Going the Distance

Have a question when you're in class? Don't raise your hand click a button. Not too long ago, mentioning the term distance learning often elicited reactions
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Going the Distance

Dec 1, 2002 12:00 PM, Rosanne Soifer

Have a question when you're in class? Don't raise your hand — click a button.

Not too long ago, mentioning the term distance learning often elicited reactions of mild contempt — images of low-class correspondence schools offering snail-mail courses in pet grooming, locksmithing, and office assisting. Some of these schools offered “real”-sounding degrees or certificates, though it's hard to find anyone who actually admits he or she received job training that way.

Many legitimate correspondence schools still exist, and many have gone high-tech. But during the past 20 years or so, whole concepts of education and communication have undergone radical transformations because of three somewhat interrelated reasons: the Internet and the global/information economy, accessibility of home computing, and the increase in nontraditional students — students entering college at a point in their lives other than right after high school.

Many of them are ABDs — doctoral students who have completed “all but dissertation,” says Dr. Randi Sigmund Smith. Smith is an education and computer consultant and the managing principal of Innovation House, based in Columbia, Connecticut. Innovation House designs distance learning programs for corporations. According to Smith's July 2000 article in iMP: The Magazine on Information Impacts, ABD students represent one of the biggest target markets for distance education.


Open University (OU) in Great Britain was one of the first universities to get involved in distance education. Since its establishment in 1969, it has opened the door to higher education for more than 2 million people. It was the first to offer a PhD online. More than 150 OU courses use IT to enhance learning. Traditionally enrolled students, employer-sponsored students, and those taking individual courses for personal fulfillment make up the student body.

The University of Phoenix, on the other hand, specializes in the disbursement of professional credentials to already-working adults. Founded in 1976, it was among the first accredited universities providing college degree programs over the Internet, starting in 1989. Companies such as AT&T have contracted the university to provide direct in-house training to its employees. (Because of sheer geographical distances in the West and the Sun Belt, schools in those areas became involved in distance learning earlier, and on a bigger basis, than their East Coast counterparts.)

The boom in distance learning, according to Wired News, began in the mid — '90s, with software CEOs such as Michael Saylor envisioning free online virtual education. It never really happened. The enormous cost was one factor, as was the erroneous idea that the public consisted of individuals looking for online recreational courses (on such topics as sex and astrology) rather than serious offerings in professional training and development. Therefore, it seems the immediate future of distance learning will be dominated by employer-paid technology courses. In other words, a business-to-business model rather than a business-to-consumer one represents one of the few lucrative revenue models. (Another rapidly growing one is in the area of home-schooling.) Giga Information of Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently reported the e-learning industry will take in close to $4.5 billion this year.

Huge corporations such as Xerox, Chevron, Hershey, and those in the insurance and financial services sector have taken to distance learning with enthusiasm. “This is less expensive than a physical class,” says Zvi Frank, president and cofounder of InterWise.com. “A virtual class eliminates hotels, flights, and time away from the job.”

However, there is more to online learning than simply transferring courses to the Web. Universities have learned (after a few notable crash-and-burn online learning ventures by New York University, University of Maryland, Temple University, and others) that re-creating a classroom online, and often charging on-campus fees for doing so, doesn't always work. Some of the ventures were flawed from the beginning, because university officials didn't always understand the costs involved, which often entailed hundreds of thousands of dollars to build one course well. Other officials, possibly mesmerized by high-end technology such as streaming video, confused tools with education. S&VC logged on with several education and computer consultants, institutions, and content providers to explore what this field may have in store.


Yes, you can actually take a distance learning course in how to plan and implement a distance learning program. The Indiana University School of Continuing Studies offers a certificate in distance learning. Among other topics, the course covers planning projects, planning and designing distance education facilities, estimating and justifying education courses, and measuring a program's success. On the technical and operations side, the course covers promoting programs and managing their budgets, employing end-user support methods, troubleshooting, and training system users, support personnel, and instructional staff.

That is in addition to the school's other online courses for college and high school. “There is a university-wide effort not to duplicate or replicate the same online course content — let's say from the French department — as a separate online course from the School of Continuing Studies,” says Joann Brown, executive director of marketing and communications for the School of Continuing Education. “Perhaps those involved in distance learning startups should explore all the other course offerings an institution may provide through other outlets.” Cliff Ingham, a systems developer for online courses at the School of Continuing Studies, says, “We [the school faculty] built the program basically from scratch, originally with a Mac G4 server. Our software is all Apache scripted. With this it doesn't really matter what hardware you install, though we are working toward Linux. However, I developed our proprietary software called Laika, which is a Web-course delivery and development platform. It also has customizing features, which let other schools license it and place their own banners and logos on the site.”

Distance learning can be accomplished by mixing and matching (also called blended learning) a wide variety of technology such as phone, fax, computer, e-mail and instant messaging, snail mail, videoconferencing, CD-ROM, virtual tutorials and discussion groups, electronic submission (and marking) of assignments, virtual field trips, and Internet stadiums. In the September 2002 issue of ComputerUser, editor James Mathewson says that the richness of the course — in other words, collaboration (training multiple learners in multiple locations simultaneously, who can then interact in some way) and stimulation (letting learners immerse themselves in the virtual worlds of the subject) — is another key consideration as to how complex a school or business chooses to get with distance learning.

However, not every school or business can provide content, teachers, and technology. Therefore, it outsources what it can't provide in-house to companies such as Knowledge Planet, InterWise.com, notHarvard.com, and Washington D.C.-based Blackboard. “All of our tech work is done in-house, but we license our software to many top colleges and also schools like DeVry, Sylvan, and Five Towns College on Long Island,” says Michael Stanton, senior director of corporate communications for Blackboard. “Five Towns, for example, licenses us on an annual basis to power its learning initiatives. We host 24/7 and also sell a software application on a campuswide basis, as well as course cartridges for an e-textbook. Blackboard has formed a strategic alliance with Microsoft to empower learners and enforce e-learning for educational institutions.”

Many courses are powered by Windows 2000. Blackboard Chairman Matthew Pittinsky listed in a recent National Education Association news release seven benchmarks of what amounts to quality assurance in distance learning education. It's important for sound and video contractors to reach an understanding regarding these benchmarks with potential client schools and businesses. The benchmarks provided by Pittinsky include institutional support, course development, teaching and learning, course structure, student support, faculty support, as well as evaluation and assessment.


In theory, the facilitator/installer of a distance learning program has nothing to do with securing and licensing the course content, unless the job morphs into that of Web-master. It couldn't hurt to make the client aware that most content (words, visuals, sound, authorship) involves issues of copyright that are beyond the scope of this article. (For example, using existing music may now involve multimedia rights, which is a combination of sync and mechanical rights.) This must be investigated before even designing a course's home page.

Indiana University's distance education program addresses those concerns in a module on related legal issues that covers intellectual property and copyright. “The trend seems to be that companies involved in distance learning programs want to build systems that are ‘off the shelf’ and use standard computer hardware and software, though certain industries, such as insurance, continue to explore proprietary ones,” Smith says. “If the contractor is involved in installing any proprietary software, observing standard confidentiality precautions is a given, particularly if he or she has other clients in the same field.”


Dan Hillman, an education and computer consultant in Boston, says that a sound and video professional should explore the following regarding the client school or business: What are the characteristics of the audience or the learners? What are the age range and demographics? Where are they located? If they're from a poorer socioeconomic class, for example, having to purchase expensive proprietary software defeats the purpose. A simple distance learning program involving only phone and fax is perhaps more realistic.

How will the course offering be taught? Are there hidden costs, such as dedicated fax lines, to the learners and instructors? Is video going to be used and under what circumstances? What are the possibilities of using different technology or adding on to what's already there? If so, what administrative, bidding, and purchasing procedures must be followed regarding add-ons? Is the technology easy to use for the instructors and the learners?

E-mail, for example, is easy to use, though educators complain it's isolating for instructors and learners. However, once you graduate to bulletin boards and chat areas that may be live, factors like different languages and time zones have to be considered.

The contractor must also learn about the budgetary constraints. Not counting hardware, software, and advertising, three substantial costs that are part of designing an e-course are creating audio and video, securing content rights, and paying the faculty members to teach it. “In addition, even if you're not a computer maven, unless you're also retained as a steady baby-sitter or technical advisor, you must understand and be able to explain to the client the concept of bandwidth,” Hillman says. “For example, to transmit a certain number of visuals per second, a certain amount of memory must be present. Therefore, how much room, or bandwidth, is needed for sound or video? A bottleneck at about 56K occurs in delivering pictures to a home computer, most of which connect through modems, unless the students have DSL. If not, then you have to work with Web-based texts or a bulletin board.”

Here are some basic guidelines for a contractor targeting the distance learning market. First, what is the prevalent equipment that the end-users (the learners) will be using? “Set bottom level requirements, such as Publisher, Adobe, PowerPoint, and Word, for example,” Smith says. “Be aware that many programs can read down to earlier versions but not up to later ones.”

You must also figure out who will be teaching the class and if he or she is technically astute. Will your job include teaching the instructors about tech support? Learn about the various content rights regarding text, visuals, software, audio/video, and so on. Have your client do a survey, or develop one yourself, about the profile of the potential learners — their ages, technical capabilities, demographics, educational goals, and so on. Be aware of what types of material cannot be taught successfully online.

A good example would be a course on how to string and tune a guitar. Audio coming through a basic home computer is generally awful. Anything involving music, in which the sound is of primary importance, would probably be best taught through a music video that could be played through multichannel speakers.

Explore thinking small. Hypothetically, consider a school district in which five students from five schools want advanced Latin. Each of the five schools may not have enough money individually to hire five Latin teachers. But they can pool their resources, hire one, and offer the course to those five students online. That is a common occurrence in the nonprofit sector, says Regina White, educational director of the Holocaust Memorial and Education Center of Nassau County.

Discuss hardware and software costs with the client early on and make sure he or she understands tech support, upgrades, service contracts, and recurring hidden costs such as instructor feedback.

Be sure to find out if you, your client, or a third party is responsible for the actual Web and home-page design. Who has final approval on its appearance and content? Finally, understand and respect the client's educational philosophy — even if you disagree with it — and what he or she hopes to accomplish with a distance learning program.

Rosanne Soifer is a New York City-based musician and writer. She can be contacted at srjrsd@aol.com.




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