Prof. James S. Aber
The earth science department delivered its first online, distance-learning course in 1996, and subsequent online course offerings expanded rapidly. The emergence of web-based learning was featured in a U.S. News & World Report special guide to distance education (Oct. 15, 2001). Since then, online courses and programs have proliferated at American universities. By 2006, it was estimated that three million students were pursuing degrees online in the U.S. (U.S. News, Oct. 16, 2006).
The Internet has kicked learning out of the classroom and into cyberspace,
making education available anywhere, anytime, and even "just in time."
Much debate has focused on the rigor and depth of online teaching. According to students, online professors spend more time communicating one-on-one via e-mail than in the traditional lecture setting. Analysis of students in online and traditional classes indicates that online students do as well or even better than their on-campus peers. But online teaching and learning are not for everyone. Many professors and students prefer face-to-face interaction in a classroom setting. However, for students able to work independently, distance learning may offer education that is impossible any other way.
Online curriculum is more flexible and can adjust to different learning styles in comparison to the "one size fits all" lecture of traditional college courses. Curriculum based on solving real-world problems--pragmatic coursework--is particularly successful in the asynchronous mode of most distance learning. Some students view online courses as a quick and easy way to a college degree. But, in fact, distance-learning students should expect to spend just as much time and effort as they would in equivalent on-campus courses. Time management is a key skill necessary to balance a career, family, and academic work for most online students.
Based on research conducted at Mesa Community College, Johnson (2002) found no significant differences in outcomes between students taking the same biology course from the same instructor in on-campus or distance-learning modes. She concluded that students in either mode can learn as much, develop their reasoning skills, and have positive attitudes toward the subject matter. However, distance-learning students need self discipline, good reasoning ability, and strong backgrounds to succeed.
With all the online choices available, how should a new student find the right program? According to U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 16, 2006), three things are most important.
- The first thing to look for is college or professional accreditation, which assures that the institution has qualified faculty and staff, suitable curricula, and a good library. Emporia State University is fully accredited.
- Next is the level of technical skill and equipment necessary for a given program. This generally means an up-to-date computer and good Internet connection with standard web-browser and email software. For certain courses in the earth science program, FTP and other specialty software may be required.
- Finally students should investigate how the courses are delivered. Earth science courses are typically taught in the asynchronous mode, meaning that students work on assignments whenever they are able--day, night or weekends, and turn in their work according to a weekly schedule.
Emporia State University has been featured in U.S. News & World Report several times in recent years. ESU is recognized among the best regionally accredited universities offering graduate programs in education (Oct. 15, 2001), and it was listed in the top 20 for online graduate programs in education (Oct. 16, 2006).
Distance Education Faculty Forum
The following outline was presented originally at the Distance Education Faculty Forum, sponsored by the Heartland Alliance Colleague to Colleague Consortium, which took place at Johnson County Community College, Kansas, April 26, 1999. The points noted in this outline remain valid today and are based on a decade of experience in designing and delivering web-based, distance education by the author.
- Flexible delivery of instruction--asynchronous, universal access.
- Image-rich curriculum--photographs, maps, diagrams and charts.
- Extensive text, tabular and digital data.
- Bringing the world to students.
- Links to related web sites--governmental agencies, other universities, and the private sector.
- Student webpages--creation of online student portfolios, career advancement.
- Highly motivated students--teachers, professionals, non-traditional and mature individuals.
- Lack of personal bias--age, race, ethnicity, etc.
- Worldwide student potential--United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, etc.
- Increased student enrollment--individual courses, SCH production, degree-seeking students.
- Delivery of unique programs--specialty programs not widely available.
- Ability to attract non-traditional students--rural and distant localities.
- Greater university visibility--good recruiting tool.
- No geographic limits for offering courses and programs.
- Capability for instructor to teach from any location to any location.
- Leadership position for innovative teaching--recognition and funding.
- Student technical capability--computer literary, communications ability.
- Hardware and software--Internet connection, computer hardware, necessary software.
- Faculty-student interaction--use of e-mail, submitting assignments, other students.
- Student ability to work independently--organization, scheduling, time commitment.
- Student group projects--ability to work with others in a distant mode.
- Internet ethics--public or private medium, copyright © protection.
- Plagiarism--quotations, references and citations, intellectual property rights.
- Knowledge vs. information--searching for data, evaluating quality, information overload.
- Major commitment by faculty--time, time and more time.
- Learning new techniques--training, tutorials, guidance.
- New educational methods--visualization, long-range planning, data access.
- Appropriate incentives--release time, salary, rewards, promotion and tenure.
- Internet/computer infrastructure--campus network, webservers, faculty computers.
- Campus computer support--professional and technical assistance, trouble shooting, etc.
- Cost--time, equipment and personnel require significant financial commitment.
- Administrative organization--college, school, department, and committee levels.
- Campus bureaucracy--interface between on-campus and distance-learning administration.
- Ownership of curriculum--faculty as the authors, university as the publisher.
- Johnson, M. 2002. Introductory biology online. Journal College Science Teaching 31, p. 312-317.