What Can Distance Education Do For You?
Is Attending School From Home Is A Real Option?
Laura Bobendrier, Staff Writer
April 9, 2001, 11:10 a.m. EDT
Watch out, college kids -- school's not just about parties anymore.
More and more adults are taking a deep breath and plunging back into the world of academia -- and not just to find out where all the good keggers are. The idea of going back to school has become less indimidating as adults find out that it's not as hard to keep up with the younger students as they originally thought.
And new technology makes it possible to participate in continuing education without being exposed to the classroom pressure that many older students feel alongside 18- to 20-year-olds. Distance education is becoming by far the most popular route to gaining a degree later in life.
What's the difference between continuing and distance education? Continuing education is an umbrella term for a lot of options, including workshops, seminars, classes -- and distance education. Continuing education classes can be credited or noncredited, with credited students earning degrees at the completion of their programs and noncredited students earning certificates or continuing education units (CEUs).
Certificates And CEUs
Certificate programs are usually significantly less expensive than credited degree programs -- even if they're taught at the same university -- and the requirements are often fewer. Certificate classes are generally taught in the evenings, and schedules are flexible. They also include courses focused on practical application, with fewer requirements than degree programs.
CEUs, which are required in fields such as accounting, medicine and law, can be obtained in a variety of ways. Colleges, universities and vocational schools, as well as professional associations, offer seminars, workshops and classes for CEUs. The trick is to be sure that the leading professional association in your field sanctions the CEUs given at the class, seminar or workshop that you plan to attend.
Because of the technology surge in the last decade, distance education has come to the forefront of continuing education. It has been an option for more than 100 years, since the time when farmers used correspondence courses to learn about new farming techniques. Aside from mail courses, students have several distance-learning options, including voice (telephone, audioconferencing, tapes and radio), video (slides, videotapes, films, one- or two-way video with two-way audio) and computers (software programs, the Internet).
More and more colleges and universities are implementing distance education via the Internet, and participation continues to grow. There are even virtual universities that offer only Internet-based educations. But as these new distance-education programs emerge, the quality varies drastically, even among schools whose face-to-face programs are well respected.
Downsides To Distance Ed
The lack of quality control is one of the biggest problems with distance education. Even the "old" Internet-based distance-learning courses are still under development. It's important to be very careful in checking the quality of distance-education programs, said Charlotte Thomas, career and education editor at
Peterson's, a leading educational resource service provider famous for producing college guides since its inception in 1966. Not only might the courses be low quality and inappropriate for the Web, but the professors or instructors might be the bottom of the barrel, or just not qualified to teach distance classes.
In the mid-1980s, the FBI closed down 39 "diploma mills," or distance-education providers that would basically sell diplomas for the right price, according to about.com's distance learning Web page. These diploma mills keep surfacing, like Monticello University in April 2000 and Columbia State University a couple of years ago.
And people who hold diplomas from these "universities" are also in trouble -- a Benton Harbor, Mich., principal was fired after it came to light that she held a master's "degree" that she purchased for $670 with no class work, according to about.com. Scams like these await people who don't put enough research into finding a good-quality distance-education program.
Another drawback to Internet-based education is the lack of interaction that certain programs have. Some students simply cannot succeed without consistent feedback and discussion with instructors and fellow students. And when homework is all electronic, professors have no way of knowing who did what work, and cheating can become a serious issue. Also, the motivation levels of the students contribute largely to their success: People with certain learning styles need more structure than many distance-education programs can give.
Courses that require teamwork or hands-on learning, such as chemistry or physics labs, pose problems in the Internet realm, but they're possible, says Mary Beth Almeda, director of the Center of Media and Independent Learning at the University of California Extension in Berkeley, Calif. These problems can be overcome by creative teaching and further developments in how distance education can be delivered, Almeda said.
But Despite The Problems ...
Distance education can provide educational opportunities to people who might not have access otherwise, usually because of convenience or location. Independent learning offers flexibility to retain a full-time job and study when it's convenient for you -- whether it's 5 p.m. or 5 a.m. In well-developed programs, there is often more interaction between professors and students, though it's usually via e-mail or phone instead of face-to-face. Some colleges have even set up online discussions for distance students. And, perhaps most importantly, distance education offers students a chance to grow as a person -- to take full responsibility for their learning and rely on their communication skills if they have a question or problem.
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