’s Online Education 2025 Strategic Plan calls for a review of access issues in the state. Currently, there are several projects underway in the state of Florida to help improve broadband access for distance learning. One is the Florida LamdaRAil (FLR) which is 1,540 miles of dark fiber which connects 12 institutions with transmission ability of up to 100Gbps. The network is owned and operated on behalf of 12 universities, both public and private across the state of Florida.
While the technology side of distance learning continues to improve, there is still room for concern on the lack of directness and availability for distance learning in the United States. To increase the range of convenience distance learning offers, schools in the United States need to put a greater focus on the enrollment and course options available to current and potential students. While it is easy to enroll and begin taking a full semester of courses through an online program, it is more challenging for a student who wishes to only take one specific course. With the many advancements in distance learning over the past several years, this is an area still in need of improvement.
As time goes on, technology advancements in distance learning will continue to change the way individuals learn and earn degrees. Among the trends to watch for in 2018 e-learning technology are virtual and augmented reality, gamification and social learning to name a few (more on these in a later post). The future of distance learning will continue to evolve with the technology it’s based on and shape education as we know it.