Showcasing Distance Education Possibilities
Showcasing Distance Education Possibilities" The Technology Source, September 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.
No learning environment is ideal for all potential participants. No matter what form of instruction is used, some individuals will find that they are at a distinct disadvantage, while in a different environment their disadvantages may disappear. For some, the best or only possible form of instruction may well be distance education via the Internet. Still, online education is viewed by many as a second-rate alternative to traditional forms (Hibbs, 1998), largely because the instructor and the student do not have face-to-face communication.
One year ago, I would have agreed that online education is restricted by the lack of physical proximity. But that was before I attended Global Learn Day 1 (GLD1), my first experience in an online distance education conference. At the conference, I could hear speakers clearly via streaming RealAudio, I viewed PowerPoint presentation slides directly on my computer screen, I exchanged ideas with other participants and presenters in the Java Chat room, and I posed questions to the presenters through a moderator. In some cases, I was also able to see presenters via streaming video. In fact, I came to prefer the online conference over physical attendanceI had a more comfortable seat, could hear and see the content better, and actually had more access to presenters and participants. I missed the social interaction, but I was also not distracted by it. In the 30 hours of GLD1, I traveled around the world and heard from some of the brightest and most innovative distance educators working today, all from the comfort of my home, using a computer fresh out of the box with a simple dialup connection to the Internet. Internet technology is not yet capable of transmitting the sensations of touch and smell, but in many other ways Internet technology is far superior to the more traditional means of participation in educational forums.
Nor is distance education via the Internet restricted to conferences. The company with which I am associated, OnLine Training, Inc. (OLT), delivers educational content exclusively through Internet technology to individuals in need of basic education or continuing professional education. (These individuals often do not conform to the expected standards of age, grade, or development.) For example, OLT has been developing and marketing a basic adult education program for the General Educational Development (GED) market. Our enrollment profile shows an almost equal distribution among US students pursuing a GED, students overseas who need to pass the GED in order to qualify for college in the US, and young students ranging from those with learning disabilities to those who are "gifted." Some are home-schooled; others pursue online courses while attending public or private schools. One in particular comes to mind: his speech is difficult to follow, with extended pauses between phrases. In a traditional classroom, he might not do very wellhe communicates too slowly to interact effectively with other students. Online, however, he can take as long as he needs to put his thoughts in writing.
In this respect and others, online education has fewer barriers and presents wider access to potential student populations than do traditional schools. Students who require special accommodations in a traditional setting (and who therefore may be at a disadvantage) may experience things more effectively online. Whatever the disadvantageage, sight, height, mobility, speech, hearingthese disadvantages often disappear online. For example, a person either too young to drive or too old to be able to drive to and from class can learn from the comfort of home. A person with limited sight can use screen magnification to increase the size of font until it is readable (a function built into Apple computers and available as an option for Windows), and blind individuals can use text-to-speech software (also built into Apple computers and available as an option in Windows) to gain access to education online. Height or size is not an apparent barrier for most, but for the very short or the very tall, the effect of personal appearances on self-esteem can be a problem in the traditional classroom, but no problem at all online. Issues associated with mobility, speech, and hearing can also be addressed for the student seeking educational opportunities online.
Eight years ago at an educational conference, a NASA scientist described the development of a special wheelchair for Stephen Hawkins, a scientist suffering from Lou Gehrigs Disease who can neither walk nor speak. This wheelchair provides Hawkins with access to the Internet and the ability to write manuscripts and generate artificial speech. Last week, I attended a presentation by Hawkins, who used the artificial speech from the synthesizer in his chair-mounted notebook computer. He described being able to access the various research telescopes of the world via the Internet. He then spoke on the most recent discoveries by the Hubble Space Telescope and their implications for theoretical astrophysics and humanitys understanding of the universe.
Eight years ago, there were few that considered the implications of the Internet as a distance education tool. I was not among them. However, Hawkins wheelchair has allowed one of the greatest minds of our generation access to knowledge and the ability to share his understanding with millionsif not billionsof his fellow human beings. Such a contribution, as well as the potential it represents, cannot be ignored. As the wheelchair is wired for one man, the Internet holds the value of a billion human minds online. The technology that allows one person to share knowledge also has the potential to empower billions of human minds in the same manner. And while courses delivered via the Internet are often devalued as second-rate by traditional faculty and by a public that views distance education as a poor alternative to attending class on campus, courses without distance education (DE) components may one day be considered second-rate.
I am reminded of the commercial for the United Negro College Fund that concludes with the sentiment that "a mind is a terrible thing to waste." How many minds will be educated at a distance that might otherwise not be educated at all? What contributions might these minds make to the human race? Today, most of the world is not "educated." Access to education, the cost of its distribution, and lack of physical transportation to and from educational sites each present real problems to both individuals and nations. However, the very foundation of formal education will be affected by the distribution of educational content and ease of communications brought about by the advent of the Internet. There has been a fundamental paradigm shift. The basic cost of distributing information has shifted from the institutions of education to the consumers of education. Today, through the Internet, consumers of education have an increasing opportunity to shop for the knowledge they need. In this environment, maintaining academic quality will become an increasingly important issue.
Formal education requires a firm foundation: a frame of reference, theory, concept, and structure. However, none of these things is static. Formal education requirements change over time, and the pace at which they are changing is increasing. The Internet provides a means by which these structures can be discussed and understood on a global scale.
In Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980), Toffler discusses the implications of technological change for humanity. Future Shock explores people and groups who are overwhelmed by change; The Third Wave offers hope by describing individuals who thrive on change. The first wave of change was associated with agriculture; the second wave was industry-based. The third and current wave is technologicalindividuals who would ride it successfully must be able to effectively use the Internet. The ability to transfer educational content between any two places in the world via the Internet represents a fundamental change in communications. The ability to gather huge volumes of information from authoritative and current sources is changing the way we conduct inquiries and research. No longer is education tied to an institution's library or bound by the physical limits of a classroom.
No one can predict the outcome of the advent of the Internet as a distance education medium or the potential power it will unleash in humanity. Its impact may well be more profound than the advent of the printing press. Our task as educators should be to ensure that as many people as possible have access to the mind-expanding power of the Internet.
I know of no better way to celebrate humanitys continuing conquest of knowledge than to encourage people to celebrate learning through the interconnection of the planet during Global Learn Day. The Global Learn Day project offers us a vision of how the Internet can expand our minds and be used in distance education. The date for Global Learn Day 2 (GLD2) is rapidly approaching. It occurs Columbus Day weekend (October 12, 1998), and begins with the rising of the sun in Guam, proceeding for nearly 28 hours around the globe and ending with the setting of the sun in Hawaii. Whether you are interested in distance education for yourself or for an organization, consider taking the opportunity to experience it firsthand during GLD2. GLD2 is an event every educator, training developer, teacher, instructor, and user of Internet technology should experience.
We are in a period of rapid transition. Today, individuals with access to the Internet use it as a tool to gather huge amounts of information quickly on topics of their choosing. And increasingly, the Internet is being used by educators and students to enrich learning experiences. The number of institutions offering distance education courses online provides students with tremendous choices, while the quality of educational experiences continues to increase.
GLD2 serves as an exhibit. It also serves as an experiment. It both showcases current distance education possibilities on the Internet and provides a common global educational experience to people internationally. GLD2 will use leading-edge technology to Webcast this event via Broadcast.com so that anyone with a current Netscape or Explorer browser, an ordinary computer, and a 14.4 modem can participate. We have the capacity for as many as 100,000 viewers to participate interactively. To date, there has never been an Internet conference with this kind of global audience participation. Who today can say how far-reaching and influential this increase in access will have on individuals and all of humankind?
Hibbs, J. (1998). Public address to the Rotary Club of Houston. Houston, Texas. Broadcast over the Internet by Broadcast.com. Retrieved August 10, 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.audionet.com/edu/bfranklin/global/.
Toffler, Alvin (1970). Future shock. New York: Bantam Books. 43rd printing.
Toffler, Alvin (1980). The third wave. New York: Bantam Books. 7th printingmarble popper gamesadventure gamesplatform gamesword gameshidden object gamesshooter games