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Fast Forward: Can Distance Learning Go the Distance? [The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Fast Forward / The Washington Post
Internet Safety for Kids
January 1998

WHEN DOROTHY HENNESSEY GETS HOME from her job at the Department of Defense, she does what most mothers of three do. She makes sure the kids-ages 4, 8 and 12-are playing quietly or doing their homework, straightens up the house a little and starts to cook dinner.

Twice a week, though, Hennessey, 33, does what many other parents only dream of: She saunters up to her bedroom, puts on her pajamas and turns on her computer to log on to the online course she’s taking to get her MBA through Strayer College.

Classes meet online Tuesday and Thursday from 6:15 p.m. to 10 p.m. Hennessey simply logs on to the school’s Web page , heads for her class’s page and fires up a special program.
The instructor delivers a brief lecture in voice and text, reviews assigned chapters and students respond by typing comments on their keyboards. Often, the class will break into small cyber-groups, working in chat rooms to discuss the issue at hand.

Hennessey says she finds this approach to be much more interactive—and a more effective way of learning—than courses she’s taken on campus.

“I am learning more than I would if I was sitting in the back of the class and fade into the woodwork,” she admits. “Online, I know the teacher could call on me at any given moment, so I really pay attention.”

Plus, she believes the anonymity that comes from being safe in her bedroom is liberating. “The computer seems to bring me, and other students in my class, out of their shells. When I don’t have to look anyone directly in the face I feel more comfortable to say what is on my mind.”

Critics of virtual education, however, believe the absence of face-to-face interaction lessens the learning experience. But for a single mom such as Hennessey, that concern isn’t an issue. Getting her masters degree online is the only way she’s going to be able to get one.

“I would never have been able to afford to pay tuition and a babysitter if I attended a traditional master’s program,” says Hennessey, who is due to graduate in the fall. “Without this online program, I would have had to have waited another 10 or 15 years to do this—until my kids graduated from high school.”

Hennessey is part of a revolution in higher education. Last year she was among the 190,000 students across the country enrolled in 25,700 online courses, according to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and InterEd, an Arizona-based higher education research firm.

Of the 11 major colleges and universities based in the Washington area, more than half offer at least one online course, although only three offer one or more degree programs online. Among them is the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), which seems to have mastered the online delivery system, says InterEd’s Tucker.

UMUC got into the distance learning business some 25 years ago, starting with TV broadcasts of classes to satellite auditoriums in Charles County, Shady Grove and Annapolis. It currently offers hundreds of classes to thousands across the region, and increasingly, the country.

For many schools, though, moving classes online may not be so straightforward. For one thing, it can cost a great deal to put courses online—a cost sometimes handed off to students. (At local schools, however, costs are the same; GWU, starved for class space in Foggy Bottom, actually charges much less—about $725 for a three-credit course online, against $2,000 for an equivalent off-line course.)

Unexpected glitches can snag online programs—when American University offered a legal ethics course online last year, one student dropped it because his dyslexia made it difficult to keep up with the required typing.

In other respects, however, online programs need not work too differently from their offline counterparts. There usually isn’t a separate registration—students just choose from the online in the course catalogue (itself often available online). Individual classes don’t take any longer-although students and professors report they spend more time preparing for online classes. And when test time rolls around, students almost always head back into traditional classrooms.

Those classrooms aren’t about to become obsolete, it seems—especially when it comes to undergraduate education.

“Many of the important elements of a university education have little to do with the mastery of basic skills,” says Lynn Nelson, professor of history at the University of Kansas. “The experience of making new friends, sharing of experiences, debating with one’s peers, walking and talking with one’s professor—all of these and much more lie at the heart of a university education.”

On the other hand, fewer and fewer college students are actually in the tender 18 to 23-age bracket. A 1996-1997 report by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 43 percent of all U.S. college students are 25 or older. And many educators say they need to market their courses to the mature, busy student.

“The majority of returning learnings will likely be logging onto MBA classes and other master’s programs in between coming from work, cooking dinner, and putting the kids to bed,” forecasts Don Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland system.

And, he believes, once some more of the internal logistics are worked out, online classes will be the way most undergrads go to school in the future.

“I predict that in the future only the very rich will be reading Chaucer under oak trees on a quaint campus as undergrads,” he says. “The rest of the American student body will be paying schools so they can log on to this week’s discussion in ‘Abnormal Psychology.’”

But that leaves one other question unanswered: Don’t most parents want their kids out of the house?

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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