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Going the Distance

Donald G. Perrin

In the 1990s, proponents of distance learning searched for a name to communicate the power of learning at a distance. A new vocabulary was created embracing terms like open learning, interactive video, and online learning. Interactive web, peer learning, and learning management systems were developed to complement the logistical advantages of learning anywhere-anytime.

Academia was not impressed. Claims were made that distance learning was sub-standard learning. Some institutions rejected transfer credits for such courses. Extensive research proved otherwise. Academe, including the conservative Chronicles of Higher Education, accepted its validity and embraced distance learning.

Traditional faculty adopted email and computer based learning materials to support their classes. Faculty enjoyed the flexibility of web pages to deliver their pedagogy direct to students. Faculty training programs were oriented to use of technology.

Textbook publishers added CD-ROM and Web resources to deliver updated information, tests, and enrich on-campus and online classes with interactive graphic learning experiences. Competition developed among publishers to provide superb technology to sell their products. Powerful search engines gave faculty and students the tools of a research librarian. The web became a resource that dwarfed the Library of Congress.

Learning technology is powerful and transparent. Teachers can click their way to websites, bookmark significant materials, create PowerPoint presentations, and send links via email. Templates and authoring programs empower them to develop new learning environments and transform pedagogy and curriculum.

In the midst of growing success, black clouds rolled in.

The tragedy of 911 and the economic collapse that followed created a new reason for learning at a distance. Societal needs and growing student populations outstripped available budgets and classrooms. “No Child Left Behind” legislation was under funded, and budget cuts caused increasing numbers of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty to be “left behind.” Outsourcing jobs to other nations created a flood of displaced workers who needed training for jobs yet to be defined. Administrators and politicians seized upon distance learning as the solution to budget cuts, overcrowded classrooms, and the growing need for training programs.

Instructional designers and faculty who are steeped in the new technology are needed. The challenge for education is to make learning, whether classroom, blended or at a distance, into a relevant, rich, exciting, interactive experience.

We have the pedagogy, technology and expertise for this great mission.

We need funding.

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