Distance Learning Grows by Degrees



Scott R. Tilley (Florida Institute of Technoloy)

This article was originally published in News at SEI on: December 1, 1998

Distance learning is an emerging phenomenon that promises to alter fundamentally the nature of traditional education and training. As more universities begin to offer online versions of their courses, asynchronous study and synchronous lectures consisting of streaming multimedia will become more prevalent. Much of the growth in the distance learning industry can be attributed to the increasingly pervasive nature of the Net and the Web, and the collaborative infrastructure provided by net-centric computing.

In the previous Net Effects column, I talked about some of the infrastructure aspects of net-centric computing (NCC). One of the most important infrastructure issues is Net access, especially for consumers connecting from their homes or home offices. Without inexpensive high-speed access options, NCC will be limited to institutions such as business and universities that have dedicated connections to the Internet backbone or an internal Intranet.

I’ve now had the opportunity to use three different types of digital Net access technologies. These consumer-oriented high-speed connections are becoming widely available at relatively low cost. The first technology I looked at was a 56K modem. My experiences of just over a year ago with a 3COM x2-based modem are documented in the Volume 1, Number 20 issue of SIGPC, “56K Modems” (http://www.srtilley.com/SIGPC/V1N20.htm).

The second technology I tried was a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). In early June, I had US West’s “Megaline” DSL service installed in my home office. DSL has the advantage of offering relatively high-speed connections using existing telephone wiring and allowing the simultaneous use of the same line for either voice or fax traffic and the Net connection. My experiences with DSL are documented in Volume 1, Issue 2 of SEI Interactive, “Life in the Digital Subscriber Lane” (http://www.sei.cmu.edu/interactive/Columns/Net_Effects/1998/September/ Net_Effects.sept98.htm).

More recently, I’ve been using a third technology: a cable modem. In September, I had Charter Communications’ “Pipeline” cable modem service installed in my new home office. Cable modems have the advantage of offering high-speed connections using existing television cabling. My experiences with cable modems are documented in the Volume 2, Number 7 issue of SIGPC, “Cooking With Cable” (http://www.srtilley.com/SIGPC/V2/N7.htm).

These three types of consumer-oriented Net access technologies all have different characteristics. For example, their connection speeds differ greatly from one another, from 53K at the low end using a 56K modem to 10M at the high end using a cable modem. However, they all can play a similar role: aiding distance learning.

The changing nature of distance learning

The notion of distance learning is certainly not new. Correspondence courses have existed for a long time. CD-ROM–based training material has been used in corporate settings for several years. Computer-based training packages have also been used for a while, for example in children’s educational programs. All of these techniques are types of independent learning: The material is experienced by the student without any live interaction with the course instructor.

What is new is how distance learning can now be experienced. Using the Net and the Web, course material can be delivered to users in streaming multimedia format. The high-speed Net access methods I referred to above make this form of education possible for people who are geographically removed from the actual lecture. The difference between this type of distance learning and computer-based education of a few years ago is that the students can interact with the instructor in a synchronous manner. This means that the lecture can be delivered in audio and video format from one location, perhaps from a university, and the students can be dispersed literally all over the world.

This model of distance learning is growing in popularity, in part because of the changing nature of our society. There are several examples of institutions that are flourishing using this type of distance learning. For instance, the University of Phoenix has been offering accredited courses to students all over the world for several years now. It is one of the fastest growing educational institutions in the country. Its primary targets are working professionals looking to upgrade their education, often as part-time students. They can take all their courses online, using a Web browser in their homes.

Other universities have adopted a more middle ground. For example, Nova Southeastern University provides much of its curriculum online. Students still meet two or three times a semester for extended weekends in Ft. Lauderdale. Such “face time” is still an important part of the educational process.

Now that such respected universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University have begun offering courses online as well, many other institutions are looking at their own online curricula. In many respects, they have to; if they don’t begin to offer prospective students distance learning alternatives, other institutions will. The notion of “making yourself obsolete, before your competitor does” has been successfully adopted in other disciplines (for example, with Intel in microprocessors); there is no reason to believe it isn’t equally applicable to mainstream education.

Effects on mainstream education

As distance learning changes, so must mainstream educational institutions. Several recent articles (for example, “A Different Course”, by Robert Cwiklik, Wall Street Journal, November 16, 1998), have stated that the current university structure is perhaps one of the institutions likely to be most affected by this new mode of distance learning. Online delivery of course material promises to fundamentally alter the face of the education community and training industry.

For example, universities that lack the faculty to teach a particular course might choose to license course content from another university. As the professor lectures in one location, students in another location can also participate. This could lead to the development of “star” professors who become internationally known for their course material and delivery. This type of instructional outsourcing could have profound effects on the nature of departments in universities. It may create tiers of institutions wherein one university develops course content but another delivers it, perhaps even to a third university.

Distance learning may also have a profound effect on students. No longer will they have to move to a new city to attend the university of their choice. Lectures may be experienced synchronously, via streaming multimedia, or asynchronously at students’ leisure. Having students located off campus, even for courses, would greatly change the nature of a university. Resource planning, tuition structure, curriculum content, faculty hiring, and research programs would all be affected. This in turn would affect the learning experience for students, for instance in interaction with their teachers.

The distinction between education and training is always a contentious issue in universities. With distance learning, the problem is exacerbated. Private industry can (and already does) offer courses that are particularly appealing to high-tech employers and employees alike. The courses can be taken at nearly any time online, and the content is often more closely aligned with the real-world needs of working professionals. For universities, there is a need to examine distance learning for mainstream education. Both types of learning, education, and training, are made possible by the collaborative infrastructure provided by net-centric computing.

The role of NCC

Without some of the technologies provided by NCC, distance learning as described here would not be possible. Net access, geographically distributed collaboration, and executable content are important aspects of distance learning.

High-speed Net access enables the delivery of bandwidth-intensive multimedia content to the home or small office. As technologies such as DSL and cable modems become more widely available, their adoption rate will drive the market for distance learning. For example, there is no reason why telecommuting could not be combined with professional development to leverage the investment employers have made in setting up home offices for their workers.

Eliminating geographical distances between points on the network, and hence fostering collaboration among people, is just one way NCC can be used to improve the distance learning experience. Research results from computer-supported collaborative work can be used in conjunction with traditional educational techniques to make the remoteness of distance learning less of an issue. In fact, NCC offers new ways of interacting. For example, chat rooms are commonly set up between lecturers and students to act as proxy person-to-person meetings. Dynamic chat rooms can be created for a few students to discuss privately specific issues related to the material. This type of public/private switching is not possible in a traditional learning environment without interrupting the flow of the class.

Executable content across the network means that exercises and examples can be implemented within the ubiquitous user interface of today, the Web browser. This can be accomplished through portable applications written in Java. It can also be accomplished by using thin clients, with the application running on offsite servers. The content delivery can go in both directions: students can submit their assignments to their instructors or demonstrate their projects to their classmates across the network.

The role of NCC in the spread of distance learning is significant. There is little doubt that both traditional educational institutions and the private sector will adopt some aspects of distance learning as the infrastructure for (a)synchronous course delivery improves. For both instructors and students, distance learning will continue to grow by degrees.

About this column

The focus of the Net Effects column is the impact of net-centric computing on a wide variety of issues, including computer science, information technology (IT), and software engineering.

About the author

Scott Tilley is a visiting scientist with the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of California, Riverside, and principal with S.R. Tilley & Associates, a strategic and tactical information technology consulting boutique. He can be reached at stilley@sei.cmu.edu.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s only and do not represent directly or imply any official position or view of the Software Engineering Institute or Carnegie Mellon University. This article is intended to stimulate further discussion about this topic.

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