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Experts across the educational spectrum say it's not where you study that matters most, but how you study.
There are both good and bad face-to-face learning experiences, and the same holds true for distance programs, says Debra Humphreys, Vice President for Communications at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). Although Humphreys favors the traditional path to a college education - one that involves taking classes and participating in student life on campus - she sees an important role for distance education, especially for targeted online programs leading to certification or a degree such as a Masters in Education or an Online MBA.
"Most of the research shows that at its best, learning is a social process," she says, "with plenty of give and take among students and between students and their professors." Traditional-age students - those between 17 and 23 - tend to benefit from such interaction, along with the structured classroom and the fixed routines of college life, she adds. Students' social skills flourish in tandem with the academic challenges they face, and so does their motivation.
By contrast, the successful online learner must be sufficiently self-motivated to go the distance on his or her own. That's why distance education may be a sensible choice for returning students, who may be more independent by dint of their greater life experience.
The history of higher education in the United States is a history of democratization, meaning its extension to ever-greater numbers of people. Online degree opportunities are widely considered a vital part of that process.
As diverse as the population itself, distance learners include high-school dropouts, new immigrants, college graduates interested in professional advancement, and adults whose responsibilities at home and at work prevent them from attending class.
While some traditionalists see distance degrees as the poor cousin of the "real thing," proponents of distance education insist on the quality and overall benefits of online learning. Far from impersonal and mechanistic, online classes may be tailored to small groups and offer a high degree of interaction, says Robert Tucker, former senior vice president of University of Phoenix, famous for its degree programs aimed at the adult learner. "Social interaction in online space is extraordinarily rich," he says, describing it as a space where students experience a fluidity, flexibility, and freedom rarely found in the traditional classroom. Classroom competition, too, is agreeably absent from the picture.
All pros and cons aside, the upshot for students at all stages of life is that there are more opportunities for higher learning than at any time in history, and students are taking advantage of them in record numbers. Perhaps most surprising of all, the gap between campus and online learning has recently been narrowing.
As it turns out, more than half of the students enrolled in online learning today are traditional college students living on or near campus. Some may be seeking ways to earn their degrees faster by adding online courses to an already full course load. For others, computer technology offers a congenial medium for learning, making distance courses an appealing option. And with close to half of the two- and four-year colleges across the nation wired for teaching and learning online, campus-based students are mixing and matching real space and cyberspace, gliding between the two modes with ease.
To make matters more complex, today's distance learning environment isn't limited to the Internet alone. Interactive and pre-recorded video and audio are part of the mix, as are courses on CD-ROM.
"No one method is the right method," says Humphreys. "There are only good and bad learning environments."
Tucker agrees. "Academic success ultimately comes down to the individual learner." In other words, what you put into it is roughly equivalent to what you get out of it.
To help students assess their readiness for distance study, Peterson's, the most comprehensive education resource on the Internet, urges potential distance learners to look objectively at their level of motivation and their skills in reading, writing, studying, and time management. Other important factors affecting a student's chances for success include personal health, basic values, and access to a support network.
With more than 500 distance education institutions in the United States, evaluating a program's quality is no easy matter. Michael P. Lambert, Executive Director of the Distance Education and Training Council, recommends careful research into an institution's history, faculty, and financial viability. Ideally, the institution should be accredited by a nationally recognized agency.
In the meantime, the traditional brick-and-mortar campus isn't going anywhere. Large numbers of undergraduates and graduate students alike continue to flock to the nation's colleges and universities, creatively combining low-tech and high-tech modes of learning wherever they are.