Distance Learning Brings Education to Students
By Catherine Doss
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 29 - April 23, 1998
(Editor's Note: This article about Virginia Tech's distance and distributed learning is part six in a series about outreach at the university. Future articles will highlight Public Service Programs and Extension.)
Times are changing rapidly for the traditional model of delivering higher-education courses. An increasing number of learners want their educational programs to be offered in times and places that meet their needs and fit into their busy life styles.
"In the past, if a student wanted an education, he or she went to a residential, commuter, or extended campus, and courses were typically delivered on a fixed, rigid schedule," said Tom Wilkinson, director of Distributed Learning Systems. "But all that is changing now. Higher education is becoming much more customer-oriented with respect to meeting the accessibility needs of students."
Part of Wilkinson's role when he was brought on board at Virginia Tech last fall was to help coordinate the various distance- and distributed-learning efforts that were taking place across the university. He has a dual appointment with both the Outreach Division and Instructional Services in Information Systems.
Nationally, trends show distance-education students are older than the typical on-campus college student. Many have professional and family obligations. And most of them are either seeking an educational degree to help them transition to a new career, or they are interested in upgrading their skills, often through employer-sponsored professional-development opportunities. Offering educational programs that meet these needs is a growing niche for colleges and universities.
"There are tremendous opportunities out there for Virginia Tech to be a world-class leader in any-time/any-place education," Wilkinson said. He cited the university's greatest strength as the expertise and creativity of its faculty. The Cyberschool and the creation of the world's first on-line master's degree in health and physical education are just some of the examples of what faculty members have done to make Virginia Tech education more accessible.
Other university strengths include information and instructional-technology initiatives such as the Faculty Development Institute (FDI), Net.Work.Virginia, and the newly acquired wireless spectrum, as well as the superior name recognition of the university's programs and services.
"As a land-grant university, it is incumbent upon us to extend our programs off campus," Wilkinson said. "Distance and distributed learning is a perfect example of carrying out the university's outreach mission."
The growing popularity and demand for distance education is evidenced by its rapid development at Virginia Tech. Seventeen two-way interactive-video courses were offered this semester. That's up from six in the fall and two the previous fall. In addition, 12 graduate engineering and MBA courses currently offered each semester at selected sites state-wide via satellite will be moving to delivery over Net.Work.Virginia in the fall.
Virginia Tech was a leader in the development of this network, which uses broadband-asynchronous-transfer-mode (ATM) technology, to provide universal access to advanced digital-communications services across the state. Switching to the ATM format will allow two-way voice, video, and data interaction not possible through satellite programming. Wilkinson estimated the university will deliver nearly 75 different two-way interactive distance-learning courses next year.
This summer, the university will offer more than 20 on-line web-based courses enabling students to attend summer school from virtually anywhere in the world.
As technology evolves, so do the possibilities for providing increased and easier access to courses and programs. Video streaming is one of the newer educational-delivery technologies the university is exploring. This technology allows live classroom lectures to be viewed over the Internet on a personal computer.
. "We are only limited by what we want to do," Wilkinson said. "Virginia Tech has a lot to offer students in the distance-education arena. If we don't take advantage of the opportunities that are out there, others will."
A proposal to create a university-wide distance-learning institute is currently under discussion. The proposed institute would serve as an "organizational network" to support the various distance-education initiatives under way throughout the university and as a resource for colleges and faculty members as they develop and deliver programming.
"Distance education should be viewed from a holistic approach," Wilkinson said. "This is not just courses delivered from one point to another through a certain means of technology. It encompasses all aspects of the teaching and learning experience from registration to student services to learning environments."
Wilkinson said appropriate and adequate support services were critical to the success of any distance learning effort and were part of the value-added component of an excellent program. "The goal of distance and distributed learning is to extend the traditional university campus to a whole new market of life-long learners," Wilkinson said. "We are bringing education to the people. This is part of our mission as a land-grant university."