Distance Learning is the Future — But for Everyone?

by Ava L. Parker on December 19, 2010

For those who don’t spend time on college campuses, the changes in higher education are largely unseen. Step into the classroom, however, and you quickly see that technology is aiding the learning experience in a big way, with computer-generated learning tools used routinely by professors and students.

The biggest change is even less obvious but more powerful: the evolution of distance learning. This change at the college level is exciting, but it raises the question of who will participate in higher education in the future if every American home is not connected to the online world.

Distance learning means taking classes via computer. That is, using a strong broadband Internet connection to study online from home. The use of distance learning is accelerating because of its flexibility for students and for campus administrators.

Students like distance learning because they can link up and do the coursework — read lectures online and deal with other course materials as well — at any hour of the day or night.

This flexibility is particularly attractive for students who live at home. Students with children, for example, find it hard to line up a babysitter, drive to campus, search for a parking space, and make their way to the classroom on time. Factor in a job, and it becomes a serious challenge. For such students, distance learning creates new opportunities. They can do their coursework after work or when the kids are asleep.

University administrators like distance learning as well, because it allows non-traditional students a chance to study at their institution, and it means the university can add classes and expand enrollment without incurring the high costs of building and maintaining additional classroom buildings.

As a result, distance learning is exploding on college campuses. Let’s look at Florida, a leader in online learning at colleges and universities. A decade ago, the state’s distance-learning catalog showed fewer than 100 online college courses. Today, that catalog includes more than 16,000 such courses — a leap forward in just a decade. In fact, almost 500 degree programs are available entirely online at Florida colleges and universities, meaning a student could obtain a four-year degree doing all their coursework from home. That’s a breakthrough in broadening college opportunity.

Florida is not alone. Other states have also expanded online opportunities, and there are no signs that the growth in distance learning is slowing. The benefits are too great, especially as colleges and universities expand their reach beyond the traditional, full-time students to include students who, for various reasons, must study part-time or live at home.

The students I have spoken with love their distance-learning courses — most say they get as much, or more, out of their online courses as they do from traditional classroom instruction.

Part of the appeal of online college courses is that textbooks are going online as well, often at greatly reduced prices. For students of modest means, this can save thousands of dollars in textbook expenses over the course of their education and can mean the difference between an affordable education and one that is out of reach.

The benefits of distance learning are not available, however, if you don’t have computer access. And as it stands today, many American households lack the broadband connection that is a requirement for online education. They are left out of these opportunities for a life-changing college degree.

The less affluent are less likely to have an Internet connection, and there is a racial and ethnic gap as well – White families are connected at a much higher rate than Black and Hispanic families.

This means these families could be left behind economically. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Americans with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $58,613 a year, much more than the $31,283 average salary of those with only a high school diploma. Those with advanced degrees earn even more — $83,144 on average. Clearly, getting a college education leads to more prosperous careers.

So it is important to our nation’s future that all families they have broadband at home. This way, moms and dads and their sons and daughters can take part in the lifelong learning that is the modern education experience.

With so much riding on Internet access at home, we need laws, policies and practices that expand broadband access into every household.

That’s why the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council has joined the One Economy campaign to foster the expansion of broadband Internet access. Every family needs opportunities for distance learning. Every family needs to be a part of the future of American education.

  • Ava L. Parker of Jacksonville, Florida, is the president of Linking Solutions Inc., a business-development and community-outreach firm, and a partner in the law firm of Lawrence & Parker, PA., and the voice of The AvaView, a blog on digital action and consumer protection.

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  • Bill Edmonds

    This is the future of higher education and a great development for those in rural areas where college classes are hard to find or for those who must work and go to school.

    A great shame if Americans who could truly benefit from distance learning don’t get to enjoy those opportunities because they don’t have access through a broadband connection.

  • Guest

    Crazy…the income gap between those with advanced degrees versus those with no college education at all! It’s so much easier in this day and age to get degrees through distance learning courses, and at reputable institutions now as well (from University of Phoenix online, to Harvard, and everywhere in between). Busy mothers, busy workers, those with physical disabilities…it can help everyone level the playing field. THIS is why everyone needs to be connected!

  • http://www.facebook.com/BernardFerrell M Bernard Ferrell

    On-line education will grow as colleges start to streamline the education process to save money. At this point, access to the internet IS a necessity to graduate from any 4year program. Students who decide to attend classes in person even get assigned multiple online projects throughout the semester. No access = Bad grades.

  • Santo Johnson

    With the ever decreasing value of a college (and in some instances a secondary degree), the NEED for at least a college diploma is ever-increasing. Without access to these online offerings people will simply be left behind with no hope of competing. Its great that MMTC and OneEconomy are doing something to help.

  • http://www.lawandpoliticsofbroadband.com Alton Drew

    Ms. Parker raises very valid arguments on the benefits and demand for distance learning. Having taught online, I can attest to how taking courses via distance learning helps to alleviate the pressures faced by students balancing the pursuit of a degree with home and work life.

    The growth in online courses is not only evidence of the benefits perceived by students and college administrators, but also testament of the ready availability of the networks and technology necessary for delivering broadband to students in their homes.

    All the more reason why Ms. Parker’s point about the digital divide should not be overlooked. The benefits of distance learning should be spread to all those willing and able to pay for access to broadband services.

    To help bring down the costs of access, federal, state, and local government regulators should refrain from onerous regulatory requirements including additional and unnecessary franchise requirements and open network statutes and rules. These additional regulatory burdens will be passed on to students and their households in the form of higher prices thus barring students with limited means from taking advantage of distance learning.

    Alton E. Drew

  • Holyspirit

    Distance learning is the most convenient and most affordable means of learning. However, it is only resourceful to those who have computer and broadband at home. This is another important reason why people need to get connected at home.

  • Joe4816

    Everyone I know who has tried distance learning absolutely loves it.

    This article is correct — this is the future, and everyone should have this opportunity.

  • Lucylu

    Lucy Lu

    It’s not enough to have service accessible in community centers or public library’s. Many students are benefiting from the convenience of taking classes online at home and being able to raise their families or travel and study abroad. This is the future of education and a great reason for adoption.

  • http://www.onlinedegreetalk.org Affordable Online Degree

    The future has just began, now the improvement and coverage of much area is required to improve. I am working on distance learning, I can see we have seen many difference in these 5 year.

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  • http://www.senfordhighschool.com/ High School Diploma

    As it stands today, abounding American households abridgement the
    broadband affiliation that is a claim for online education. I got such a
    nice information.

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