Vol. 16 : No. 4< >
Editor’s Note: Brent Muirhead, a frequent contributer to the USDLA Journal, has agreed to write a monthly column featuring items of special interest. His criteria for selecting a cyber school are especially relevant to administrators, teachers and students.
Selecting A Distance Education School
Brent Muirhead D.Min., Ph.D.
Today’s distance education schools are offering a diversity of undergraduate and graduate degree programs that are attracting students. Distance education schools are witnessing a rise in their enrollments as more people become aware of their academic opportunities. At the University of Phoenix, the current student enrollment is 41, 000 and they are taught by approximately 4,000 faculty members. Prospective students should have practical criteria to base their decision to attend a particular distance education school. Additionally, the selection process does foster thinking about the future of online schools their ability to effectively meet the challenges and learning needs of the 21st century.
Selecting a Distance Education School
The value of computer-mediated instruction for today’s adult learners should be evaluated by considering basic questions about the teaching and learning process. It is important that prospective distance education students ask a series of questions that will help them evaluate whether computer-mediated education will meet their learning needs. Unfortunately, some students fail to take the time to explore the nature of distance education and either have difficulty completing their doctoral programs or drop out of school. For instance, students are given the freedom to make numerous educational decisions, such as selecting dissertation advisors, and the wide range of choices becomes a major problem for them. Their prior educational experiences did not prepare them for learner-centered educational settings because most contemporary graduate schools have program guidelines that restrict students in their capacity to personalize their course work. Then, when they enter graduate distance schools they become academically paralyzed because they do not have the mind sets and learning experiences to create and manage their own educational programs.
Frequently, prospective on-line students wonder about the academic credibility of today’s distance education schools. It is a vital question that raises legitimate concerns about how well their degree will be received by prospective business and educational employers. The selection of a school is a major personal decision that requires taking the time to gather relevant information. The author suggests that prospective students should consider evaluating distance education schools using the following criteria before making a final decision:
· regional accreditation
· adequate learner support staff for technical and academic issues
· course titles that would be easily recognized by educators and business personnel
· financial costs for the entire program
· program flexibility
· learner-centered philosophy
· interaction promoted within the classes
· experienced faculty
The list of criteria highlights a variety of perspectives on the today’s online schools that should help individuals examine potential schools. Yet, prospective students need to have realistic expectations about distance education programs. For instance, a growing number of traditional teachers are making the transition into the online classes. Naturally, schools will vary in the degree and rigor of training that their new instructors will receive. Therefore, they might have some classes where their instructor is learning about facilitating online classes. Ultimately, students will have to rely upon information that they gather from course catalogs, reading notes on school websites, discussions with admission personnel and perhaps an email note exchanged with the school’s alumni.
The Future of Computer-Mediated Schools
This brief discussion on offering advice to prospective students reveals the fact that distance education schools are still evolving and experimenting in their quest to effectively meet student learning needs. Nichols (2001) outlines six essential features that should characterize future distance education schools:
· Increased capacity and efficiency – through enabling institutions to cater for the learning of a relatively large number of students at once
· Improved effectiveness – by encouraging deep learning approaches and the adaptation of knowledge to the real world
· Easy accessibility – by removing distance barriers and catering for a variety of learners’ prior educational experience, physical abilities, and time commitments / lifestyles
· A competitive mindset – education with the potential to be offered internationally, within industry, and at a distance; providing more choice and convenience for the student
· A resource-based emphasis – enabling more student control over what, where, when and how they study and permitting non-linear learning; and
The personal touch – with more interaction between
students and between individual student and tutor, enabling a degree of
customisation and the pursuit of individual students’ learning goals in
addition to the prescribed course learning outcomes
Distance education literature frequently mentions the need for research into interactivity. The subject of interactivity has generated controversy among distance learning professionals who raise questions about the quality of on-line courses. The computer-mediated debate has occurred because many educators believe that interactivity is a vital element in the educational process. Wagner (1997) stated, “distance learning practitioners --- particularly instructors and program administrators --- seem to view interactivity as the defining attribute of contemporary distance learning experience” (p. 19). Critics usually stress that interactivity is the missing element or ingredient in distance education because classes lack the traditional face-to-face interactions. However, distance education supporters claim that contemporary on-line classes contain effective interactivity learning experiences. Simonson (1995) argued that educators must strive “…to make the experience of the distance learner as complete, satisfying, and acceptable as that of the local learner” (p. 12). In fact, proponents state that interactivity in distance education is just as good as or even better than the traditional classroom (Wagner, 1997).
Distance educators view computer-mediated education as an excellent format designed to promote interaction with a diverse student population. On-line educators strive to create a democratic climate that encourages students to share their views and ideas freely. Students use written comments to share conceptual knowledge with their fellow students and professors. The process of reading and writing on-line promotes cognitive and metacognitive skills (Hannafin, Hill & Land, 1997). Students gain practical experience by translating their ideas into narratives that effectively communicate with other students. Writing is a powerful tool that offers numerous opportunities for students to display their depth of knowledge, organizational skills, reflective insights, and ability to explore new ideas (Greenberg, 1998; Repman & Logan, 1996).
The absence of face-to-face contact with professors and other learners raises concerns about the affective dimension of distance education. Effective communication between teacher and learner is essential to sophisticated learning experiences, and academic collaboration is a vital integrating factor that helps learners to successfully negotiate graduate school. Distance learners cultivate a host of faculty relationships. Rossman (1995) related that learners devote significant time communicating with professors during class assignments, during comprehensive exams and during the thesis or dissertation process.
The author’s experiences as online instructor and research into interactivity (communication, participation, and feedback) have affirmed that both students and professors have communication problems. Students complained about classmates who were constantly late in posting on-line discussion forum comments because they felt that the late posters reduced the number of contributions and had a negative impact on the quality of academic discussions. Although the majority of learners observed that their teachers gave them feedback on their work, the educational problem involved teachers who did not provide consistent, timely, and relevant feedback. Therefore, both teachers and learners experienced some communication problems with computer-mediated education (Burge, 1994; Muirhead, 1999).
The communication problems that occur during on-line courses reveal that both teachers and students must be active participants who are consistently involved in relevant academic dialog. A student-centered learning model requires that both professors and students be prepared to take personal responsibility for their role in the learning process. New students who enter distance education programs should receive clear instructions about the importance of being proactive and self-directed. Administrators must create seminars, workshops, and educational literature that give students a clear picture of their role in creating sustained, two-way communication with their classmates and tutors (Sherry, 1996).
Contemporary academic advice for prospective online learners is somewhat limited by current state of research on distance education schools. Salmon (2000) observes the need to have a better working knowledge of what instructors and students do online. The online environment represents a new educational frontier that requires more investigation of the teaching and learning process.
Burge, E. J. (1994). Learning in a computer conferenced contexts: The learners’ perspective. Journal of Distance Education, 9 (1), 19-43.
Greenberg, K. (1998). Assessing writing: Theory and practice. In J. H. McMillan (Ed.) Assessing students’ learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 47-59.
Hannafin, M. J., Hill, J. R. & Land, S. M. (1997). Student-centered learning and interactive multimedia: Status, issues, and implications. Contemporary Education, 68 (2), 94-99.
Kearsely, G. (1995). The nature and value of interaction in distance learning. Retrieved from the World Wide Web march 10, 2002: http://www.gwu.edu/-etl/interact.html
Muirhead, B. (1999). Attitudes toward interactivity in a graduate distance education program: A qualitative analysis, Parkland, FL: Dissertation.com
Nichols, M. (2001). Teaching for learning: Designing resource based learning courses for the Internet age. Palmerston North, New Zealand: TrainInc.
Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Repman, J. & Logan, S. (1996). Interactions at a distance: Possible barriers and collaborative solutions. Techtrends, 41 (6), 35-38.
Rossman, M. H. (1995). Negotiating graduate school: A guide for graduate students, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Salmon, G. (2000). E-Moderating: The key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page.
Sherry, L. (1996). Issues in distance learning. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1 (4), 337-365.
About the Author
Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, and administration, and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and Ph.D.). His Ph.D. degree is from Capella University, a distance education school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Muirhead is area chair and teaches a variety of courses for the MAED program in curriculum and technology for the University of Phoenix Online (UOP). He also trains and mentors faculty candidates, conducts peer reviews of veteran faculty members, and teaches graduate research courses in the new UOP Doctor of Management program. He may be reached via email: email@example.com