Case studies of a virtual school Term Paper 32 pages

Pre-Course Program for Entry-Level Online Adult Students

Distance education is one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing segments of college and graduate level education. Many educational institutions with long histories of traditional classroom-based learning opportunities are expanding their programs to include distance-based learning via the Internet. In fact, many colleges and universities have invested heavily in their distance education programs. Courses for distance learners are offered in an array of formats that are designed to make learning opportunities accessible to students at anytime, anywhere in the world.

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Limited information is available concerning the ability of traditional adult learners to adapt to the online learning environment to successfully complete an online learning degree program. (Baker, et al., 1994)

Today, educational elitism is a serious problem for many distance and non-traditional students. Most traditional learners look down on the non-traditional learner and distance-based educational programs as a whole. Many times these degrees are perceived negatively by employers who feel that the students in traditionally-based programs actually learn more than those in distance-based programs. This “elitist” viewpoint of traditional education vs. non-traditional education remains one of the oldest and most pervasive traditions of university (or advanced) education.

It is also necessary to help teachers get up to speed on the technologies that support the online, interactive learning environment employed in most distance-based educational programs. In many distance education programs, faculty members receive little or no instructional support prior to being assigned a distance education course. “The biggest failure in distance education may be the failure to adequately train and support the needs of faculty (and students).” Successful distance education programs demand harmonious operations with many different elements including instructional support and the technology provided to students who must learn new concepts from remote locations with limited resources or adequate computer training. The purpose of a pre-course program for students would be to teach less technologically savvy students how to operate in an Internet-based environment as effectively as possible. Failure to adequately support the distance-based learner can lead to a low-quality educational experience as well as attrition in online learning programs.


Distance education is one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing segments of college and graduate level education. A combination of unparalleled demand for access to higher education and the willingness of most companies to pay for these remote learning opportunities have helped to move distance learning to the forefront. Many educational institutions with long histories of traditional classroom-based learning opportunities are expanding their programs to include distance-based learning via the Internet. In fact, many colleges and universities have invested heavily in their distance education programs. Courses for distance learners are offered in an array of formats that are designed to make learning opportunities accessible to students at anytime, anywhere in the world.

Most efforts to date on designing web-based learning opportunities have focused little on the end-users (the students) and instead have focused on course development, delivery methods and faculty training. The assumption made by most distance-based programs is that students enrolling in these programs are already (or should already be) technologically savvy enough to navigate their way through these course with little to no training. Limited information is available concerning the ability of traditional adult learners to adapt to the online learning environment to successfully complete an online learning degree program. “It becomes obvious that it is almost impossible to meet the day-to-day demands of deadlines, software glitches, resource development, and empirical research, and to keep one’s eye on the future of (distance learning’s) progress. Conceptual bifocals are needed.” (Baker, et al., 1994)

But, before we take a look at the future of distance learning, we must fully understand the history of postsecondary education. The earliest roots of the university as an educational institution are more than 2,400 years old and stem from the paideia of the classical Greek Sophists, with the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle being the oldest institutional examples of advanced education in philosophy. “The Sophists believed that education should develop a person’s character for effective participation in polis life. The polis was their concept of an ideal sociopolitical order governed by impersonal uniform laws, rather than by the arbitrary acts of a despot. The paideia system of education and training was aimed at developing the whole person — physically, emotionally, and intellectually. The 4th century BC was the heyday of philosophy.” (Inayatullah, et al., 2000) According to Inayatullah, a solid education should include the following traditions:

search for truth (inquiry and research) search for order and freedom (leadership) search for what is good (ethics and the development of a moral imperative) and search for beauty (the promotion of aesthetics in human enterprise).

The search for truth refers to the Socratic tradition of “intellectual honesty and integrity and a quest for wisdom” (Inayatullah, et al.) The search for truth was taught by ancient Greek educational institutions like the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle. The search for truth in the modern day sense refers to the accepted practice that a university should be a center for research, increased knowledge and research.

Colleges and universities are also expected to develop competent leaders and productive citizens that add to the value of society. According to Inayatullah, this is an egotistical belief that reflects in two ways on higher education’s role in modern day society. The first is negative, where university training is seen as a restricted advantage of the wealthy and a way in which the powerful maintain control through exclusive knowledge acquisition and life-long “good old boy” networks. The second is a positive reflection; the university is a stepping stone — a supreme test of human quality and intellect where only the best and the brightest can attain a diploma. Today, educational elitism is a serious problem for many distance and non-traditional students. Most traditional learners look down on the non-traditional learner and distance-based educational programs as a whole. Many times these degrees are perceived negatively by employers who feel that the students in traditionally-based programs actually learn more than those in distance-based programs. This “elitist” viewpoint of traditional education vs. non-traditional education remains one of the oldest and most pervasive traditions of university (or advanced) education. But surprisingly, Ivy League universities in the United States often resemble the model of most distance-based educational programs where students can structure their courses around subjects such as philosophy, political studies and economic studies. The perception by most is that by attending classes at an institution and by taking classes on a college campus actually helps a student to acquire an immensely superior advantage in educational leadership that can not be provided in the distance learning environment. “The challenge facing (colleges and universities) of the next century, therefore, is to become knowledgeable about the new technologies and their possibilities in order to adapt them both for enhanced on-campus instruction and for increased outreach to students not currently on campus. The challenge to our educational institutions is to provide incentives and continuous support to faculty willing to push the technology envelope. The challenge for policy-makers and the general public is to resist the impulse to force colleges and universities into substituting the kind of rote training that technology can cheaply supply for the more expensive education that teaches thinking and analytic skills, values and an understanding of complex relationships, which the learned professor in the classroom can facilitate. An exclusively cost-driven dependence on computers and telecourses may instruct students in a subject; but only the professor with passion and disciplinary expertise can help students understand why a subject is important to think about and how to think about it.” (Kolodny, 1998)

Is it possible then that traditional educational institutions that have non-traditional learning programs and rely on distance-based learners for financial support, value these learners less than the traditional student? This could be one explanation for some universities complete disinterest in assuring that non-traditional learners are successful in distance-based programs that often require specific knowledge of computers. End-users must understand e-mail, how to upload and download documents, chat features and capabilities and more. Without this knowledge, colleges and universities that provide distance-based learning programs may be setting some of their students up for failure if they do not provide a pre-course program.

According to the University of Phoenix Online website, they do address the issues of technology for students interested in their online programs:

It is) an important goal of the University is to keep its curriculum current with today’s changing work environment. As such, it has become necessary for students to possess competency in the use of technology. To that end, you will be expected to have access to and use the hardware and software as described below. Please note that due to the rapid rate of change in information technology, we anticipate that hardware and software competencies will be updated on a regular basis. We also provide complete technical support seven days a week, 24 hours a day.” (University of Phoenix Online, 2003)

The software and hardware needed for University of Phoenix online includes:

266 MHz or greater (Intel Pentium or Celeron, or AMD Athlon processors)

Windows 98®, ME®, or 2000®

Microsoft Office 97®, 98®, or 2000®

Microsoft Word®

Microsoft PowerPoint®

Microsoft Excel® (for selected courses)

Microsoft Access® (for selected courses)

Microsoft Project 98 ® or 2000® (for selected courses)

Microsoft Visio 5.0 ® or later (for selected courses) current anti-virus application

64 MB RAM or greater

GB hard drive or larger

56.6 kps modem, DSL or cable modem

1024×768 or greater monitor and video card

Sound card with speakers


Inkjet or laser printer

Internet service provider (ISP) account

Microsoft Internet Explorer Version 5.0 or later For an entry-level PC user, even with support, utilizing the technologies above could prove to be quite challenging. When I spoke to an admissions representative at University of Phoenix Online, he did tell me that they do require all first time students to take a 30-day introductory course that indoctrinates them into the world of online learning. When I asked the same representative about the dropout rate for students who completed this course he told me that that information was not available.

Unfortunately, the University of Phoenix Online is not the only non-traditional educational institution that teaches statistics but does not keep them on the drop-out rate of students who become frustrated with problems associated with technology and their lack of training on how to work in the online environment.

Like the University of Phoenix, most distance-based learning programs provide a wide array of Internet and Web-based applications for education and training. The applications are not only numerous; they differ greatly. Most distance-based programs:

Aim to increase access to learning while reducing costs

Utilize cutting-edge applications, such as tutoring systems and simulation-based trainers, that can increase the quality of learning

Provide learning materials that are responsive to consumer and business needs

Support online communities that help students meet challenges in higher education

Provide limited training on how students can maximize learning in the virtual classroom environment

The existing web of computer, telephone, broadcast, and other kinds of networks does not (yet) constitute the… powerful infrastructure — no more than the thousands of U.S. dirt roads in the early 1900s made a national highway system.” (Rossman, 1993) In other words, even though non-traditional students have access to programs that utilize technology, there is no guarantee that this technology will assist them in completing a non-traditional degree program. “Those who have not had time to keep up with technology are nevertheless increasingly affected and challenged by the electronic/digital developments that appear to be transforming education. Perhaps the most important aspect of the technology for a global higher education network is not any one component, such as increasingly versatile and powerful computers, but rather the interconnection of technologies on a global scale. Combinations into more comprehensive tools can make possible some kinds of research, instruction, and educational experimentation on a scale never before possible…” If students understand how to access them properly. (Rossman)

Many adults are being asked to combine the demands of full-time work and at the same time pursue and education. Most companies have now adopted philosophies of life-long learning and are demanding that their employees become life-long learners. “Rapid changes in the organization of knowledge, work, and tools in all fields are making it increasingly necessary for all of us to become lifelong learners. Schools need to model this process for students, in the structure of student learning, and, equally important, in the design for teacher learning. Teachers, often faced with overwhelming problems, can benefit from access to collective solutions shared by peers in other locations. The advent of learning communities offers a revolutionary change in the way we organize school learning for all the people who work in education. It means using technology in education not just to do more of the same, but to do something different, something powerful, something appropriate for all learners in the new millennium.” (Riel et al., 2001) Because of time constraints, demands at work and balancing personal and family time, most adult learners are prohibited from entering a traditional college or university learning program in order to pursue their degree. Because of this, non-traditional, distance-based educational programs appear highly attractive to many. But, most adult students’ lack the necessary PC skills needed to make it in the online classroom environment. This more than likely attributes to the high dropout rate of students who enroll in online programs and who have limited computer experience.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the online adult population enrolled in distance-based learning programs. Many non-traditional students are becoming increasingly frustrated, as lack of computer skills becomes yet one more barrier in the pursuit of continuing educational opportunities. Despite the many non-traditional, Internet-based programs available for adult learners, technology-enhanced learning is still in the development stage. “We are learning more about HOW we learn as we delve into new content areas themselves. What a great time we are in for becoming more of who we are on an individual level, as people, as professionals, as learners.” (Bloom et al., 1998)

As educators continue to expand their comprehension about what it takes to teach adults effectively, they are seeing clear patterns that point to how adults tend to learn. It is important for educators who work with non-traditional students to understand how to appreciate and work with varying adult learning styles and patterns.

Most adult learners tend to expect learning to be delivered in a traditional, teacher-led way, and to expect the faculty member to do the “work” of the learning. The adult learner is accustomed to absorbing learning. This pattern tends to be paradoxical to learning in the online environment where the onus of education is placed on the student who must be self-motivated and self-teaching. This does not mean that online learning is ineffective, but simply points out that most learners have been taught via faculty-led instruction. “We have not been expected to be part of the hands-on learning process. This is a pattern that is in the process of being broken down; however, we are talking about breaking down a pattern that has been in existence for decades, even centuries. This mindset is not going away easily, and to expect adult learners to automatically embrace a brand new way of learning immediately, or without proper orientation, is expecting too much.” (Nixon, et. al., 1998)

Adults who tend to take on projects on their own accord, as opposed to being assigned projects, do so with the purpose of solving a problem, or applying the information right away. Learning a new subject is not simply done for the sole purpose of learning it. This is more than likely a direct result of our high-speed culture — our plates are full with home, work, and family responsibilities. Free time, therefore, is used as advantageously as possible. This has spilled over into our adult learning experiences.

It’s no wonder that many online courses, for example, are viewed primarily as good “training” courses, and not necessarily “educational” courses. This is not to slight the efforts of universities or other institutions whose mission is education rather than training; however, this is the perception that many have toward online learning at this time.”


Motivation for adult learners in education tends to come from a need to fill a professional gap or a direct order from their boss. Based on this fact, most adult learners adopt a mindset of practicality toward continuing education. Therefore, adult learners may be primarily motivated externally and in order to be successful in a distance-based program adult learners must be self-motivated. The problem then of self-motivation creates a huge obstacle that can add tremendous stress to the adult learner in a non-traditional learning environment.

It is also important to note that adult learners tend to rely on colleagues or friends who are experts in their professional field for assistance when seeking advice on learning. This has both positive and negative results — obviously, if a potential non-traditional student has colleagues who share similar learning interests and have had positive experiences with online learning opportunities, it is important to hear about those experiences and apply that potential to our own lives. On the negative side, reliance on another persons opinions instead of our own may result in disappointment when the online learning experience is not all that the student had hoped for. Therefore, potential candidates for online learning programs should seek out opinions of others, but temper them with their own knowledge of distance-based learning and their own particular learning styles and preferences.

When it comes to learning opportunities, most adults tend to do best in courses where they feel they have a significant contribution to make to the classroom discussion, even in the online learning environment. When courses are developed, regardless of whether they are online or traditional in nature, they tend to be more successful when there are activities built in that allow students to interact with their peers and at times take on a leadership role.

Many educators shun online learning opportunities for several reasons. One of the most significant reasons is based primarily on fear. Most educators feel that if real-time learning opportunities are cast aside and replaced by online classroom environments, it won’t be long before traditional university programs go the way of the dinosaur, forever remaining extinct. “If we can exchange significant courses online, through computer and television conferencing, why can’t all the meetings and administrative work be done that way also? How long…before university people, at least all those who have access to a node connecting to a computer network, are invited to attend these meetings online?” (Rossman) Other educators say that their aversion to distance-based learning programs on the Internet has little to do with fear, but instead their concerns are based on content or lack of content. “Because the WWW.firstcame online only in 1991, all these courses are new, and there are no solid data proving the effectiveness of Internet-based distance education.” (Rossman) But proponents of distance learning programs feel that there is little reason for concern when it comes to online learning. Why? Due to emerging technologies, most Internet courses can include a wealth of material about the class that include lecture notes, exams, and academic assignments.

Additionally, references to relevant online literature such as books, programs, and tools such as the periodic table, are all accessible at the click of a mouse on a hypertext link. Each of these sources can be constructed as multimedia documents including pictures, digitized audio versions of lectures, presentation overheads and even simulations which can be run to give a much more dynamic impression of instructional processes and structures. “Full highbandwidth interactivity will be available soon, to support multi-person, multimedia dialogues in real-time. The new generation of Internet-based distance-learning courses, in short, can mix the graphics and video of instructional TV with a much more intimate style of interactive mentoring than teleconferencing ever could. Therefore, it should provide substantially richer learning experiences for students than the current generation does.” (McArthur, et. al., 1998)

Another concern for educators who are not in favor of online learning is that they fear that faculty will spend less time directly delivering information to student and focus a majority of their efforts on courseware development. If the online learning environment becomes the common educational model, the direct involvement of faculty in delivering education (e.g., through live lecture) will more than likely diminish because more and more students will access recorded and interactive materials online, rather than attending classes. At the same time, other teaching functions, in particular the creation of courseware that is accessed at a distance will become increasingly important. Models that emphasize content development over delivery will probably also change hiring practices; new faculty may need to be as skilled at multimedia publication as they are at lecturing. (McArthur, et. al.)

But, what do evaluation studies have to say about Internet-based instruction? Researchers want to know the answer, school administrators need to know, and the general public deserves to know. How well has Internet based instruction worked when it comes to non-traditional learning programs? One study outlines the success of online-based instruction. The study, which can be found in the College Student Journal, focused on a successful graduate education program called the Teacher Leader Program. This study “has implications for the planning, development and delivery of graduate education programs as it describes a program that is one of only six in the nation and has successfully operated for 24 years.” (Ovington et al., 2002)

The purpose of this study were threefold:

To tally demographic data of (students) enrolled in the current Teacher Leader Program;

To identify and discuss themes, patterns, and tendencies as to how the program has changed the teachers professionally; and finally

To offer student initiated suggestions for program improvement.

Overall, the study found that educational programs must maintain a balance that offers academic challenge and growth, but also keeps in mind the busy personal commitments and responsibilities of the non-traditional student. Often distance programs have inherent flaws that include logistical problems such as accessibility to computers as well as communication problems between the student and the “main campus” that seem to be inherent to most satellite situations. When implementing a nontraditional program such as the Teacher Leader Program the following things should be considered:

Understand the background of the adult student i.e. Are they married? Do they have children? What are their responsibilities at school? How much experience do they have?

Graduate programs must be as convenient as possible. This includes location and scheduling of current and future classes. Students want to know the course offerings as far in advance as possible.

Design programs that are flexible, student centered, and worthwhile to the students.

The overall themes and patterns that were evident in this study also include the following:

Students feel more confident as a result of the TLP

Students report that they are more reflective in their teaching as a result of the TLP

Students have a better understanding and appreciation of school leadership

Students are increasingly assertive in taking on leadership roles

Students are more secure in their teaching and leadership abilities

At McGill University, they have recorded the following statistics regarding graduate level educational programs online from 1987 to 1999:

Education departments develop and offer more distance education courses each year. (Table 1)

Distance Education registrations grew for the first 10 years, then declined in the past two years. (Table 2)

Recently, more B. Ed. students have turned to distance education. (Table 3)

Table 1 Growth in courses


Table 2 Change in registrations


Table 3 B. Ed. student registrations in distance education


According to 1990 statistics, out of 75,000 students enrolled at the University of Phoenix, 16,000 of them (approximately 21%) were doing so completely online. (University of Phoenix Online, 2003) And, according to a recent study (1997-98) performed by the National Center for Education Statistics, evidence suggests that distance education is becoming “an increasingly visible feature of postsecondary education in this country.” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003)

The report provides descriptive information about all 2-year and 4-year postsecondary education institutions that offered distance education in 1997-1998, including enrollments in distance education courses at those institutions. Analyses of institutions and enrollments are presented in the study by institutional type and size and information is also included about enrollments by the level of course offerings (undergraduate or graduate/first professional). (National Center for Education Statistics)

Results of the 1997-98 survey indicate that:

About one-third of the nation’s 2-year and 4-year postsecondary education institutions offered any distance education courses during the 12-month 1997-98 academic year, and another one-fifth of the institutions planned to start offering such courses within the next 3 years.

About half of the postsecondary institutions did not offer and did not plan to offer distance education courses in the next 3 years

Distance education was more likely to be conducted by public institutions; 78% of public 4-year institutions and 62% of public 2-year institutions offered distance education courses, compared with 19% of private 4-year and 5% of private 2-year institutions. Distance education was also strongly related to institutional size; distance education courses were more likely to be offered by medium and large institutions than by small institutions

There were an estimated 1,661,100 enrollments in all distance education courses, and 1,363,670 enrollments in college-level, credit-granting distance education courses, with most of these at the undergraduate level. About half of the institutions that reported offering distance education courses in 1997-98 reported 300 or fewer enrollments in those courses.

The report also provided information about total courses and college-level, credit-granting courses offered through distance education by all postsecondary institutions. Analyses of course offerings are presented by institutional type, general field of study, and instructional level of the course. (National Center for Education Statistics)

According to the survey:

An estimated 54,470 different distance education courses2 were offered, most of which were college-level, credit-granting courses (49,690). About half of the institutions that offered distance education courses in 1997-98 offered 15 or fewer different distance education courses, with 23% offering 1 to 5 courses. Public 2-year and 4-year institutions combined offered about 8 out of 10 of the distance education courses offered.

The two fields in which more institutions that offered distance education courses offered college-level, credit-granting distance education courses were the general field of English, humanities, and the social and behavioral sciences (70% of institutions) and the field of business and management (55% of institutions).

The general pattern was for institutions to offer for-credit distance education courses more at the undergraduate than at the graduate/first-professional level. The exceptions were in the fields of education, engineering, and library and information sciences, where more college-level, credit granting distance education courses were offered at the graduate/first-professional level than at the undergraduate level

While taking individual courses through distance education has great possibilities for increasing access to postsecondary education among those who traditionally have not had access, “it is the possibility of completing degree and certificate programs solely through distance education that offers the potential for the most dramatic changes in access and opportunity.” (National Center for Education Statistics) The report presents information about the prevalence of distance education degree and certificate programs in all postsecondary institutions by institutional type, level of the degree and certificate programs, and general field of study.

The survey indicates that:

Eight percent of all 2-year and 4-year postsecondary institutions offered college level degree or certificate programs that were designed to be completed totally through distance education. Among the 34% of institutions that offered any distance education courses in 1997-98, 25% offered distance education degrees or certificates. Among all postsecondary institutions, public 4-year institutions were more likely than other types of institutions to offer distance education degree and certificate programs

In 1997-98, 2-year and 4-year postsecondary institutions offered an estimated 1,230 distance education degree programs and 340 distance education certificate programs. Postsecondary institutions offering distance education programs were more likely to offer graduate/first-professional degrees or certificates than undergraduate degrees or certificates. Graduate/first-professional degree programs were most likely to be offered in business and management, the health professions, education, and engineering.

Although many distance education programs have been touted as reducing the cost of education, the costs of developing, implementing, and delivering distance education courses can be sizable. “One might expect that institutions might pass these costs or cost savings on by charging different tuition and fees to students enrolled in distance education courses.” (National Center for Education Statistics) To examine this issue, this report provides information about how tuition and fees for distance education courses compare to those for traditional campus-based courses. Analyses are presented by institutional type.

Findings from the survey indicate that:

About three-quarters of institutions that offered any distance education courses in 1997-98 charged the same tuition for these courses as for comparable on-campus courses. Public 2-year institutions were more likely than public or private 4-year institutions to indicate that tuition charges were always the same for distance education and on-campus courses, with 90% of public 2-year institutions giving this response.

Two-thirds of institutions offering distance education courses in 1997-98 reported that they did not add special fees to their college level, credit-granting distance education courses that were not added to on-campus courses.

Overall, 57% of institutions are charging both comparable tuition and comparable fees for distance education and on-campus courses.

While the report provided by The National Center for Education Statistics focuses primarily on findings on various aspects of distance education for all postsecondary institutions for 1997-98, an analysis of the data for the subset of higher education institutions allows trend comparisons with the previous NCES report on distance education. “Changes in distance education since 1994-1995 are presented in this report in terms of the percentage of institutions offering distance education courses, the number of distance education courses offered, the number of enrollments in distance education courses, the availability of distance education degree and certificate programs, and the technologies used to deliver distance education courses.” (National Center for Education Statistics)

Findings indicate that:

Between fall 1995 and 1997-98, the percentage of higher education institutions offering distance education courses increased by about one-third, from 33% to 44%. From 1994-95 to 1997- 98, the number of course offerings and enrollments in distance education approximately doubled. And, although the percentages of institutions offering distance education degree and certificate programs were essentially the same in 1997-98 as in 1995, the number of degree and certificate programs that were offered nearly doubled. Taken together, these findings suggest that the expansion in distance education appears to be among institutions that have offered distance education for the past 3 years. These institutions have substantially increased the number of distance education courses, enrollments, and degree and certificate programs that they offer.

Among all higher education institutions offering any distance education, the percentages of institutions using two-way interactive video and one-way prerecorded video were essentially the same in 1997-98 as in 1995. The percentage of institutions using asynchronous Internet-based technologies, however, nearly tripled, from 22% of institutions in 1995 to 60% of institutions in 1997-98.

During the past two decades, Northern Arizona University has developed a statewide mission to respond to the needs of distance-based learners. Traditionally the university had been a residential campus that built a solid reputation for educational achievement. “Although much of the demand for statewide programs had been for teacher education, particularly at the graduate level, in the past three to five years the demand for other programs such as those in the health and business professions as well as the liberal arts has also expanded. This has occurred at the same time when enrollment grew at the residential campus in Flagstaff. Thus, faculty became torn between trying to respond to demands on the main campus along with ten or more sites throughout the state, none of which is closer than about 70 miles.” (Connell, 1996) In the early stages the college used its television station, IITV to offer distance-based courses to offsite students. But eventually competition from other schools forced them to explore other technological alternatives including fully Web-based courses. “IF NAU, and institutions like it, make the adaptation to the new competitive environment, they will likely be able to meet the new entrepreneurial competition head on, especially if they do so with their collective ‘eyes on the ball’…the ‘ball’ which will separate us from the competition is our heritage for good teaching and service to students. This must continue if we are to compete in the IT arena of the future. In developing our projects, we must keep in mind that although we are diverging from the traditional models of degrees, course, and academic calendars, we are not diverging from our primary goals to educate, challenge, and enable students to learn and grow intellectually.” (Connell)

Now that we have studied how both opponents and proponents of distance-based learning feel about the topic of online education, it is time to look at distance-based education from the student perspective. Just how do students view online educational learning opportunities? According to Beard & Harper in a recent article entitled Student Perceptions of online vs. campus instruction, “Many students learn best through direct interaction provided by professors and other students. Distance education often prohibits this interaction, making learning and direct involvement less personal. The socialization so traditional to standard college attendance is often lacking, especially if instructors fail to utilize available opportunities for student interaction through various online software packages. In addition, students who lack the technological skills required for various types of distance education may fear approaching learning situations provided through nontraditional modes. Problems related to privacy issues, technological difficulties, and technology rather than content focus have been noted.” (Beard et al., 2002)

However, most of these problems could be addressed if colleges and universities took the time to dispel the myths of online learning opportunities for students who are less techno savvy.

One popular online software package utilized by several distance-based educational programs is called Blackboard. “Blackboard is a Web-based server software system that offers industry-leading course management, an open architecture for customization and interoperability, and a scalable design that allows for integration with student information systems and authentication protocols.” (Beard et al.) Blackboard provides a structured format for teachers to post announcements, assignments, course documents, faculty credentials and course notes for easy student access. Opportunity for direct communication between teacher and students through E-mail, Discussion Boards, and a Virtual Chat Room make Blackboard compatible with many distance education formats for online instruction at leading colleges and universities. But even though Blackboard (and similar programs) are easy to use for the experience computer user, it can be confusing and frustrating for the non-computer user or for users with limited exposure to computers.

Programs that are thinking of introducing distance-learning programs to students online must review many applications of information technology and the Internet, unfortunately to the untrained eye many appear to be fascinating and easy to use. But before beginning what might be an extensive and costly reorganization to accommodate them in the online learning environment most colleges and universities would like some sign that these new tools can deliver what they promise.

How solid is the evidence that the various Internet and Web technologies can address important goals and problems in distance-based education programs? Apparently, they aren’t very solid at all. “Without question, some educational tools have been evaluated very carefully. Many distance-learning programs in higher education, for example, have demonstrated that the cost of delivering courses can be reduced substantially while keeping student outcomes approximately constant. A few augmented distance-learning programs have also improved student learning. For instance, at Stanford University, students learning physics through Tutored Video Instruction (whereby students watch videotaped lectures, replaying them off-campus, using a small-group, cooperative-learning format) outperformed students who actually attended lectures. Similarly, at both high school and college levels, some of the best intelligent-tutoring systems have fulfilled their goal of increasing the quality of student learning. Algebra, geometry, and computer-programming tutoring systems developed at Carnegie-Mellon University, to take one of the most well-known successes, can raise scores on exams up to one full letter grade. On a broader scale, meta-analyses — which aggregate results of many separate experimental studies — show a smaller, but still statistically significant, effect of computer-based education.” (McArthur)

Aside from the difficulties with technology, lack of face-to-face interaction between instructors and students is often cited as the major drawback to distance education. “For some faculty and administrators, absence of traditional contact, such as, three hours of lecture per week in the same classroom at an appointed hour, renders distance education programs unacceptable. For others, however, the traditional model of learning as a transmission of information from teacher to student is bankrupt.”

When colleges and universities are designing interactive learning programs, they are confronted with the dilemma of selecting an appropriate technology or rather a group of complementary technologies. “There are number of low end and high end technologies that can be implemented to increase the opportunity for interaction. The low-end interactive strategies include formal and informal student study groups, peer reviews, group viewing sessions of video material, and correspondence activities. These methods are relatively inexpensive, easy to organize, and can be highly effective. At the opposite end of the spectrum are any number of computer enhanced interactive possibilities including e-mail, computer conferencing, and utilization of electronic bulletin boards to post notices, assignments, and comments. Although more expensive than low-end examples, computer interaction provides individuals with an exciting, memorable, and rewarding experience. During the instructional moment, a combination of the low end and high end technologies can be used as tools to ensure interaction between student to student and between student to instructor.” (Eldin-De Vries)

The need for interaction can be illustrated through the cognitive speed theory. This theory is presented in research on reading and compressed speech and is based on the premise that most Americans read as fast as 250 to 300 words per minute and that the human ear can listen to average speech at the same rate. (Eldin-De Vries) Learners have the cognitive capability to process speech at twice the rate at which a person speaks. Therefor, if only half of a student’s capacity is needed to listen, the other half might be used to engage in internal conversation. “While interested learners simulate their own involvement, others may begin to follow thought patterns and lose track of the discussed topic. If these learners are not engaged in a situation where interaction is required, their renegade thought patterns may dominate their cognitive activity. A way to ensure active attending behavior is to use technology that allows for two way interaction at a distance with a focus on seeing, hearing and doing.” (Eldin-De Vries)

As mentioned earlier, most colleges and universities do not study drop-out rates for their online or distance learning programs. But, a recent study published in the THE Journal examined enrollment and attrition rates associated with online courses, based on the experience of a regional MBA program that had been offering instruction over the Internet for three years. The college used in this study was West Texas A&M University (WT). WT is a typical example of a mid-sized college and is the primary source of university education, research, and service for its region. (Terry, 2001) According to the article, at the time the study was conducted in 2001, annual student enrollment was approximately 6,500. “The Texas panhandle region has a relatively low population density, making the campus an ideal school for Internet instruction. For this reason, the University has been encouraged to act as a pioneer school in online education for the Texas A&M University System.” (Terry)

In 1997, the College of Business at WT initiated an Internet-based program for specific MBA programs. The 200 students enrolled had the option of completing all essential courses on campus or on the Internet. The results of the study imply that “online courses enroll more students, but suffer from higher attrition rates than traditional campus courses.” (Terry) Apparently, the enrollment-augmenting advantages of Internet-based instruction that include allowing students to balance work-life challenges while attending school are attractive to a significant number of graduate business students. “The sustained higher enrollment across several business courses is a positive sign for the future of Internet-based instruction. On the other hand, attrition appears to be a problem with some of the online courses. Courses in the disciplines of accounting, economics, computer information systems, marketing, and management appear to be very conducive to the Internet format, as attrition rates are comparable to the campus equivalents. Courses in business statistics and finance, with attrition rates in excess of 30%, do not appear to be very well suited to the Internet instruction format.” (Terry) An obvious conclusion may be that course instruction that requires extensive knowledge of mathematics is difficult to translate into an Internet instruction format.

But, is this study fact or can other reasons be attributed to attrition in online programs that have more to do with utilizing technology? In order to shed light on this, it is crucial to develop a research tool that specifically targets students who drop out of online programs. In this tool, the students will be asked if technology played a role in their decision not to continue pursuing a degree online. Additional questions should probe further if the student affirms that technology played a role in their decision to drop out of online education. These questions can include:

How often did you use a computer prior to enrolling in an online educational program?

What was the most challenging technology issue that you faced as an online student?

What types of support services were available to assist you with problems that stemmed solely from your schools web-based technology?

Were you offered any type of computer instruction prior to beginning your course work at your online degree-granting program? If yes, was this program helpful? If no, would such a program have helped you complete your degree online?

Would you recommend online learning programs to your friends or colleagues? Why or why not?

How comfortable would you be in re-enrolling in an online program if a pre-course, instructor led program were offered to you prior to taking classes in the online environment?

Without answering these important questions, researchers will not be able to pinpoint the exact reason for attrition in online programs. But, this research would aim precious resources and dollars away from online programs and the answers might scare technophobes out of enrolling in these programs altogether for fear that they could not complete them because they are technically challenged.

However, instead of taking this negative view of the research, colleges could actually increase their online enrollments by offering a pre-enrollment program that would nurture the less technically minded student and ease their fears of jumping into an Internet-based classroom with limited computer experience.

According to Riel & Fulton, “The call for education reform is voiced by many educators for many reasons. The most commonly heard arguments for change are prompted by global comparisons of student learning, changing demands of society and the workplace, the loss of low-skilled job opportunities, and compelling theories about the most effective learning approaches and environments. Moving beyond these immediate concerns, we find that the advent of the third millennium invites still further speculation regarding the skills students will need for success. Among the key ingredients found most often on lists of tomorrow’s skills are the abilities to think quickly, to adapt to changing conditions, to build alliances to address large-scale challenges, and to work comfortably in a global information environment. Can our educational institutions change course and send students into the new millennium with these and other skills and attributes they will need to meet the challenges?” (Riel et al.) One of the most promising uses of technology is as a vehicle for building and supporting learning communities that will help students thrive in the 21st century and beyond. “There are many reasons why technology can play a central role in creating effective learning communities. These include the potential of technology to increase our ability to work and learn from others who are distant in time and location. Technology supports and expands the sociocultural links that help give us intellectual identity. It also provides new ‘power tools’ for learning that enable students to develop the interpersonal and intellectual skills necessary to construct shared understandings of their world. These power tools are the keys for the creation and communication of ideas. Learning communities powered by these evolving tools provide a way to develop an instructional system that can help students learn to work in a world culture and to shape their destiny in the interdependent world of the (new millennium).” (Riel et al.)

In spite of the increasing demand for distance education, there have been various barriers to its growth. These barriers include:

Technical barriers such as pace of technology change, limited access to hardware and support service complications

Structural barriers such as off-campus students’ limited access to libraries, lack of skills to access a variety of databases and regulations regarding transmission across state boundaries

Attitudinal barriers such as faculty resistance to off-campus learning.

Lack of faculty participation or ‘buy in’ of distance education programs

While some faculty members have instinctively developed the requisite skills and abilities for distance teaching, the majority requires specialized training or trial and error experience to become comfortable and effective at a distance. In addition, distance teaching usually requires faculty members who are not familiar with the distance education setting to devote much more time in preparation than they would for a face-to-face class. However, the workload of faculty typically does not permit them to spend many hours in learning how to design, develop, and teach a distance class on their own.” (Lee, 2002) Distance learning instructors must wear several hats that instructor, instructional designer, technology expert, technician, administrator, site facilitator, support staff, editor, librarian, evaluation specialist, and graphic designer. “Without systematic instructional support from higher education institutions, it is unreasonable to expect them to be prepared to fulfill the roles expected of them.” (Lee, 2002)

So it appears that students of online programs may not be the only ones who need support in the area of technology. It is also necessary to help teachers get up to speed on the technologies that support the online, interactive learning environment employed in most distance-based educational programs. In many distance education programs, faculty members receive little or no instructional support prior to being assigned a distance education course. “Many institutions fail to provide even some of the basic instructional development services not only to faculty members, in general, but to distance teaching faculty, in particular… most of the faculty members appear to be on their own to handle the workload.” (Lee) Recent studies show that there is a significant need for instructional support that is designed for teachers who teach remote learners in the distance setting. “The biggest failure in distance education may be the failure to adequately train and support the needs of faculty (and students).” (Lee)

In conclusion, this researcher has found that distance education is being incorporated at a fast clip at colleges and universities around the globe. Successful distance education programs demand harmonious operations with many different elements including instructional support and the technology provided to students who must learn new concepts from remote locations with limited resources or adequate computer training. The purpose of a pre-course program for students would be to teach less technologically savvy students how to operate in an Internet-based environment as effectively as possible. Failure to adequately support the distance-based learner can lead to a low-quality educational experience as well as attrition in online learning programs. There certainly is nothing wrong with demanding the best from students, even in an online environment, but it is wrong, unethical and counter productive to ask students to do it without the adequate computer training and support that they need in order to achieve ultimate success online.


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