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.